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Wikileaks and wartime secrets

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading this book about how the Allies sought – very cleverly – to throw the Nazis off the scent ahead of the invasion of Italy, hence saving potentially thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives. An extraordinary cast of characters is involved, conjuring up the sort of plot-lines that would do credit to any writer of spy fiction. And indeed several of the protagonists on the Allied side were novelists with vivid imaginations.

A current controversy intrudes. Back in WW2, the Allies had the priceless knowledge via the code-breakers of Enigma about the enemy’s plans, and even more vitally, the fact of having cracked Enigma was kept a secret for many years under the various pieces of legislation controlling such matters both during the war and into the Cold War era. So when I read today about the latest moves by the Wikileaks website to publish all kinds of classified military information on the Web, I wonder about what would have happened if, say, a Wikileaks kind of outfit had been around during WW2 and had stumbled upon the kind of facts as described in the book I link to?

Of course, if we had had the internet back in 1939 or earlier, and had the ability to spread information and views around outside the conventional channels of the MSM that existed back then, maybe this would also have been used to weaken or undermine the enemy side as well. (Would a Hitler have prospered in the Information Age?). I remember that in David Friedman’s recent interesting book (also available in an online form) about various trends, he addresses both sides of this question: what happens to privacy in an age of good encryption and ever-increasing attempts by states and other groups to put folk under surveillance.

But even so, it should trouble anyone concerned with security to think that a Wikileaks outfit can put out this sort of material and seems to have no compunctions about doing so. And while Wikileaks may think it is performing a sort of public service, if we are in a war for national survival, say, and we use deception techniques to win, and some self-appointed characters decide to blow the lid on those techniques, then what should the response be? In my view, this is a treasonable act or at the very least an act of aiding and abetting enemy combatants. It goes beyond, I think, the sort of opposition and free speech, including the right to condemn what a government is doing, during wartime. (And by the way, even under anarchism, secrets might be of importance to certain people, so it is no answer to say that such issues are made redundant if we get rid of states).

And it is not just about issues of national security that I think this website is running amok on. Take the world of banking. Some time ago, for instance, Wikileaks published data on individuals who have accounts at an Icelandic bank. Now no doubt the website will claim that it was acting in the public interest, but there are perfectly honest reasons for why people have private bank accounts, such as not giving out valuable information to oppressive governments/criminals (but I repeat myself, Ed) trying to grab that money, or kidnap them for ransom, etc.

And perhaps the man who runs Wikileaks should be glad that some of the older punishments for treason no longer are used in this country. Very glad, in fact.

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44 comments to Wikileaks and wartime secrets

  • Matt

    Talking of throwing off scents – much of the current Wikileaks material handily fits the agenda of the Obama administration. That would explain both why Mr Assange gets away with it and why he garners such publicity. If he was really a threat to national security I should think a Defence Advisory Notice could take care of the public fuss while ‘other means’ were brought to bear.

  • I have never shared in the uncritical adulation of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Oh sure, they have done some good stuff and pissed off some bad people such as the Chinese and US governments and I am all for that as a general principle… but sometimes the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy as clearly they have no respect for the financial privacy of private individuals and that makes them friends to no one but the tax man.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Matt, excellent point. There is a strong possibility that this may be deliberate. You never know. I sometimes wonder whether it was deliberate when a government civil servant’s laptop was left on the train a year or so ago.

  • Even if Clifton Webb is much too old to be playing Ewen Montagu, you might enjoy The Man Who Never Was, the movie version of Operation Mincemeat.

  • There will always be a tension between liberty and privacy. Of the two, I lean towards prioritising liberty.

  • And by the way, even under anarchism, secrets might be of importance to certain people, so it is no answer to say that such issues are made redundant if we get rid of states

    True anarchy is all about voluntary agreements. I see no difficulty in having secrecy clauses in any voluntary contract – in fact, it has been a routine practice for a very long time.

