The Return of Discretion?

Discretion: avoiding offense and protecting privacy. Discretion, or rather lack of it, is at the heart of the Wikileaks free-for-all. And, against what one might expect, it's not the discretion of Julian Assange that's in question. (In fact, the whole Assange to-do is more of a sideshow than anything else: if it hadn't been he, it would have been someone else.)

Though it's difficult to pin down a number (it being so large), it's possible that even a million or more people had access to much of the information Wikileaks has been making available. As Mike Vizard writes, “you can’t help but wonder how things might be a little different if the federal government had an effective access management system in place that gave people access to information based on who really needed to know what.” If the government had shown the least bit of discretion.

The problem, here, isn't Wikileaks. With that many people having access to classified information, you know the information had gotten into the hands of Chinese intelligence, Russian, Iranian, Israeli... was known to governments all over the world. David Rieff asks “Does anyone seriously think the Iranians don’t know about the Saudi king lobbying Washington to bomb Natanz and the other nuclear facilities, or that the Pakistani Taliban don’t know about American moves with regard to Islamabad’s nuclear program? It would be idiotic to imagine our enemies are so badly informed that the Wikileaks information is news to them.”

The focus of this information-saturation story should not be on Assange or on Wikileaks or Anonymous, but should be on the failure of governments—particularly the US government—to adequately deal with information, to deal with how it is generated, how it is processed, how it is stored, and how it is protected.

Confident in its understanding of the way things were, the US government has failed to understand the extent of the changes in the way information “interacts” with the world today—fails to understand the way things are.

If it is going to protect what it knows, the government needs to go back to the beginning, asking just what information it needs and just how it should be stored and accessed. Stamping something “secret” or classifying it in some other way isn't the answer—obviously. That's a holdover from days of file cabinets and locks and keys and identity cards.

The change, if there is going to be one, needs to start with those who generate the information. In the past, as parts of a gigantic bureaucratic machine, it has been their job to produce as many documents as they could, providing paper trails and justifications for future decisions.

For diplomats in particular, the changes needed, whatever they prove to be, will bring back an emphasis on discretion. Instead of covering their asses by dumping as much information as possible into the files, they need to start relying on themselves, being confident in those responsible to them and those they are responsible to—confident without the constant checking and second-guessing that an over-abundance of information allows. If the Wikileaks documents show nothing else, they prove that American diplomats are reasonably competent (even if their leaders are not). The system needs to have confidence in them, reducing the need to constantly check up on them through documentation.

Or, if such checking is needed, the system needs to find another way of monitoring.

Such a way can certainly be developed. I hope it will be, though I have little confidence that an overblown bureaucracy can change.

Still, I hope the US government is already responding, quietly and carefully, away from all the ruckus and, instead of blaming others for what has happened, looking to itself.


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