Secrecy in a WikiLeaks world
Transparency is part of the Davos version of “political correctness.” But so is protection of intellectual property to spur innovation. The two values came into conflict Wednesday night in a discussion of issues raised by the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified information.
The near-consensus (which is as close as you get in this debating society) was that government and business must keep some secrets if they hope to encourage creativity and risk-taking. The challenge is to narrow this roster of secrets to the minimum necessary—and to operate your company or agency ethically enough that, even if WikiLeaks should somehow get its hands on the sensitive information, it wouldn’t cause a scandal.
The debate came at a Davos dinner session that was off the record, so I can’t tell you who said what. But it was the mix of top business executives, NGO leaders, professors and journalists that attend most of the sessions here. The group also included a man (not Julian Assange, I should stress) who said he had worked with WikiLeaks on the dissemination of information.
A telling point for me was that in a WikiLeaks world, it’s essential to narrow the gap between what you say in public and private, since a leaked document may reveal any differences. An American professor observed that the reason the U.S. government had not been attacked after the latest disclosures was that the cables showed State Department officials expressing privately pretty much the same views that were publicly debated in America. The problems came for the governments described in the cables—a Tunisia that was concealing official corruption, a Saudi Arabia that was privately urging an attack on Iran while it was publicly mum.
The group discussed the overuse of secrecy—and the way that wrongdoers hide behind it. One telling example involved the U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq who were captured on a tape revealed several years ago by WiliLeaks chatting calmly as they fired at what proved to be a TV camera crew. They talked (and fired) so freely on the assumption that their actions would never be public.
But the take-away from this discussion, for me, was the contrarian point that too much openness chills debate, free-thinking and entrepreneurship. Participants cited examples where diplomats, bankers and business executives had been less frank and effective in the post-WikiLeaks world. That’s what happens when people fear their sensitive views may be disclosed: They get over-cautious.
So the Davos recipe here, as in most things, would be balance. Protect the secrets that matter, while preparing for the possibility that they could come out anyway. We live in an era when one should assume that life is “on the record,” even if some Davos discussions remain on background.
| January 28, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: David Ignatius
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