  • mdc

    As libertarians I don’t see that we can take for granted that “treason” is even a crime. When exactly did any of us pledge our undying loyalty to whatever state we happened to be born in? If you are a member of the armed forces, you will have done this voluntarily (at least in UK/US). If you are just a member of the public, you won’t have.

    So if we assume people owe loyal to the state by birthright, why can’t the state tax or spy on or murder us to whatever extent it chooses? We “agreed”, right?

    On the other hand, the US could say that wikileaks aren’t traitors, but rather enemy combatants themselves. Do you want to declare war on them?

    As for this…

    “And by the way, even under anarchism, secrets might be of importance to certain people, so it is no answer to say that such issues are made redundant if we get rid of states”

    I’m not sure what that’s meant to mean. Secrets may well be “important” but it doesn’t follow from that that people have a right to use force to keep those things secret. If I’m committing adultery, it might be “important” for me to keep this a secret but it’s pretty clear that it would be wrong for me to kill you if you threatened to publish it on your website.

    In an anarchist society I think these issues become much clearer: you can publish anything, unless you specifically agreed not to. In the WL cases, I think the only people who would fall foul of this are the servicemen who initially leaked the data (who maybe could even be tried for treason IRL!), not the WL site itself.

  • llamas

    I think we sometimes perhaps gloss over just how utterly ruthless many Allied prosecutors of WW2 could be in their will to win. Some thoroughly-unpleasant things were done in the name of victory – and those are just the one we know about. Operation Mincemeat was, by comparison, quite tame.

    War leaders who could cold-bloodedly decide to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in order to win victory would have made short shrift of an Assange and all his works. We would likely never have even heard about it. I think it’s also instructive to note that Wikileaks concetrates exclusively on targets that they know are highly-unlikely to respond with anything more than verbal outrage. Let’s see this advocate of sunlight and the free knowledge of the secrets of others start distributing leaked docs that create difficulties for Vladimir Putin, let’s say, or any one of a number of other nations – he may find himself suddenly unavailable for comment. I suspect that the curious incident in Sweden may well have been a warning shot over his bows in this regard.

    Wikileaks is embarrasingly-obviously selective – only the preferred targets of the Left are attacked. So all of this pious posturing about letting out secrets to make a better world is just a load of cr*p – it’s all about letting out the negative secrets of political opponents. In this regard, they are no different than the political opertaive who seeks dirt about the activities of his opponent.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Peter

    I agree with mdc. As libertarians we make hard choices in favour of liberty. We would put up with congested traffic because Mrs Jones doesn’t want that new road going through her house. We would bear the risk of terrorism attacks, even though they may have been prevented by more government surveillance.

  • secure_libertarian

    I’m as libertarian as the next person, but there are times when we choose to give up liberties in favor of security.

    Security checks at airports, for example–if you don’t like them, don’t fly.

    Access to classified info is similar. People given access must sign forms clearly stating consequences if they divulge info. This is a choice they make.

    Why is the administration not enforcing those consequences?

  • secure_libertarian: “I’m as libertarian as the next person, but…”

    As with people who say “I’m not a racist, but…” or “I’m not a prude, but…”, that “but” is a very clear indication that you are far from libertarian.

  • mdc:

    In the WL cases, I think the only people who would fall foul of this are the servicemen who initially leaked the data (who maybe could even be tried for treason IRL!), not the WL site itself.

    As a civilian in an anarchist you need to be party to some kind of defense contract in order to enjoy the protection of whatever armed forces are there. It makes total sense that a non-disclosure clause would be included in such a contract.

  • ‘…in an anarchist setting…’

  • I’m as libertarian as the next person

    The next person is usually not.

  • llamas

    Secure_libertarian wrote:

    ‘I’m as libertarian as the next person, but there are times when we choose to give up liberties in favor of security.’

    Yes – except that, all-too-often, what actually happens is that we are forced to surrender our liberties in the name of security, when in fact the outcome (or purpose) has nothing to do with actual security.

