In a Virginia court room, away from the press, the US government is embarking on a grand jury investigation into the affaire WikiLeaks. Having learned from its mistake — storing classified data in a networked archive accessible to millions — it has resolved to take secrecy seriously. No one could say for sure that this particular grand jury hearing was actually about WikiLeaks and its éminence grise, Julian Assange, until the end of April. Confirmation came when a man in Boston, Massachusetts was subpoena’d to appear in a proceeding that would involve the 1917 Espionage Act: a law modelled on British legislation passed before the First World War. The absurdity of the whole thing, the spectacle of an administration falling over itself to prosecute someone, anyone, with a rule-book drawn up while filing cabinets were the cutting edge of bureaucratic technology, puts the question of official secrecy back on the table.
State secrets and leaks are big news, but they’re also a way of thinking about big concepts at times when the relationship between information and power seems uncertain. Georg Simmel, the great neglected sociologist of the 1900s, took them seriously, writing a study of secret societies that responded to Europe’s dread of anarchists, communists, and Jews: international groups that by their very existence confounded the geographical and racial discriminations upon which national power had come to rely. In England, in the previous century, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham had tried to reconcile the panoptic Enlightenment principle of visibility with what seemed to be a pragmatic need for non-disclosure, devoting essays to the question of when and how governments should be able to keep secrets.
All very well for the Victorian theorists. But what about the practice? Where in political history can you find a real WikiLeaker, an Assangean thorn in the side of a secretive government? For that, you need to look a little further back, to the end of the 18th century, and a middle-aged scholar named August Ludwig von Schlözer.
Between 1770 and 1795, the Kingdom of Prussia, along with the Russian Empire and Habsburg Austria, was carving up Poland in a huge Eastern European land-grab. August Schlözer was professor of history at Göttingen, where he had previously studied as a young man, having already taken a degree in theology at free-thinking Wittenberg. Travelling in Sweden and Russia, he had made enough of a reputation to become both a member of the Russian Academy and Professor of Russian History in St. Petersburg. By the time he returned to Göttingen, he was Germany’s leading expert on Russia and Scandinavia, with an impressive collection of academic honours and Slavic languages.
Most of his colleagues expected him to settle down to a comfortable life of teaching and thinking. But Schlözer had other ideas. He started weaving contemporary politics into his lectures. He started looking for a unified theory of history, a grand global narrative that would see the long record of human activity as a series of ‘interconnected coherent phenomena’ and allow historians to understand ‘the revolutionary changes of the earth which we inhabit’. More importantly, in 1776, he began publishing a journal in Hanover, the Historical and Political Intelligencer.
By the 1780s, when it rebranded as the State Reports (Stats-Anzeigen), it had a circulation in excess of 4,000 — impressive for the time — and had become one of the leading periodicals of the German-speaking world, partly because it published all the state records and files that Schlözer could get his hands on. Surprisingly, given its criticisms of official policy (and especially of state secrecy) it retained its licence until 1795, when the Prussian government decided it had had enough, and shut the publication down.
During its 17-year run, the Stats-Anzeigen printed accounts of murders, rulings in civil cases, and reports of attacks on the freedom of the press. Alongside letters from Germanophone travellers in continental Europe, England, and South America, it covered Europe’s last witch trials, circulated the verdicts of judges and town planning authorities, and plundered the archives to find evidence of gubernatorial misconduct. A typical whistleblowing article of 1791 by ‘A Hungarian Captain’ gave a run-down of the weight of equipment that an infantryman had to carry compared to his monthly salary; another printed a letter to the late Holy Roman Emperor Josef II from one of his advisers, regarding the state of imperial finances in the Austrian Netherlands.
Schlözer’s journal may not have fomented any revolutions, but it demonstrated — as the information historian Cornelia Vismann puts it — that ‘the publication of records could create a public’. Increasingly aware of the existence of secret government files to which they had no access, its readers represented a class of citizens who were becoming newly savvy about political information, and newly suspicious of the official institutions that decided their affairs.
