Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nihilists and Provocateurs

A couple of thoughts in the wake of the morning paper:

Tricky Leaks

The U.S. Department of State is scrambling to contain the damage from the release by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website of thousands of intercepted government e-mails. Somebody found the key to the cupboard and turned everything over to Assange, the no-holds-barred whistleblower who has made it his mission in life to make public what the U.S. government wants to keep private. This has not made him popular in government circles but has raised him to hero status among critics of U.S. policy.

Assange’s activities raise a number of questions. I tend to be in sympathy with whistleblowers, who, ideally at least, courageously risk retaliation to reveal wrongdoing on the part of institutions with the power to suppress information about their activities. This can be a genuine public service as well as being genuinely heroic.

But the violation of secrecy ought to be in the service of some identifiable principle. If the U.S. military is covering up crimes committed by its personnel, we ought to know about it. But it’s hard to discern the principle behind Assange’s latest information spill. It appears to be a completely undiscriminating pillaging of routine diplomatic correspondence. And routine diplomatic correspondence is bound to contain a few things that the diplomats would rather not became public. Is this evidence of wrongdoing? Not necessarily.

Confidentiality is a perfectly reasonable expectation for any organization in conducting even routine business. Frank discussion of problems and conflicts is not possible if every remark has to be vetted in consideration of its being overheard. Is Assange attacking the very concept of confidentiality? If so, by what principle? You have to wonder if he considers his own dealings confidential. It would be interesting to hear him explain his criteria for exposure.

In the short run Assange is doing a lot of damage by complicating any number of diplomatic relationships. In the long run, he’s only going to assure that diplomacy and other government activities become more devious and impervious to scrutiny. If he were casting light on a genuine scandal instead of routine diplomatic frankness, that might be justifiable. But there’s a whiff of nihilism to Julian Assange’s latest grandstand play. I think at this point he’s doing it just because he can.

FBI Heroics

The FBI’s announcement that they had foiled a plot by a Somali-American youth to detonate a bomb in the midst of a holiday crowd in Portland would be more impressive if they had not helped set up the attack themselves. This comes on the heels of a similar plot in Chicago, in which agents identified a Lebanese man with jihadist sympathies and helped him plan an attack on revelers in bars near Wrigley Field before arresting him as he was about to strike. In both cases, it’s reasonable to ask whether the crimes would ever have been committed without help from FBI agents.

FBI agents seem to be good at this; the so-called Miami Seven jihadist cell busted in 2006 was also extensively jollied along by a federal informant. In all these cases, people with dubious sympathies were identified and then actively encouraged and materially aided to progress toward real violence by federal agents, who then busted them and held press conferences to celebrate a victory in the War on Terror.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure whether this constitutes entrapment. But I’m fairly sure it means these guys are low-hanging fruit. Now, if a kid is willing to press a button to blow up a crowd of holiday makers, then that kid should probably be off the street. But if it’s not clear whether he would ever have gotten that far without active encouragement from the FBI, then I think it’s time to take a hard look at the FBI approach.

I’d feel a lot better about the FBI if they were going a bit higher up the tree. There is always going to be a pool of disaffected losers who are manipulable and ripe for exploitation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to watch for real attempts to manipulate them than to provide the manipulation yourself so you can score an easy arrest and hold a press conference?

Sam Reaves