In John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, the subject of official secrecy crops up. A spinster lady working in the civil service is accused of leaking secrets to the press. The formidable Rumpole seeks to defend her against charges that she has violated the Official Secrets Act, the ramblings of “governmental paranoia”. Is it no more than a case of keeping secret the number of short cakes consumed over tea? Of course, there is more to it than that: NATO, the deployment of weapons, the Cold War. The true source of the breach is a highly placed official, “Batty” Bowling, who makes a claim that the world would be far better off without secrets.
A world without secrets, an idea far from novel if nigh impossible to achieve. What the WikiLeaks releases do is challenge, at least potentially, a particular view of secrecy. On the face of it, diplomats and officials will be worried - secrecy ditched and scrapped in the face of well placed whistleblowers. Such disclosures make a case against secret dealings between governments, or at the very least, the case that such dealings should be open for public scrutiny and consumption. This is a pitch for the open society, open through the menacing force of disclosure.
In terms of diplomacy, it resembles the highest aspirations of President Woodrow Wilson, who looked with abhorrence at Old World machinations from his vantage point in Washington. The Europe that failed to avert world war in 1914 was the Europe of the secret covenant, the intricate treaty, the board room conspiracy. That spurred Wilson on to announcing, as part of his Fourteen Points in January 8, 1918, the need for, “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”. As recently as July 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly expressed the willingness of the Obama administration to embrace public over private diplomacy, a statement she might now rue.
Even after these sustained assaults on the citadel of secrecy, the idea of keeping secrets is not something that has lost its appeal. Not all confidential information should be disclosed. Secrecy can sometimes be vital to the protection of rights. Communications between a lawyer and client are protected for that precise reason, be there in terms of legal advice or in terms of preparing a case. The client must have full confidence to reveal all that is necessary for the effective pursuit of a case.
Assange, on the face of it, has not done away with the system of secrecy that diplomats and states traffic in. He has, in fact, played the system, creating a rival platform of secrets to combat officialdom. It is a game of cat and mouse, where the holder of the secret retains power. If ideas are a marketplace where options are traded and accepted depending on their value and how they are debated, then official secrecy has become something of a market, revolutionised by its transfer of power to such outfits as WikiLeaks.
If Assange is harmed, he threatens releasing a “dooms day” sampling of information with explosive implications in the form of an encrypted file named “insurance.aes256”. In the event of harm, he threatens releasing the access code to that file. His secrets have become a bartering tool. For all his reactionary bluster, the former US speaker of the house Newt Gingrich has a point in arguing that Assange is “engaged in warfare”. These are the guerilla tactics of the information age.
From perhaps being a touch naïve about the way media operates, Assange is now proving to be a canny operator, selecting cycles of the media where a release might be announced with maximum effect. More to the point, he is now using the main media outlets (the anointed five papers), as point of filtered release. The site is no longer as open as it once was. WikiLeaks has itself become a bastion of regulated secrecy. As the dust is settling, it is becoming clearer how the contours of the “new” secrecy will be shaped.
What these disclosures demonstrate is that regimes of official secrets are far from gone. A society that operates without secrets has as much plausibility about it as the free market. Both are crafted illusions. As Stephen M. Walt, a long time realist academic of international relations argues, nothing will truly change in substance, even after these challenges (Foreign Policy, Nov 30). Human beings, be they Assange or Bowling, relish safeguarding information. Secrecy has not ceased being a virtue.
This article was first published on Scoop on December 13, 2010.
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