In the extreme, Wikileaks presages two potential futures: (1) a dystopic society with a stifled, dysfunctional government, cloaked in secrecy and largely unable to communicate within its own bureaucracy, let alone with its citizens or with the world; or (2) a utopian society with a functional government, accountable to a well-informed and trusting citizenry. We move towards the dystopic vision when we think the answer to Wikileaks is for government to hold even more tightly to its "secrets." We move towards the utopian vision when we harness the power of our new communications tools to create a better-informed country and world.
Every hero-oriented TV series or multi-episode action movie typically runs the same course: episode one pits the hero against a supervillain -- the greatest scourge humanity has ever known. In each subsequent episode, the degree of villainy -- and heroics -- escalates. By the end, however, the series inevitably crumbles under the weight of the absurd power of both the villain and the hero.
In 1971, the government might have considered Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers the greatest threat to national security. Regardless of whether one considers Ellsberg a hero or villain, a patriot or traitor, his actions, today, seem quaint -- like the bully at a young Clark Kent's high school.
Enter Julian Assange, the person that national security circles might cast as the villain of National Secrets, Episode 2: The Web of Deceit. Assange has come on the scene with much more power at his disposal than any leaker of state secrets before him. I, however, suspect that Assange, like Ellsberg, will be viewed as quaint once the next generation harnesses the power of digital technology and Internet distribution.
Continuing the analogy, we should not react to Wikileaks with inflated Heroics 2.0, putting up even more walls between the government and the people. Instead, government has to determine how to engage in international and domestic affairs in a world where most information will, inevitably, find its way into the public arena. To date, the default policy of even the most democratic governments has been that information -- even innocuous information -- should remain closely held, made available only when the government decides (or is compelled by law) to release it. If we shift that presumption and assume that information should be made publicly available, except when there is a compelling security reason to withhold the information, government would go a long way in gaining the trust of its citizens and the world. As it stands, many people around the world assume that governments are, too often, withholding the truth. Such an assumption heightens the role of the whistleblower, whose job it is to shine a spotlight on government "secrets," including both innocuous information and sensitive, justifiably secret information.
Society still needs trusted sources to filter and curate information. Pre-Internet, trusted news came from established media outlets. Now, information can reach the public eye before having been vetted and digested by trusted outlets. Ultimately, the crowd-sourcing tools of the Internet should produce curation models that will dwarf the capabilities of old media.
The question government should be asking is what constructive role it might play in this new curation and distribution model. If information will inevitably find a way into the public arena, shouldn't government figure out a way to better serve its people, providing access to the information in a manner useful for public discourse? The American government is already harnessing this sort of crowd-sourcing and civic participation with regard to less controversial domestic policy issues. The same tools and ideas might well be extended to the public with regard to issues implicating national security. Certainly, it would be better for our government, the American people, and the world, if government were to provide a platform and outlet for reasoned discussion, than to have a non-governmental, non-accountable, third-party claim the moral high-ground and be perceived as a more trusted outlet for the truth.
Our government must focus on how to better curate the information to improve openness, transparency, and public discourse on issues of national, global, and civic importance.
Wikileaks is simply the latest sign that a new model of open governance is needed. The challenge for government is to take the lessons learned from the recent Wikileaks document releases and to figure out how to allow information to flow in a manner that promotes understanding rather than mistrust.
If it figures out how to curate information, then it will be better prepared to deflate the shock power of the villain of National Secrets, Episode 3. In this case, the best way to drain the villain's power is through a genuine move towards government transparency.