Change I Can’t Believe In

by Andrew McAfee on December 9, 2010

I don’t regularly agree with opinions published in the Wall Street Journal, so I was surprised to find myself nodding my head pretty vigorously as I read this piece by L. Gordon Crovitz. It’s a sharp analysis of what’s really going on with WikiLeaks and Cablegate, and it’s particularly powerful because it relies on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s own words.

Many people think the mission of WikiLeaks is to increase transparency by making important information more widely available and, as I wrote earlier, “to help surface information that exposes corruption, coverups, and rank hypocrisy in high places.” Advocates of transparency take their cue from Justice Louis Brandeis’s belief that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

In a recent interview with Time, Assange sets the record straight: “Let me just talk about transparency for a moment. It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” And in a 2006 essay (pdf) titled “Conspiracy as Governance” he makes quite clear his preferred route to a more just society: “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed.”

So Assange is not a transparency advocate or whistleblower (as I argued and Crotivz nicely summarizes, “there’s no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables”); he’s a wannabe regime changer. And with Cablegate and the other big recent document dumps, he and WikiLeaks are signaling quite clearly that the regime they want to change is the US Government.

I hope it goes without saying that that’s not an enterprise I can support in any way. Of course I want my government to work better, and I’ve researched how technology can help with this goal (see my book and this post). I’ve also volunteered my time in a couple areas like health care, intelligence, and Government 2.0. And I deeply admire people who do battle with bureaucracy. But the only tool I’m ever going to use for discontinuous change to my country’s government is my vote.

I don’t want to join in the name-calling that’s flourished in the wake of Cablegate. It is fair, though, to point out that labels exist for people who want to bring about non-democratic regime change to duly elected governments. And it seems fair and fitting to apply those labels to Assange, based on his own words.

So I’m eager to hear from his defenders. Are they supporting what he and WikiLeaks are doing despite his stated objectives, or because of them?

One final point: it’s getting increasingly hard to argue that no innocent people will be harmed because of Cablegate. As Crovitz writes

Mr. Assange doesn’t mail bombs, but his actions have life-threatening consequences. Consider the case of a 75-year-old dentist in Los Angeles, Hossein Vahedi. According to one of the confidential cables released by WikiLeaks, Dr. Vahedi, a U.S. citizen, returned to Iran in 2008 to visit his parents’ graves. Authorities confiscated his passport because his sons worked as concert promoters for Persian pop singers in the U.S. who had criticized the theocracy.

The cable reported that Dr. Vahedi decided to escape by horseback over the mountains of western Iran and into Turkey… When he made it to Turkey, the U.S. Embassy intervened to stop him being sent back to Iran.

“This is very bad for my family,” Dr. Vahedi told the New York Daily News on being told about the leak of the cable naming him and describing his exploits. Tehran has a new excuse to target his relatives in Iran. “How could this be printed?”

Great question. Would any fans of Cablegate and WikiLeaks like to provide an answer?

A couple people responded to my previous post on this subject by asking how an advocate of using technology to better share more information could be against Cablegate. I’ll outsource my answer to the legendary Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage: “On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

I also love what another advocate of technology-based information sharing and collaboration had to say on the topic. Here are a couple tweets from Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger (his related essay is here):

@wikileaks Speaking as Wikipedia’s co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@wikileaks What you’ve been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can’t be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

Marcel van Brugge December 9, 2010 at 4:13 pm

First, I do not agree with Assanges opinion. Despite his motives, I think the Wikileaks actions have no real right or wrong answer. It is more a matter of responsibility and accountability for the role and the tools that you have and the power that comes with it. Bureaucrats and reporters of Wikileaks have the choice to use them wisely. Wikileaks have shown the world irresponsible behavior of governments endangering and even showing us killing people. When you cast your vote, are you thinking about this? I don’t. But I’d like to see those involved actually made responsible for the consequences of their actions. And that goes for irresponsible behavior of the Wikileaks ‘journalists’ as well. I am from the Netherlands. My perspective is a little from a distance. The wikileaks story and Assange are followed here as a real-life thriller about a government that is in panic and wants to shut the guy up. Unfortunately it has no clear Hollywood feel good, good-bad guy scenario. This is real life… But I am positive for the future. Just by knowing that the world is more transparent than it was before, will hopefully cause people to act more responsibly.

Noema2k December 9, 2010 at 4:43 pm


WSJ’s argument is an ad hominem. Assange’s motives are as irrelevent as the NYT’s motives when they printed the Pentagon Papers. At its core, this argument is about National Security vs. Freedom of the press. Wikileaks performed a function long vacated by our fourth estate: they have allowed the public to learn the truth about our disastrous imperial adventures.

