By Lauren Hutton, Senior Researcher, Security Sector Governance Programme, ISS Pretoria.
We have all heard the old adage that information is power. In the digital era, it is increasingly difficult for actors, including states, to monopolise this power.
The information communication revolution advanced globalisation and information diffuses quickly and easily throughout the global system. The changes in the speed and depth of information flows have created new opportunities for increased citizen participation and the growth of transnational interest groups. But these changes have also created new vulnerabilities for states – from cybercrime and cyber war to information insecurity.
On Sunday 28 November 2010, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange again grabbed international headlines with the publication of 250 000 confidential US diplomatic cables. This came just months after the explosive Iraq war files were released on the website, detailing 109,032 deaths in Iraq, 66 081 of whom were civilian casualties. WikiLeaks has come to the forefront in the contest between secrecy and an increasingly information savvy society. Some commentators have called WikiLeaks an assault on secrecy; and presenting a head-on challenge to the rational and legitimate use of secrecy by governments, especially in the context of national security.
Although the origins of the most controversial documents released on WikiLeaks have been sources within the US government, the content touches governments around the world. As US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton commented, the release of the diplomatic cables was an attack on the international community. This is forcing states to reconsider when and how to keep secrets in an age marked by massive and instantaneous flows of information across borders. It also calls into question our understanding of what should be kept secret and when national security can legitimately be used as a justification for restrictions on open, democratic governance processes.
The most common defence from the US government in seeking to control the damage has been that classified information should not be leaked, as it endangers national security. Much of the information that has been leaked this year - including the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the diplomatic cables - have not presented a clear and present threat to US national security. Yet they have made public and proven without a doubt what has long been assumed about the conduct of the Afghan and Iraq wars and the way in which US views itself and the world around them. The leaked documents have damaged the US national and international image. Would the leaked documents have caused any concern if they did not reveal the murder of thousands of civilians or the spying on foreign diplomats and senior UN officials? If the leaking of such information harms US national security, is it the fault of those who leaked the information or those that authorised or tasked officials to conduct such suspect operations?
WikiLeaks has been severely criticised for the recent releases – by governments as well as civil society groups claiming that the website takes the notion of public interest too far and is inattentive to the unintended consequences of its actions. In most instances, WikiLeaks and their partners publishing the documents have redacted the names of sources and have sought to protect individual security as far as possible. Is it a threat to US national security that the global community now knows that US diplomats were tasked to collect DNA samples, passwords, frequent flyer numbers and bank account details of senior UN officials? Is knowing that the US diplomatic community were tasked with quite simply covert collection functions not in the public interest? And given that they were doing this in foreign countries including on our continent, is this not in our public interest?
Information as a commodity has changed immeasurably: a newspaper in Uganda can publish the names of homosexual people, directly endangering their lives but that same newspaper cannot publish the annual budget of the national intelligence service. Similarly, following food riots in Mozambique earlier this year there was an outcry from civil society activists when the government shut down SMS communications to obstruct people from mobilising and engaging in further social protests. In a 2009 poll, 52% of Egyptians indicated that the government should have the right to restrict the media from publishing articles that could be destabilising. The same poll found that 38% of Kenyans believed that government should be able to restrict access to certain Internet content. In some tenuous domestic political contexts, the notion of restricting information for the sake of domestic stability seems an easy option. How far can this line be walked until civil liberties are sacrificed on the altar of expediency?
One of the gravest concerns with the scope of leaks that have challenged the US secrecy regime this year is that the response will be to tighten information security and place further restrictions on access to information. This response will be a knee-jerk reaction of reverting to secrecy to prevent embarrassment. The truth is that people leak information because they want to expose unpopular behaviour. Preventing leaks and the concomitant embarrassment that they cause, starts with pursuing policies that are in agreement with the values of the population. If those policies fly in the face of global values and perpetuate global inequalities (as was evidenced by the lack of real response from the US to the massive civilian casualties exposed by the Afghan and Iraq war logs), global citizenry has a right to react. If it had been another military occupying another country and murdering nearly 70 000 civilians, would the response of the international community have been the same?
What the information revolution provides is the opportunity for greater involvement of national and global peripheries. Experience with the implementation of access to information legislation in India has shown the empowering effect of information on citizens’ participation. If knowledge is power, then is there potential for greater access to information to change the dynamics of relationships between rulers and their citizens or between global elites and those of the margins of power? Navigating these changes, one can only hope that the need to keep secrets is met with an equal need to keep the public informed.
Credit: ISS, Pretoria, South Africa.