    As, for example, with

    “Security checks at airports, for example–if you don’t like them, don’t fly.”

    Except that ‘security checks’ at airports, as presently practised, simply have nothing to do with actual security. They do not work to catch actual threats (repeated testing proves it) but they result in continual, complete and permanent infringement on the liberties of every single air traveller. Just read the daily horror stories of the Kafka-esque idiocies perpetrated every day upon people who self-evidently present no actual risk, all in the name of a non-existing and non-enhanced ‘security’. Detained and questioned for carrying ‘suspicious cash’. Detained and questioned for carry ‘ sequentially-numbered checks’ Detained to have a 2″ plastic model of a rifle confiscated as a ‘weapon’. Detained and questioned for carrying a book in Arabic. Detained to have a picture of a handgun confiscated as a ‘weapon’. And on and on and on. Airport ‘security’ his now in fact become a venue for the punishment of thoughtcrime – evidence of the ‘wrong’ kinds of opinions – including the opinion that the ‘security’ process itself is a farcical piece of ineffective theatre – is now used to inflict entirely extra-judicial punishment upon completely-innocent people who prent no actual threat at all. Think about that the next time that you’re getting groped by the Ruritanian admirals of the TSA. Why should I have to ‘choose’ not to fly simply to accommodate this Kafka-esque mass hysteria?

    If any of these measures had any sort of measurable correlation to an increase in security, they might be tolerable – but they never do, or they rapidly devolve so far from their original intent that the only thing that remains is the loss of liberties, stolen from us at gunpoint for nothing in return.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Laird

    “I’m as libertarian as the next person”

    Well, based on the rest of your post, no you’re not. No true libertarian would write “Security checks at airports, for example–if you don’t like them, don’t fly.” I have a right to travel unmolested by my government, especially when those “security checks” are nothing but ludicrously ineffective political theater. I suppose you’re also a fan of warrantless wiretaps, secret library record searches and all the other outrages in the Patriot Act. And as to your “access to classified info” statement, no one disagrees with that. But what we’re talking about here is the publication of that info by someone who never signed any confidentiality agreement, not whether there should be some sort of reprisal against the actual leaker.

    So despite your moniker, I don’t think you’re a libertarian at all. Just a statist apologist with perhaps a few libertarian leanings where it doesn’t much matter.

  • I’m all for leaks which will cause embarassment or harm to governments, but for leaking the information about the Afghan war which could lead to Afghans fighting on our side being identified and murdered by the Taliban, the piece of shit in charge of Wikileaks should be stuck up against a wall and shot.

  • John B

    Indeed, llamas, you sum it up well.
    Airport security and all.
    Teaching us the “normality” of surveillance, searches, and all.
    It so often strikes me that there are so much better ways to achieve what the powers-that-be claim they want to achieve. But what they do, do, so accurately achieves other goals such as normalising the invasive and all encompassing state.
    Arriving at a conclusion as to what it is really all about is fairly simple.
    Wikileaks. Yes. The JournoList,s sharp end ?

  • Kim du Toit

    “Wikileaks is embarrasingly-obviously selective – only the preferred targets of the Left are attacked. So all of this pious posturing about letting out secrets to make a better world is just a load of cr*p – it’s all about letting out the negative secrets of political opponents.”

    llamas speaketh the troof. I’ll give WikiLeaks more credence — and rethink my belief that Assange deserves execution — when he starts publishing leaks from baleful entities like Cuba, Russia, Venezuela and the like.

  • Sigivald

    Laird: Blah blah Patriot Act.

    Seriously, who ever thought library records were secret? They sure as hell never were back in the card-record days – anyone could just look and see who’d checked out a book!

    There was never, as far as I know, a prohibition on the State getting that information with a warrant – and indeed, if I recall the turmoil correctly, the entire idea of “the State’s gonna check your library books!” was librarians reacting to a part of the act that was about business records.

