Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gabriel Schoenfeld and Wikileaks

Gabe Schoenfeld's gangster motto.
Back in July, I critiqued a National Affairs essay by Gabriel Schoenfeld in which he suggested that big leaks of Defense Department documents -- he was, at the time, writing primarily about the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War -- amounted to an attack on democracy itself. Schoenfeld wrote critically of Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker in that case:

For better or worse, the American people in the Vietnam years had elected Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; they had acted at the ballot box to make their leadership and policy preferences clear. Yet here was a mid-level bureaucrat, elected by no one and representing no one, entrusted with secrets he had pledged to the American people to protect, abusing that trust to force his own policy preferences upon a government chosen by the people.

My response then:

It's silly to argue that Ellsberg was "forcing" a policy outcome through his leaks: As Schoenfeld notes, Ellsburg wasn't an elected official -- he had no power at all to change American policy. But Ellsberg did give Americans insight into how the policy had been made, and how what they'd been told by their leaders differed from the reality of the war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, then, enabled real democratic self-governance -- he didn't short-circuit it.

Wikileaks' latest release of nearly 400,000 documents related to the Iraq War has brought forth fresh, but familiar, commentary from Schoenfeld. He writes at The Weekly Standard:

The real question is whether, in exchange for a bit of “insight, texture, and context” into the war, the breach has placed lives at risk. On this score the Pentagon statement is very grim. The leak, it says, exposes

secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information, looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. 
If this is true, much like Philip Agee, the renegade CIA officer who in the 1970s went around exposing the identities of undercover CIA agents, WikiLeaks is acting as an enemy of our democracy. Even if our laws cannot reach it, it should be treated accordingly.

This is exceedingly credulous on Schoenfeld's part. The Pentagon made similar noises back when Wikileaks released its trove of Afghanistan documents -- the problem being that there's no evidence that anybody was actually harmed by those leaks, which were (frankly) released with much less concern for the safety of parties in Afghanistan.

Schoenfeld continually invokes "democracy" in his criticism of leaks, but as Inigo Montoya once said: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Genuine democracy requires that the citizenry have the maximum-possible information to make informed decisions about the direction of government. The 400,000 Iraq documents show Americans, in rather more detail, what we've gained from our seven years in Iraq: An Iraqi government that cuts off the fingers of its own people and an empowered Iran. Schoenfeld doesn't tell us why American citizens shouldn't have access to this information; he accepts Pentagon assertions that the leaks could lead to some lost lives as sufficient proof of badness. Blindly believing the government, as Schoenfeld urges us to do, is corrosive to democracy.

There are surely bits of information that the public is best served by not knowing. The number of those bits is far fewer than the government keeps from our eyes. Schoenfeld responds to leaks by waving the flag furiously, ignoring that "democracy" is sometimes best served by those who break the rules to help us see our government more clearly.

No comments: