Change I Can’t Believe In

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.