    The librarians simply asserted that it applied to them, that it was novel, and that therefore The Man Was Stealing Your Library Privacy.

    Which you never actually had, and nobody serious actually thought you had, that I know of.

    (Seriously. Public library. Run by the state. Expectation of privacy in records of what you checked out? Zero.

    Then again, I never figured out why I was supposed to be terrified of that, even if I’d somehow thought it was “private” information.

    You see, even the evil USAPATRIOTACT didn’t make it so that checking out a book was a crime [or even something that could be considered evidence of one for the purpose of criminal charges!], no matter what the book was, even if it was a pro-terr’ist book.)

  • RAB

    A very old aquaintance of mine is actually the nephew of the Man Who Never Was.

    He even has a website dedicated to it.
    http://www.themanwhoneverwas.com/

    Please dont read it too far, or you’ll know what type of bonkers people I have been associating with over the last 40 years!

    Spot on Llamas and Laird.

    And dont get me started on airport fuckin security, I am off to Crete in a couple of weeks, and really looking forward to the swivel eyed nonsense we will have to endure, just to board a plane.

  • Laird

    Sigivald, I don’t have any expectation that my library records are private; it is, as you point out, a governmental institution after all. However, what burns me is that it is illegal (a federal felony) for the librarian to tell me that my records have been demanded. That’s pure police state. And there is absolutely no rational justification for warrantless wiretaps, agency-issued “warrants”* and the other privacy intrusions contained in the Patriot Act. You want to support those sorts of governmental excesses, fine; just don’t pretend that you’re a libertarian when you do it.

    * Sneer quotes because in my opinion anything not issued under the imprimatur of a court is not a real warrant.

  • Secrets may well be “important” but it doesn’t follow from that that people have a right to use force to keep those things secret. If I’m committing adultery, it might be “important” for me to keep this a secret but it’s pretty clear that it would be wrong for me to kill you if you threatened to publish it on your website.

    Agreed, adultery is not justification for killing someone… however if you reveal a secret that might get a person killed…

    In an anarchist society I think these issues become much clearer: you can publish anything, unless you specifically agreed not to.

    … in a anarchist setting someone might well reply by putting a bomb under the seat of your car. If you expect people in ANY setting to just shrug their shoulders and say ” well what can you do?” when people do things that damage them or, above all, put them at risk just because they can, then you are kidding yourself if you can have a stable social setting.

    If I was an Afghan working for the Western powers in Afghanistan and I felt the surest way to stop Wikileaks publishing my name so the Taliban can find out who I am was to put a 7.62mm diameter hole in Julian Julian Assange’s head… why on earth would I *not* do that if I had the opportunity to someone who clearly does not give a damn what happens to me?

    In an “anarchist setting” do you really think that sort of “solution” would not be one that people would be inclined to avail themselves of? Hell in an “anarchist setting”, contract killers with global reach would probably advertise on-line.

  • mdc

    As a civilian in an anarchist you need to be party to some kind of defense contract in order to enjoy the protection of whatever armed forces are there. It makes total sense that a non-disclosure clause would be included in such a contract.

    It’s certainly a possibility, but by no means logically necessary. There will also always be people outside of your own militia group: as a UK citizen, I am not even part of the US state militia group, for that matter. The WL chap is Australian, I believe.

    Agreed, adultery is not justification for killing someone… however if you reveal a secret that might get a person killed…

    Since, of course, no one ever murdered anyone for adultery.

    But seriously, this is the same sort of logic that leads to people suing gun companies for bodily harm caused by criminals using guns. Letting people know “secret” knowledge I obtained lawfully does not violate anyone else’s rights.

    … in a anarchist setting someone might well reply by putting a bomb under the seat of your car.

    They might do that now. It would make them a murderer, however, and if caught they would swing for it.

  • Letting people know “secret” knowledge I obtained lawfully does not violate anyone else’s rights.

