As with all year ends, as 2010 drew to a close, I found myself pondering the year that was and the year to come. This past year was marked by the WikiLeaks phenomenon; it is this singular event and its various repercussions that has me pondering the future of history. When news of the diplomatic cattiness, and backroom wheeling and dealing captured in WikiLeaks first came out, I was tempted to produce a witty epistle about how Julian Assange was serious competition for those historians who spend countless, and often thankless hours, deep in the bowels of the archives, digging and searching for that one piece of “Eureka!” evidence. As journalist after journalist titillated about the latest diplomatic revelation, I mourned the fact that thirty years from now, there would be no repeat excitement as documents held under Access to Information or Freedom of Information legislation around the world were released to the general public. In my mind, WikiLeaks had taken the historian’s ability to astound away. Case in point, in early December 2010 networks around the world announced the discovery of a forgotten manuscript produced by Leonardo Da Vinci in his trademark right to left handwriting. A single document made international headlines and thrust the possibility of different ways of knowing into the limelight.
But I now regret my initial flippancy regarding Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks phenomenon. The reaction to the WikiLeaks revelations has been extraordinary, particularly in the United States where Attorney General Eric Holder has been looking for a way to prosecute Assange for disseminating sensitive government information to the public. In Canada, political scientist and commentator Tom Flanagan called for Mr. Assange’s assassination, a statement he later retracted after vocal public outcry. Mr. Assange has been personally threatened and the controversy over whether or not he should be deported to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault has confused issues of justice, victims’ rights and innocence until proven guilty. More generally, the idea of public information is under fire. As governments and institutions braced themselves for each WikiLeaks release, the most common line of defence was not to defend a particular diplomat or public official and their confidential comments (most governments adopted a policy of not commenting on confidential cables), but rather to criminalize Assange’s actions, indicating both implicitly and explicitly that governments had a right to keep information confidential and that there were certain things the public should not know. This official line of argumentation was buttressed by concrete actions to prevent the release of information. Writing in the New York Times, Scott Shane noted that the White House was “determined to use technology to preserve its secrets” including removing any kind of recording devices from government computers and installing technology to detect unusually large downloads.
The idea of some material being unsuitable for public consumption is a challenge to the principle of free and open discourse that is so crucial to the functioning of liberal democratic societies. Historically, this challenge has been transformed into various forms of compromise between making information publicly available to offer openness and transparency and withholding material in the interest of national security. Governments generally lean towards restriction while media outlets tend towards disclosure. For instance, the New York Times, in deciding what WikiLeaks should publish, tilted towards the public’s right to know but tempered publication when there were concerns about security. The Times explained to its readers,
Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, and after weighing the risks and public interest, we sometimes chose not to publish. But there are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times. The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the United States and its allies have undertaken in a way that other accounts have not. Most of the incident reports are marked “secret,” a relatively low level of classification. The Times has taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests.
The issues around WikiLeaks are neither novel nor unique for they reflect the dilemmas of an age where the Internet is the great re-distributor of knowledge and power. What the opposition and controversy surrounding WikiLeaks does reveal, however, is how the very premise of modern access to information laws is being compromised.
The philosophical underpinnings of much of the access to information framework in western democracies is that the passage of time is necessary for people to access the information they desire. The idea is that people have a right to access information, but not necessarily instantaneously. In Canada, government documents such as Cabinet Conclusions are considered “safe” after thirty years and released at that time. Similarly, personal information contained in government records is theoretically protected until twenty years after someone’s death so that the risk of any damage from the release of such information will be minimized. But to ensure that people will have an opportunity to access information after the passage of a certain amount of time, documents must first be protected and then rendered accessible. Over the past decade, the ability of archives in both Canada and the United States to fulfill these twin obligations has been undermined.
For instance, in November 2001, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13233, which gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely, jeopardizing future research and any prospect of developing a comprehensive understanding of presidential policy-making and decision-making. Even when material makes it into the archives, it can be endangered. For instance, in April 2005, Sandy Berger, National Security Adviser in the Clinton Administration, removed classified documents from the National Archives and Records Administration reading room in Washington a few years before, as he prepared to testify in front of the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.
In Canada, the Access to Information Act, which was supposed to give Canadians access to government information of concern, has instead created a bureaucratic culture where people do not write anything down for fear of “being ATIPed,” and where the Act’s murky provisions are used to prevent the release of information, even years after the fact. Most recently, in Canada, debate has swirled around the release, or lack thereof, of documents pertaining to Tommy Douglas, former leader of the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, former premier of Saskatchewan and father of the Canadian medicare system. The RCMP and federal government claim that to release the full file held at Library and Archives Canada, which includes documents over 70 years old, jeopardizes Canada’s national security. One can only wonder what a file that old must contain if it has the power to impact contemporary security operations… The story is not over yet; the case was heard in Federal Court in December and a new review and decision of what can or cannot be released is expected in March.
And so as I eagerly await to discover what 2011 has in store for the world generally and the Tommy Douglas file in particular, I find that I am less worried about what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has done to the historical profession and more concerned about what the reaction to WikiLeaks releases portends for access to information in the future. Given the fragility of current access regimes in North America, one can only imagine how government clampdowns on the release of information in the present might affect the release of documents in the future. On the one hand, governments may feel that the damage has been done and provide greater access to researchers. But my fear is that the opposite will occur and access to information and privacy legislation will be interpreted in favour of greater restrictions and more limited access. Such a situation would indeed place history that is founded on research in public archives in great jeopardy.