President George Washington warned in his farewell address “against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the Impostures of pretended patriotism. …” And pretend patriotism is precisely what has been exposed. Released cables show that our puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan are deeply corrupt and anti-democratic, and that al-Qaeda continues to find its base of support not in those countries but rather in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the very nations we arm and protect. The pretend of national security is rejected by the growing strength of radical Islam in the region, as evidenced by the success of Iran, the main beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq, as the leaked cables make clear.

The First Amendment is not focused on the impact of a government victory in its policies, nor on hypothetical collateral damage — but on the publication of just these sorts of materials — governmental misjudgments and misconducts of high import.


John Terning December 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Is there a difference between regime change and changing the behavior of the regime?
If the regime is breaking international law (see shouldn’t the electorate know about it?

Ales Starman December 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm

By my opinion even if Assange wannabe regime changer, transparency will be the main consequence. Wikileaks showed us how badly can governments behave, especially regarding foreign affairs. They created some kind of “parallel world”. I think Wikileaks case will finaly lead to more transparent diplomacy, but after an uncertain time period of low trust.

David Wilkins December 10, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Completely agree Andrew. There is a similar trend to regard social media and social behaviors as purely altrustic behavior which has prompted me to say on many different occasions — “social media does not equal socialism.” Assange falls squarely into the camp of G8 protesters and new left folks who see the US as inherently flawed and he’s using social media as a tool to effect change. While it’s not the same as a gun, it sure as hell isn’t benign. The fundamental question in all of this is “in a world of social media, openess and transparency, is there still a place for private negotiation, private conversations, and secret deals, not just between countries, but within businesses?” Since the answer is pretty obvious, the only other question is why we, or any other government, is allowing this guy to continue. His actions are clearly disruptive not just to US interests, but to global challenges like N Korea, Iran etc… If an employee leaked information of this kind, he would not only be fired, he would likely be prosecuted. Ditto for an outsider if caught. And yet Assange is still doing his thing. We’re definitely sending the wrong message about our willingness to put up with this. Unfortunately, what this means is that we’re going to see a lot more of this in coming years.

Franco Furger December 11, 2010 at 10:11 am

I am certainly not a great supporter of Assange, but I am puzzled by what I would call charitably an institutional blind spot by many American commentators. I don’t remember any Chinese dissident leaking secrete documents, or French hackers doing the same to President Sarkozy, or for that matter critics of Angela Merkel denouncing corruption and double moral standards. So I am wondering – is this primarely a matter of irresponsibility by one person, or a rather a spectacular demonstration of government failure? How is it possible that the most technologically advanced country on earth makes it possible for an intelligence operative at the lowest level of government to leak not a few, not some documents but a quarter million cables from US embassy around the world? I understand many embassies still send confidential information in paper form and by diplomatic pouch.

In light of these observations, can anyone explain to me how this disaster could take place?

Franco Furger,
Lucerne, CH

Euan Davis December 13, 2010 at 10:25 am

“The world has changed, not simply because governments find they are just as vulnerable to the acquisition, copying and distribution of huge amounts of data as the music, publishing and film businesses were, but because we are unlikely to return to the happy ignorance of the past…”

Thomas December 13, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Hello Andrew.
I responded over on my personal blog, as it turned into a long rambling post rather than a pithy comment. We are disagreeing again.

Babbage had another quote which I believe is more appropriate.

“Those from whose pocket the salary is drawn, and by whose appointment the officer was made, have always a right to discuss the merits of their officers, and their modes of exercising the duties they are paid to perform.”

Governments work for the people, not the other way around.

GregoryJRader December 17, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Andrew I find arguments such as yours very interesting because they rely on much more nuanced analyses than they typical transparency vs authority debate. It seems that your objections rely critically on two premises:
1. Democracy is the ideal governmental form, therefore…
2. Reform should come from within the democratic process rather than from without.

I think amongst wikileaks supporters you would find significant skepticism on both the points. Assange focuses on regime change, in the sense of externally enforcing certain principles, precisely because he doesn’t believe that reform can or will come through the democratic process. Likewise, many supporters will question the premise that democracy is the ideal form of governance. Many will instead assert viewpoints like “democracy is the tyranny of the majority” or “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. To someone of this mindset, an affront to the democratic process is not necessarily an aggressive act in and of itself.

My opinion is that extremists are sometimes necessary to help us find the correct equilibrium. Wikileaks’ actions (and existence) will encourage more transparent and accountable government, and I believe that is a good thing even if we might legitimately debate the correctness of the methods employed.

Body Taller January 18, 2011 at 9:13 am

songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” can be splendid fun

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