Whether we want more or less of it, we tend to think of state secrecy as one of the basic tools of government. In fact, it’s quite a recent innovation, especially in Britain, where the mid-19th-century reform of the civil service began to eat away at what now seems a rather quaint culture of gentlemanly honour. Only after the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853, and the substitution of examination for nepotism in the appointment of civil servants, did the law start to take a serious interest in official leaks. When underpaid clerks could take it upon themselves to pass diplomatic papers to the starved national press — as, in one or two high-profile cases, they did — the concept of the classified document became a legal matter rather than a moral one. It also became a matter for fiction, notably in an 1893 Sherlock Holmes adventure, ‘The Naval Treaty’. With an eye for a good set-up, Conan Doyle based his tale on a scandal of 1878 in which the text of an Anglo-Russian agreement had been leaked to the press by a Foreign Office copyist and published within three hours of being signed.
Previously, there hadn’t been much point in a law restricting files: no civil servant worth his salt would be such a bounder as to leak them. More to the point, it wasn’t really files that needed to be classified, but readers. ‘Classification’ — a term that slowly shifted its allegiance, at the beginning of the twentieth century, from scientific taxonomies to state records — became a way not of dividing objects into categories, but of discriminating between those who should be allowed to study particular documents and those who were better kept in the dark.
Late Victorian Britain was struggling to control a chain-reaction. From the midst of an information explosion and a communications boom, it was about to produce a new concept of the ordinary citizen as a literate, enfranchised, political entity. Information security, signed into law with the first Official Secrets Act of 1889, was the line of red tape that would circumscribe this new mode of citizenship at the very moment of its production.
We’re still living — or living again — in a period of rapid change in the politics of information. E-piracy and digital copyright, the prospect of a two-tier web, the grey area of jurisdiction over and ownership of the personal data we put online: it all adds up to a cognitive, social and legal paradigm shift not unlike the one Britain had to deal with at the end of the 19th century. Voters around the world are demanding ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’, and lip-service is being paid. In January, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged to reduce the so-called 30-year-rule that keeps sensitive government documents closed to the public. (The fact that the change had already passed into law under the previous Labour government made it that rare thing: a promise Clegg could be confident about keeping.) Even so, there were exceptions — including, inevitably, one for matters relating to Northern Ireland. What would Schlözer have made of that?
It’s not just Britain that remains anxious about its secrets — French state archives, for instance, are notoriously protective of documents relating to the Algerian War — but the British have had more practice than most, and have a longer memory for what they would prefer to forget. The Metropolitan Police still has severe restrictions on some documents dating from the 1890s, as the historian Alex Butterworth found out when he tried to use them in writing The World That Never Was, a popular study of late-Victorian revolutionaries. Despite a series of Freedom of Information requests, the records remained off-limits — except to the serving Special Branch officer who used them as the basis of a doctoral thesis in 2001. Butterworth eventually got his files, which arrived with all names redacted. (‘The censored material,’ he comments wryly, ‘raises as many questions as it answers.’) Ironically, one of the reasons for the 1911 revision of the original Official Secrets Act was the publication of a series of indiscreet memoirs by Sir Robert Anderson, the evangelical Christian and Irish Unionist who had been the Met’s Assistant Commissioner during the Fenian Brotherhood scare and the hunt for Jack the Ripper. The grand jury now convened in Virginia wants to know whether individuals associated with WikiLeaks can be prosecuted under US laws deriving from that 1911 Act.
Still, it’s only been a century, and you can’t be too careful. The threat from extremist Kropotkinites and Bakunin-worshippers could yet rear its head; in any case, the wheels of bureaucracy and legislation grind slowly. Controlled release is the way to go: anything else risks aiding the enemy, whoever they might be for today’s news cycle. Forget the leakers and the upstarts; shut down Schlözer and extradite Assange. No doubt the Met will get around to naming names … one of these days.