When You Should Leak

Posted on 23/01/2011 by

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It is very easy, in the course of human events and activities, to get caught up in the minutiae. The higher one rises within organisations, the more important that minutiae becomes; however, one still focuses on small portions of the picture which one could, in fact, behold. These are what could be called ‘blinders’: they are the psychological blocks which people unconsciously place over their perceptions. Such blinders have their advantages, because they help a person ‘edit out’ information which is not pertinent to their job, and focus on what is.

Organisations seek to reinforce this natural tendency, quite deliberately. This can be for relatively innocent reasons, such as to improve worker efficiency: undistracted workers work more, and so the organisation gets more production for the same amount of money. Less innocent reasons could be simply for the defence of trade secrets, such how Coca Cola, unable to protect its drink formula through patenting, resorts to extreme secrecy to protect its famous flavour.

When we look at governments, however, we see that blinders become formalised: security clearances, and classification. The natural tendency to ignore unimportant information is supplanted by an institution telling its employees what is and is not pertinent. This restriction will often cut people off from information which would otherwise be useful to their job, but by and large this is not seen as a problem.

Backed by the threat of punishment under secrecy laws, classification serves to corral what government employees might see. This could be for many different reasons, but they are not particularly important to consider. Suffice it to say, classification replaces the natural blinders which people develop, and replaces them with rigid, formalistic information restraints.

By and large, these information restraints are accepts as part and parcel of the job at hand: governments need secrecy, so the excuses go, and so it is necessary to go along with the regulations.

The idealised information flow in this context can be looked at as a pyramid. At the bottom are the largest number of people: they have the lowest levels of access, and in theory the fewest ‘pieces’ of the puzzle; the information available at this level can be best called fragmentary.

Moving up the pyramid, one sees increasingly clearer information, and concurrently fewer people in possession of it. Finally, at the very top, one sees the handful of people in the system who have unfettered access to all information, and in theory the clearest picture.

In reality, however, things aren’t so neat as all this: those at the top of this pyramid are the most overloaded with information, simply because they are the fewest in number, and are swamped by the amount of data which is pushed up toward them. Therefore they do not, in fact, have very good information at all, and indeed have highly skewed views and interpretations. The more information one is presented with, the less one is able to process and synthesise.

To prevent this overload, the system will tend to strip down information to almost a meme: only the most important facets of a given event will make it to the top. So, it is not the people at the top who have the best access for information, but rather the people who are involved in the stripping process. They have to read everything, in a close-to-raw form, and decide what is and is not important to be passed up the chain of information.

This might sound all fine and dandy, but what should happen when the information passing through a certain person’s hands is proof of terrible things? That virtually anyone can be brought to do terrible things is proven in the famous Milgram Experiment: people will ‘follow orders’ to a great extreme, simply because an ‘authority’ figure is present.

Terrible things can and are passed through countless hands without an eye being batted. Typically this is done by having the information be in very small portions, so that a larger picture cannot easily be constructed. But, there is always what Milgram discovered: people are, in fact, prepared to ‘kill’ someone on command. Information is so removed from this, that the natural blinders can come back into play; the horror is blotted out, complicity is unrecognised.

Sometimes, though, the blinders can lift a little, and a person will have a dark glimpse of what they are part of. This is a twin terror: the realisation, and the fear of that realisation. I do believe that most people involved in the information stream are primarily good people; they have simply blinded themselves to what they are doing.

So, with the new knowledge which came from the blinders lifting just a little, there are only two paths for a person to take. First, they can force themselves to accept what they are doing; or second, they can decide to take a step toward ending what they have been previously facilitating, ie leaking.

It’s a decision fraught with peril. The first case represents the creation of incredible internal dissonance, because one has to continually insist one is doing nothing wrong, even in the face of knowledge to the contrary. The second avoids this, but instead one will have the fear of discovery of leaking.

However, I think that the path should be clear: the mere fact that one has this question, is an indication of the only honest action possible. A sense of right and wrong has already made the decision, because the lifting of one’s blinders was a voluntary act. One can only leak, for one’s own good.

What will arise out of leaking is not a reflection upon the motives of the leaker; whatever happens is not their doing. A leaker has no control over how their leaks are used, they can only do what is within their abilities to prevent further horrors from happening. Arguments to the contrary are intimidation, from the people who truly have blood on their hands.

In the words of the Nuremberg Principles: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of [her or] his Government or of a superior does not relieve [her or] him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to [her or] him”.

Everyone always has a moral choice.

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Posted in: Activism, WikiLeaks