Leaky administrations

On the subject of the leaking of diplomatic cables recently, Senator Joe Lieberman of the United States government says:

Wikileaks’ illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world.

One could take this more seriously coming from the mouth of a country which hadn’t been quite so keen on going to war on spurious grounds to protect its national interests; wars which, I’m reliably informed, have actually taken thousands of civilian lives around the world.

My view of these leaks, and Wikileaks in general, is more complex than the childish rattle-rattling going on in the U.S. establishment. The role of government is to govern—and to remove this responsibility in part from their people who can then specialise in other fields—but this doesn’t mean hiding information from the people “for their own good”.

When the coalition came into power earlier this year, they suddenly started telling the country how much worse the public finances were than they expected. The bleating of politicians about how things are so much worse now they can see the “secret files” of government simply begs the question of why these files were secret in the first place. While there are reasonable grounds for secrecy in many spheres, why are, for example, citizens excluded from knowing the full extent of issues with the public finances? In this specific case, it’s details of how our money is being spent, so why are these details so unavailable to even politicians of non-governmental creeds?

Many of these diplomatic cables are merely embarrassing, rather than incendiary, but many of them are revealing about the perceived state of countries which would enable us as citizens to make far better judgements about a government based on its dealings with these countries. Even if information a government has is incorrect, we can evaluate the quality of the decisions made on that information.

The current situation, where the government gives out as little information as possible whilst trying to convince us they are doing a good job is a breeding ground for cynicism. Especially when later investigations reveal the unreliability of evidence decisions were based on, it becomes hard to take the word of a minister seriously—which is a disastrous point for democracy to have found itself at.

On balance, therefore, it seems that if we must gain access to this information via leaking, then periodic leaking is likely to be good for the system overall. Deals in backrooms between countries, while perhaps easier to hammer out, are also deals where the details are hidden from the citizens being represented. But really, there needs to be a change in the way government handles data—open by default seeming to be a better policy, especially now that technology makes this far easier.