Friday, December 17, 2010

Waziri leaks

In all the hue and cry over Wikileaks, I haven't seen much to get too bent out of shape over. Most of it was, duh, obvious. A lot of it had already been reported.

While governments need to be able to keep their conversations confidential, even some that are merely embarrassingly frank, the main damage has been the need to blush a little.

Still, imagine this: You're a foreign service officer talking with your opposite number in another country's diplomatic corps. You know how certain you would be that he will keep your confidences, small and large! C'mon, no one is that naive.

Instead of laughing off the embarrassment, governments have pursued Julian Assange, arrested him, and locked him up on unrelated charges that look trumped up (h/t Digby). These governments have certainly responded with much greater focus than they would have had he been, say, Brett Favre or Kobe Bryant.

The biggest take-away from the whole affair so far has been how thoroughly inculcated the media is in the culture of secrecy that they are supposed to expose to light. Sure, they've reported on the leaks, but I'm starting to wonder how thoroughly.

When I heard that the Pentagon was directing its service people and contractors that they were not allowed to read classified documents even after they were published on the Internet, I thought they were typically, bureaucratically overreaching. Just like the world's most command-oriented bureaucracy to pretend that the genie right there in the room was still safely in the bottle. Even a genie not nearly as revealing as Barbara Eden.

Then, today, the New York Times carried the story of the U.S. CIA station chief in Islamabad had fled Pakistan after his name got out into the open in local media. What is his name? The Times pointedly wouldn't say:

The legal complaint that named the station chief, who was working undercover and whose name is classified, was filed on Monday over attacks that killed at least two Pakistanis. The complaint sought police help in keeping the station chief in the country until a lawsuit could be filed.
The agent’s name had already been revealed in a news conference last month by Mirza Shahzad Akbar, the lawyer who filed the complaint this week, and the name had been reported in local media.
The rest of the world can know, but Americans can't! The big media is in on the suppression of information.

Of course, Google is still up, so it's easy to find out. No, not the character actor by the same name.

I'm showing fear here, too, by not simply typing the name. I don't want to be charged with espionage for "revealing" something that's widely known the world just because there's a Top Secret stamp marking a piece of paper locked in a vault that I've never seen. Think about what that fear means to an open society, without which democracy is a sham.

The name I'm omitting is probably itself a cover identity. Really, would the CIA send someone to Pakistan for covert action under his own name? Of course not. Yet the Times and I won't simply type the name, and it's itself a fiction. Am I still allowed to name Winston Smith?

Funny, I don't recall the American big media being so solicitous of the classification status of non-official cover identity when the exposed agent was Valerie Plame.

The question: How long before the U.S., like China, decides it needs to block sites that expose its own citizens to this slightly uncomfortable sort of truth?

Update (1/7/2011): Related comment on Salon.

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