    You miss my point. If I cannot get a court injunction to stop someone putting me at risk (ie. we are in the putative “anarchist setting”), I am unlikely to engage that person in a discussion about whose rights are paramount… no, I will probably try to use force of some sort if I think that will protect myself. That is how things work in reality, it is not a case of ‘whose rights are violated’.

    When at risk people do what they have to do and if you do not have any mechanism other than violence… well then violence it is… and the only use a copy of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ has is its physical potential to stop an incoming bullet (books are surprisingly good at that actually).

  • jsallison

    “And perhaps the man who runs Wikileaks should be glad that some of the older punishments for treason no longer are used in this country. Very glad, in fact.”

    Unfortunate, that.

  • jsallison

    “And perhaps the man who runs Wikileaks should be glad that some of the older punishments for treason no longer are used in this country. Very glad, in fact.”

    Unfortunate, that.

  • Dishman

    I’m not entirely comfortable with the ‘treason’ charge.

    That said, if someone wanted to go after Assange on “negligent homicide” (by pointing to a specific name) or some kind of endangerment charge, I would have no problem.

    The kind of test I would find acceptable is whether or not his actions have a high probability of getting other people (not participating in his activities) dead.

    It certainly appears to be the case where he released names of Afghan civilians.

  • Mike Lorrey

    Personally while I think that in the modern age, private citizens need the ability to whistleblow on the unjust activities of bureaucrats, the war crimes of war criminals, and the abusive activities of mercantilist industrialists hiding behind the liability shield granted by government, the responsibility held by those providing such tools to leak information is such that endangering lives should always be considered a limiting factor on any disclosures. Mr Assange is a snotty brat spouting rotten little moral equivalencies that IMHO deserve him getting a beachfront view in Gitmo.

  • Monkee

    Treason’s relative eh?
    Mr Paine’s Common Sense was treason if you think the UK had a right to rule over it
    This may be treason if you think the UN has a right to be in Afghanistan and so presumably the author of this post is in favour of the war on terror
    que libertariano

  • mdc

    You miss my point. If I cannot get a court injunction to stop someone putting me at risk (ie. we are in the putative “anarchist setting”), I am unlikely to engage that person in a discussion about whose rights are paramount… no, I will probably try to use force of some sort if I think that will protect myself. That is how things work in reality, it is not a case of ‘whose rights are violated’.

    When at risk people do what they have to do and if you do not have any mechanism other than violence… well then violence it is… and the only use a copy of ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ has is its physical potential to stop an incoming bullet (books are surprisingly good at that actually).

    I think you’re confusing here what an anarchy is. It’s not a society where there’s an aggressive state ruled by Fuhrer de Havilland who can murder people at will with no come-back (why assume my family won’t simply blow you up in retaliation, in that case, thus completely defeating your attempt at self-defence?).

    A requirement is that there is a generally respected customary law system that recognises the natural rights. So you could murder me, as you could murder me for threatening to expose your hypothetical adultery (or whatever), but you couldn’t do it lawfully, let alone morally. It’s meant to be minarchism without the taxation, not a total free-for-all.

    So that confusing side-track aside, the only question is whether your claim to be acting in self-defence is valid, and I think it very clear isn’t, since I am not personally threatening your life in any way.

    To give you another example of why this is silly (or a bullet to bite, if you like), do you think it’s ok to blow up people who taught marksmanship to people who later turned out to be murderers?

  • Mr Ecks

    Guy,

    The only “fight for national survival” we are involved in is the one against the EU.

    And we are losing that one thanks to home grown traitors.

    Lets see if we can sick the Wikileaks bloke onto Brussels.

  • Great

    Defending “war for national survival” conducted by a governments and calling governments criminals in the next case. Consistency not your suit Jonathan?

    The case should be easy for a classical liberal – publishing info on the war effort is to be lauded and publishing PRIVATE account holders’ names is to be condemned.

  • hovis

    related to the sub discussion about assange and wiki-leaks on this thread is this(Link) older register article which rightly identifies Assange and his methods as vanity PR.

