Telling Secrets: Julian Assange Finds Himself Cornered

Julian Assange at New Media Days 09 in Copenhagen.

Image via Wikipedia

Julian Assange‘s Swiss bank account just got closed. His website has been chased out of town. He can’t get donations through PayPal anymore. It’s amazing how fast this man’s world is shrinking after he embarrassed diplomats around the world.

I can’t help but notice that this same man, Julian Assange has previously revealed U.S. military secrets that ostensibly put soldiers and other individuals at risk. I can’t help but remember that our former president seemed not to be bothered when his own State Department leaked information that put a CIA agent, Valerie Plame at risk. What has suddenly changed to bring such swift action from the powers of the world? Perhaps it is that those who specialize in keeping and revealing secrets has had their own “craft” used against them.

I am not sure how I feel about Julian Assange. I’ve heard the arguments on both sides, and my interest is not to evaluate the merits of those arguments here.

This episode makes me want to reflect on the nature of secrets. I attended a high school that had been founded more than 100 years earlier with the motto: “Do Nothing On The Sly.”  These words were already considered passe when I attended back in the 1970’s.  Despite its out-of-fashion status, that motto carried a profound idea: If you never succumb to the temptation to hide your actions, then you are unlikely to ever do anything immoral or illegal. This motto acts like an ethical alarm whenever one is tempted to cover one’s tracks.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus implies that secrets are ultimately futile. He says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). Jesus is speaking eshatologically, I believe, but oftentimes we find that things we thought would remain secret end up being revealed long before Judgment Day. There is some inherent wisdom in this notion of doing nothing that we have to hide from others.

What if one were actually to live by my school’s motto? What if one refused to do anything on the sly or hidden? What if a nation were to function according to the idea that everything should be open for inspection by the public? It sounds terribly naive, doesn’t it?  It’s easy for me to think of many excuses why doing some things on the sly is okay. But that motto has always nagged at me. Has our society bought into a form of corruption by playing the sophisticated game of state secrets and covert operations? Could a modern state survive without keeping secrets? Most everyone discussing the actions of Julian Assange assume that governments must keep secrets. I think it would be healthy for us to examine that assumption.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On December 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Having been in the U.S. Navy for 26 years, 22 of them as an officer, I can tell you that secrecy is a military necessity. The history of warfare is replete with examples of that fact, not least of which is its vital role in WWII. We broke the codes of both Germany and Japan and might well have lost without that success. The crucial naval victory at Midway depended on it. The pivotal D-Day invasion almost certainly would have failed had our target landing location been revealed. The Inchon invasion in the Korean war was another pivotal success because of secrecy.

    That said, secrecy has been used to cover a multitude of sins and screw-ups, not to mention out-of-control spending by covert parts of government. Case in point- the expenditure of over a billion dollars on probably-unnecessary cushy buildings and offices by the National Reconnaissance Office without Congressional oversight several decades ago.

    Few things can be more encouraging of malfeasance than hidden budgets, hence the brilliance of the founders in placing three co-equal branches of government. Of course, its essential parts include openness and the free press.

    IMO, secrecy will always be with us, counterbalanced by journalism, political leaks and historians. As for Assange, my impression is that he a loose cannon who has capitalized on a rare trove of classified information and is releasing it with little regard for damage to people who were covertly helping democracy’s cause. The bureaucracy will plug the leak firmly, now that the horse is out of the barn.

    Just as white lies are necessary to lubricate social comportment, so are they to diplomacy. Life will go on, kings will resume bragging about their invisible clothes and cruise passengers will continue to pay people to pretend to like them. But for now, Wikileaks has earned themselves a controversial paragraph in the history books.

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