Intelligence ≠ Journalism, Spies ≠ Journalists — an extremely important formula, one that I fear is increasingly being forgotten in our present era. Via Academia.edu, I have published my unfinished behemoth academic presentation-cum-paper, “Totemism and Panopticon: A Tentative Comparative Philosophical Ethnography of Journalism and Intelligence Using Wikileaks as a Case Study“. I have the ambition to sooner or later (preferably sooner) convert it into an article or book — with strength worthy of Poseidon, transform this sprawling octopus of 70 PowerPoint slides into a disciplined kraken of a monograph. To do that, I need critical feedback, both friendly and unfriendly, from fellow journalists and philosophers, professionals in intelligence work, and WikiLeaks supporters (not detractors, as I myself am now become a detractor and need continued exposure to the “opposing side”).
The truth is I have decided to publish this presentation now because I feel it is long overdue that I draw a strong line between my original support for WikiLeaks and my present extreme wariness, if not opposition, to Julian Assange et al. I considered coming out already back in 2016, but I found that I had nothing really cogent to say beyond simply that I felt what had been done was wrong. That changed by the summer of 2017, when I began working on this presentation. What finally prompted me to bring this presentation out from the Ivory Tower and more into the public domain were terrible experiences this past academic year at my employer, the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek (AUCA), Kyrgyzstan (a bit more about that below). I wanted to find words to describe my sense of our wretched zeitgeist, until I realized that I already had the words, more or less, in the form of this presentation.
I am not a “big deal” in the sense of being an intellectual influencer, trendsetter, what-have-you. Nonetheless, I expect at least some skepticism or scorn from those who were always against WikiLeaks, and some anger and feeling of betrayal from those who always and resolutely support it. To them: as recorded in my round-up post, “Working the WikiLeaks Beat“, from the beginning I tried to take an inquisitive and critical look at WikiLeaks. Even as far back as July 2010, I had concerns:
[W]hat I worry about is the extent to which WikiLeaks is willing to make soldiers, civilians […] collateral damage in its war against inaccuracy and falsity. That’s a question not only the journalist in me, but the philosopher too, would like to put to Assange et al one day…
Moreover, as an intellectual I reserve the right to change my mind, so I have exercised this right about WikiLeaks, especially in light of my maturation as a journalist and academic, coupled with my own encounters with intelligence professionals. And who knows? Perhaps one day I will change my mind again about WikiLeaks; certainly, as much as I have become convinced of the importance and, indeed, the inevitability of intelligence, I remain deeply worried about the extent to which it violates privacy, in my homeland and globally. In my religion, the Baha’i Faith, backbiting is seen as one of the greatest evils; when intelligence loses sight of its true purpose and morphs into a grossly industrialized form of backbiting, all of civilization suffers.
Indeed, there is a terrible paradox at the heart of our present era, a dialectic between privacy and publicity, secrecy and transparency; and at the heart of this dilemma are intelligence and journalism, which in a surprisingly enormous number of ways are kindred professions. In both my work and my philosophical and spiritual reflections, I have come to understand how secrecy and transparency are double-sided — they can be divine or diabolical. The Baha’i Faith actually champions both the need for discretion and secrecy and the need for exposure and publicity; in our Writings, we find God speaking in both languages, invoking the ethics of both principles, lionizing and condemning them depending upon the situation. There is a transcendental standard at play, according to which in one moment secrecy may be the right and transparency the wrong, and in the next the reverse.
These days, when I try to translate this standard into the professional terms of journalism, I think back to two of WikiLeaks’ biggest “mega-leaks” nine years ago, namely, their publication of the diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world and the military cables from American soldiers in Afghanistan.