12/23/2010 02:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

WikiLeaks and the Cult of Secrets

A Christian Science Monitor article describes WikiLeaks as having no "obvious ideology beyond exposing secrets." Todd Gitlin, playing at geriatric scold, calls Julian Assange a representative of "his generation's anarchism -- the kind that wears a black mask, values disruption as action, and thinks it imperative to obstruct the workings of international meetings."

In his own words, Julian Assange says that he wants to expose secrets to disrupt the conspiracies at the root of state and corporate power, leading to "system-wide cognitive decline."

"Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes," Assange wrote in a 2006 manifesto, "we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favor within the regime but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power."

As blogger Aaron Bady writes, Assange believes that powerful institutions perpetuate themselves by conspiracy:

"A state like the US [is.]... essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and [Assange] then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to 'think' as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes."

Some proponents say that WikiLeaks' politics are immaterial. The organization is a natural reaction to an ever more powerful national security state and the credulous media (a-la-Judith Miller) that buys their story hook, line and sinker; a world where governments insist on knowing all of your secrets without sharing any of their own. Trying to understand WikiLeaks the organization is a distraction from the leaks themselves, and the myopic focus on Assange obscures the diffuse and networked nature of the entire episode, from WikiLeaks to the hacker posse called Anonymous. Something this organic can't be debated or talked down.

Michael Moore, explaining why he posted bail for Assange, put it this way: "WikiLeaks exists, in part, because the mainstream media has failed to live up to its responsibility. The corporate owners have decimated newsrooms, making it impossible for good journalists to do their job."

For Salon blogger Glen Greenwald, WikiLeaks isn't so much picking up the slack as deposing a craven charlatan, a media whose "servile role...[is] serving government interests and uncritically spreading government claims."

Certainly, we should focus on the cables that expose government wrongdoing or tell us something interesting. As Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson, who calls the leaks a net plus, told me, "You can think he's mercurial, touchy, brilliant, whatever, and still separate that from the work the group does."

But it matters what WikiLeaks thinks and wants. They are a powerful organization that might be with us for a long time. We should treat them as such. Only if we accept the naive premise that secrets are inherently bad and transparency inherently good can WikiLeaks be considered a neutral arbiter.

As Raffi Khatchadourian put it in the New Yorker, "Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most -- power without accountability -- is encoded in the site's DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."

It's the very prosaic nature of many recent cables that are most unnerving. The leaks of greatest consequence -- the Collateral Murder video showing a U.S. attack helicopter kill twelve Iraqis or the summer documents showing the futility of the Afghanistan war -- have provoked far less hysteria than the relatively less explosive diplomatic cables.

"If WikiLeaks," writes the New Yorker's George Packer, "and its super-secretive, thin-skinned, megalomaniacal leader, Julian Assange...were uncovering crimes, or scandals, or systemic abuses, there would be no question about the overwhelming public interest in these latest revelations. But the WikiLeaks dump contains no My Lais, no black sites, no Abu Ghraibs."

As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein put it, "Assange isn't whistleblowing or leaking. Both of those are targeted acts focused on an identified wrongdoing or event."

Assange isn't interested in targeted change. According to Bady, Assange's entire "point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective.

WikiLeaks does not leak something like the 'Collateral Murder' video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy's information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."

You also destroy the conspiracy by delegitimizing it before the public. The next batch of leaks are said to target a major financial institution, rumored to be Bank of America. If the documents turn out to be explosive, the American people may become more supportive of WikiLeaks, an organization dead set on impact.

"Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance," Assange wrote. "Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian power. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial... If all links between conspirators are cut then there is no conspiracy."

If there's no conspiracy, there's no authoritarian state. There is some comfort in the idea that there is a secret out there, at the heart of state and corporate power, that would change everything if it were to be exposed; that a network of secrets are the system's lifeblood. This is especially comforting to a U.S. left battered by disappointment after crushing disappointment.

Assange conflates the way secrets function in an authoritarian government like China and a liberal democracy like the United States. In some ways, WikiLeaks mirrors the national security state's own secrecy fetish: Assange believes the government's story, and so does the government; television police dramas mold actual police work, James Bond movies shape the mindset of future real-life spies.

Umberto Eco makes an interesting point in arguing that WikiLeaks has done real damage by showing that state secrets are often "empty" or banal, recycled from news clippings. But he overstates his case when he says that "to actually reveal... that Hillary Clinton's secrets were empty secrets amounts to taking away all her power," that it has done "irreparable damage to Clinton and Obama."

But that's what, if anything, WikiLeaks threatens here: the U.S. government's image, and thus its legitimacy. Thus the hysterical, Espionage Act-laden response. It's the U.S. government, on the world stage, playing itself. And its a performance that it will likely pull off as well as it ever has.

"Even if the analysis that government works in conspiratorial ways is correct, I don't know if his version of exposing the conspiracy will play out the way that he hopes it will," says Mother Jones' Gilson, describing WikiLeaks' programmer-like mindset: a function requires an input, which prompts a particular output. Assange was initially so confident that the leaks would bring the State Department to its knees that he called for Hillary Clinton's resignation.

"I'm not saying they're ho-hum," says Gilson, "but there's no huge bombshell that was going to turn everyone's heads 180-degrees."

And certainly no bombshell that would bring the state to its knees. Assange wants to build a "social movement" to expose secrets. I don't see such a movement taking shape, and if it did, it would be no substitute for the non-existence of an anti-war movement over at least the past five years. Nor would it create such a movement.

Assange, to his credit, dismisses conspiracy theories, 9/11 and otherwise. Yet his is still a conspiracist mindset. Blogger Aaron Bady distinguishes between the two, saying that "for Assange... a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction."

But what both ways of thinking have in common is their belief that secrets are the foundation upon which illegitimate power rests. That's not true, and it muddles our thinking about how power works and why bad things happen.

If only exposing secrets would bring the whole rotten edifice down. Thus the cognitive dissonance on the left when Americans reelected Bush even after his WMD lies were exposed. When it comes to the American people, the most sinister lies hide in plain sight.

I need only walk through any of the many dilapidated blocks of my city to know that the status quo is bankrupt. But most people don't take that walk; or they're too busy watching Fox News, Good Morning America, or whatever. The curtain is already pulled back, the true nature laid bare. Keep the secrets coming. But we already know more than enough to know better. Sadly, and paradoxically, we still don't.