Thursday, March 19, 2015

EdX course has me thinking about Snowden, Wikileaks and online education

One of my side projects this winter has been to try out an interesting course offered through EdX, a join initiative of Harvard University and MIT, which in many ways represents a significant step forward in online and distance learning. Over the next few weeks I'll be posting occasional pieces based on the work I've been doing for this class and reflecting on the overall experience of using this relatively new educational platform. The particular course I'm enrolled in, "Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy and the Press," is offered through the Belfer Center For Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government being taught by Professors Graham Allison Derek S. Reveron and David Sanger, along with a dedicated group of teaching assistants who review the assignments and lead weekly discussion groups via google hangout  for the limited enrollment version of the course that I am taking.

When the course comes to a close I plan to post some final thoughts on the role of projects like EdX in higher education and civil society more generally, but for today I'd like to offer a few observations on the latest topic that we've been asked to tackle in this class, which is the role that leaks have played in foreign policy discourse, from Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers to Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. One thing I've been thinking about a lot is the fact that everything that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in the Pentagon Papers case was essentially historical - granted it was recent history at the time, but nonetheless the documents he brought to public attention did not, from what I can tell, compromise any on-going military or intelligence operations. By the time this information came to light it probably surprised no one that the American effort in Vietnam had essentially failed, having dragged down the Johnson presidency and taken the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and by some estimates close to half a million Vietnamese civilians. A strong argument could be made that by sharing the details of the war, as the US government saw them, with the American people, Ellsberg played a role in the long process of national healing which continues to this day in some ways.

In contrast, it's harder to tell what the motivation is behind the dissemination of information shared by Wikileaks, which seems, at first glance, to be less about transparency or adding to the historical record, and more about embarrassing governments and the people who lead them. Substantively, from what I have read, there aren't too many things that have come out which are all that surprising - anyone who pays close attention to the Middle East, for example, is not going to be shocked that Sunni Arab powers in the region are not thrilled with the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon and would like the US to do something to prevent it.

The case of Edward Snowden is more complicated than Wikileaks, and perhaps falls somewhere in between the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks, both in terms of the value to civil society as well as the threat his actions likely pose to national security. On the one hand, Snowden exposed serious overreaching by US intelligence agencies which appears to have led to data collection on a massive, unprecedented scale on the activities of American citizens. Whether or not such actions were technically legal, they seem to fall into an ethical and perhaps constitutional, gray area and Snowden's decision to bring these transgressions into the public eye are not without merit. On the other hand, his exposure of other programs which are likely very important in protecting vital US interests, along with his decision to flee the United States, passing through other countries where the data he is carrying has almost certainly been copied by foreign intelligence services, is deeply troubling. 

With Ellsberg we have the advantage of hindsight and some 40 odd years of history to back up the justification for his actions, but with Wikileaks and Edward Snowden that history is still being written. Forty years from now we will likely still be discussing the role of leaks in public policy, civil society and government - whether Wikileaks or Snowden are seen as positive or negative influences remains to be seen.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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