  • Laird

    I’m with Contemplationist and Mike Lorrey (well, except for that last sentence) on this. Exposing government perfidy (such as helicopter attacks on noncombatants) is laudable; needlessly putting at risk Afghanis who are providing assistance in the extermination of Al Qaeda and Taliban members is deplorable. I’m all for embarrassing governments, but there are some secrets which deserve to be kept. Assange should use more discretion.

    But whatever you may think of Assange’s actions, they aren’t “treason”, since he’s not a US citizen and owes the US no allegiance under any theory of law. But of course, neither does the US owe him anything, including any rights under our Constitution, so if he’s wise he will be checking under the hood every time he goes to start his car.

  • He is Australian though, and his actions also put Australian soldiers at risk.

  • Laird

    I don’t know all the contents of those leaked documents, but I very much doubt that any soldiers are more at risk than they were anyway simply by being there. It’s the cooperative Afghan civilians I’m most concerned about.

  • Ian B

    So far as security checks at airports go, I think in a libertarian society any airline would be quite within its rights to refuse to allow you on their property (the plane) with a bomb, and to ask you, as a condition of flying, to submit to a search to check you haven’t got one.

  • Mike Lorrey

    LOL Laird, you are suggesting the US might bomb his car, when I merely suggested he be given an expenses paid vacation in a secure location for the duration. Please explain how your suggestion is less offensive….

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The case should be easy for a classical liberal – publishing info on the war effort is to be lauded and publishing PRIVATE account holders’ names is to be condemned.

    The case is not easy because you have not considered that a liberal, minimal state might need to defend itself against aggressors, and that part of any such defence involves using secret information to defeat such aggressors, as in WW2. And don’t try and evade the issue by claiming that aggressors against states don’t need to be fooled and foiled on occasion.

    Of course, I am deeply uneasy about the use of “treason” charges against those who, for whatever reason, try to blow the lid on secrets; but it is naive, IMHO, for libertarians to imagine that there will never be legitimate reasons for the government of even a minimal state to protect certain secrets. In fact, I can easily forsee circumstances where the protection of information is just as important for a minimal state as a much larger one. So long as the rules are clearly understood and kept under constant review, that is.

  • Ian B

    The basic idea of treason is sound, even if the language is a bit loaded by being somewhat archaic. The principle of course is that a treasonous disclosure (or act. e.g. arson in the shipyards) is deliberate endangerment of the rest of the population. They thus have a right to enact some form of punishment which, in any form of State, is going to be done by the courts in a formal manner.

    If we switch to no State at all, our famous propertarian anarchy, then landowners become kings and take the role of the State on their private lands; they can thus make any rule they like over guests or tenants on their land and are likely to declare some acts as “treason” (anything which endangers the royal household landowner, or the security of the nation land in general). Of course, if there are lots of subjects tenants on the land, they might demand some kind of say in how it’s run and what rules are made, perhaps by some kind of voting system, and then…

    … don’t worry, it’s not a State. It’s an anarchy. Honest.

  • Laird

    Mike, I wasn’t advocating any such thing, merely indicating that it wouldn’t surprise me if it were to occur. “Less offensive”? Hardly; merely more likely.

  • Argosy Jones

    I’ll never understand the intelligence world. Phillip Agee, a former CIA officer himself, revealed the names of hundreds of CIA & some MI6 officers, some of whom appear to have been killed as a result.

    If I were running the CIA, I would be sorely tempted to see if he could be sent to an early grave. But Agee lived on to a reasonably old age and eventually travelled freely giving lectures on college campuses in the US.

    I saw him myself at a small university in Michigan. I was walking down an empty hallway in the University Center and peeked in the open door of a small conference room. There he was, standing at a lectern, seeming to enjoy himself. There was no apparent security. Had I been an assassin, I could likely have drawn a gun and shot him and escaped. He obviously wasn’t too worried about retribution from his former employers.

    This is baffling to me.