Wikileaks and Secrets

Reactions from the U.S. Government to the Wikileaks publication of diplomatic cables are puzzling. For instance, here’s a USMC memo published by Wired:

[W]illingly accessing the WIKILEAKS website for the purpose of viewing the posted classified material [constitutes] the unauthorized processing, disclosure, viewing, and downloading of classified information onto an UNAUTHORIZED computer system not approved to store classified information. Meaning they have WILLINGLY committed a SECURITY VIOLATION.[1]

If you’re a civilian with an appreciation for slapstick comedy, you can just laugh. But if you’re one of The Few, The Proud, etc., and you’re not accustomed to turning off your brain when you hear trite, throw-away phrases like “national security” you might not see the humor in this.

Step back and think about who this material, now published by Wikileaks, was kept secret from, back when it was secret. More broadly, what is the purpose of a secret, any secret? What is a secret for?

If I’m negotiating to buy a house, the absolute maximum price I’m willing to pay is something I will want to keep secret from the seller, with whom I’m negotiating. I really don’t care who else knows my max price. All of my family and friends — indeed, all of the seller’s family and friends — can know, as far as I care. I only want to keep knowledge of my max price from the seller himself, because he might change his behavior in our negotiations if he knows the price. He’s the one chap who can take advantage of that knowledge to cause me a problem by shaking a few extra dollars out of my pockets.

As a practical matter, I’ll need to keep the maximum price I’m willing to pay quiet from just about everyone, because if I make it widely known among those whose knowledge of it does not matter at all, there’s a greater chance that the one person I’m actually concerned about will find it out. I will keep this secret from the many only because I want to be sure it remains secret from the one.

What if the seller of the house somehow finds out my maximum price?

Well, that’s it. He knows. If he wants he can dig in his heels and hold out for what he knows I’m willing to pay. For me, it’s Game Over, as far as the secret of my max price is concerned. It’s no longer secret from the one person I wanted to keep it secret from.

But what about everybody else?

What about them? I never cared about everybody else knowing; why would I start caring now?

How about U.S. diplomatic cables? What if an American ambassador makes a remark about Mubarak and his associates in a cable, and that cable is “secret”?

Who is it secret from? Clearly, it’s secret from Mubarak and his associates, and probably from Mubarak’s opponents, and maybe Mubarak’s peers in the Middle East — quite a few people for sure, but not everybody. It’s secret from people who might alter their behavior in some way that is disadvantageous to the United States. It isn’t secret from a random Chinese peasant or an Inuit seal hunter. It isn’t secret from me, or from a United States Marine. In fact, it isn’t secret from tens of millions of people. For the vast majority of the population of earth it’s a matter of indifference if it’s known or not.

But as a practical matter, there’s no way the cable can be shared with peasants and seal hunters and me and the Marines and millions of others whose knowledge of the cable doesn’t matter, simply because dissemination among those from whom it’s not secret will increase the chance of it falling into the hands of someone from whom it is secret.

What happens if somehow (NYT, Washington Post, Wikileaks…) Mubarak and his associates find out the contents of the cable? Well, that’s it. They know… Game Over.

Is it ok now if U.S. Marines and Inuit seal hunters read the cable?

What a weird question. Why would it not be ok? It never was secret from them, except as a precaution against the cable reaching Mubarak & Associates. Mubarak has it. If they’re so inclined, seal hunters can translate it into Greenlandic, add an iceberg and a whale to spice it up a bit, and read it to their children as a bedtime story. Whatever.

What the Marine Corps leadership and the leadership of the U.S. Government in general don’t seem to understand is that it’s “Game Over”: The people the documents were being kept secret from have them, and there’s nothing to be done about that.

The “few” have the documents.

The practical need to keep the documents secret from the many in order to keep them secret from the few no longer exists. As far as all the people from whom the documents never were secret — employees of the Department of Defense, for instance — the documents are still not secret from them. Nothing has changed. It never mattered, really, if they saw the cables, and it still doesn’t matter.


[1] “Pentagon to Troops: Taliban Can Read WikiLeaks, You Can’t”:

About pmbarry

One of these days a man's gonna walk up to you with a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, and he's gonna tell you 'bout things you ain't never heard of.
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