WikiLeaks is a game changer. Whether you are an ardent supporter of the enigmatic organization, or are calling for the head of its leader, Julian Assange, or your feelings lie somewhere in between, you cannot deny that the organization’s methods and activities have changed government interactions, media practices, corporate behavior, and instilled a sense of empowerment for the less powerful. The very existence of WikiLeaks and its fellow activists and organizations fundamentally alters the parameters of international affairs.
In the past sixteen months, WikiLeaks has steadily increased its levels of provocation and influence: Beginning with the release (April 5, 2010) of the infamous Collateral Murder video in which an American Apache helicopter crew slay over a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news employees; the release (October 22, 2010) of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, a collection of over 391,000 illuminating reports covering two devastating wars between 2004-2009; and the recent (and continuing) Cablegate scandal in which over 250,000 diplomatic cables, dating from 1966 and containing confidential correspondence between 274 embassies and the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C, are methodically being published.
All of the releases mentioned above, and many others which WikiLeaks has also facilitated, have scandalized official diplomatic, military, and corporate relations. (Many are even giving some credit to WikiLeaks for fomenting the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.) WikiLeaks has also given traditional media outlets pause and have been a boon for historians, academics, and watchdog groups. In many circles, time will be delineated as B.W. and A.W.—Before WikiLeaks, After WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is a cause for celebration among many (like those historians), but for others the outlet is a pox on American ambitions to maintain global hegemony. For others, the organization is dismissed as simply subversive without revealing anything “we didn’t already know.” And for others still, WikiLeaks can frustrate: the leaking of the names of confidential informants,1 whose lives may be endangered if exposed, approaches a very fine line, if not crosses it altogether.
For those in search of better democracy and global governance, however, WikiLeaks is a game changer on three important fronts: the harnessing of technology to spread information, the subversion of traditional international relations, and the push for greater transparency worldwide. Taken singularly or in combination these factors call into question the importance of accountability, for both the targets of WikiLeaks divulgences and for the organization itself. We would do well to examine these issues closely in order to determine what WikiLeaks means to civilization, and the dangers unfettered “leaking” poses to the same.
What WikiLeaks Is … and Is Not
WikiLeaks relies on a network of volunteers to facilitate the acquisition and dissemination of official and original documentation. Julian Assange may be the leader of WikiLeaks, but the transparency movement that it leads is acephalous: should the real WikiLeaks be shut down or its leader imprisoned or executed, the transparency movement would not yield. Indeed, should either event occur the movement would likely be emboldened, not curtailed. In its place would spring a WikiLeaks 2. In fact, in December 2010, former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg announced the creation of OpenLeaks (www.openleaks.org),2 a WikiLeaks spin-off.
Secondly, despite the claim otherwise, WikiLeaks should not be seen as a “media organization.” While its staff does write the occasional story based on the documents it receives, news stories are few and far between. Instead, WikiLeaks should be viewed as a journalistic resource. With the massive releases contained in the War Logs and Cablegate, WikiLeaks acted more as a data dump rather than as a news outlet. Material was distributed in the raw, leaving the public to parse the flood of information.
In contrast, traditional news organizations (like The New York Timesor Der Spiegel) provide a valuable service in giving context to any kind of data, be it employment statistics from the Labor Department or hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables provided by WikiLeaks. Data by itself is not the equivalent of information. As Bill Keller of the Times remarked on his paper’s dealing with WikiLeaks: “I was proud of what a crew of great journalists had done to fashion coherent and instructive reporting from a jumble of raw field reports, mostly composed in a clunky patois of military jargon and acronyms. The reporters supplied context, nuance and skepticism” (my emphasis).3
WikiLeaks understands as much, which is why Assange involves traditional media outlets in disseminating information. The New York Times not only has legitimacy, it influences a far greater audience than WikiLeaks can with its own paltry news-writing efforts, and the stalwart American newspaper has the ability to put WikiLeaks’ information into an informed context. The emergent OpenLeaks also understands the necessity of sharing its own leaked information with traditional outlets. “To constrain the power of the site, we’re splitting submission from the publication part,” says OpenLeaks founder Domscheit-Berg. “We won’t publish any documents ourselves. The whole field is diversified.” OpenLeaks will begin partnering with five major newspapers worldwide before expanding its operations.4
WikiLeaks, therefore, is not a media organization; WikiLeaks needs media organizations. It is a conduit for data, not information.
Lastly, despite the numerous comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg and his leaking of the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks is not Ellsberg 2.0. For one, the sheer quantity of WikiLeaks’ data dumps far exceeds the amount of information Ellsberg ever made public. Furthermore, WikiLeaks is able to release all of its information instantly with literally the click of a button, whereas it took Ellsberg two years to copy all of the Pentagon Papers before he could even begin courting a news outlet.
More importantly, however, is that the raison d’être for both the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks’ various releases are fundamentally different. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in order to expose U.S. government lies and obfuscation about their actions in Vietnam and Cambodia. He published the documents in order to stop a destructive government policy.
WikiLeaks, however, seeks neither to end a specific policy nor to expose a specific lie. Indeed, because their leaks illuminate misbehavior of many governments, corporations, and leaders, their releases are not even specifically directed at toppling the American government, despite what some detractors may claim. Rather, WikiLeaks is determined to improve global governance and democracy by advocating (near-total) transparency. It is an activist group. As their website states: “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations.” Indeed, Julian Assange has indicated that WikiLeaks behaves as it does not just out of principal, but in order to fulfill a moral responsibility.5
In short, WikiLeaks should be understood to be an outlet for whistleblowers, a journalistic resource, and the front for transparency advocacy.
The Harnessing of Technology
Caveat emptor: Before determining the effect WikiLeaks has on information dissemination, international relations, transparency advocacy, and democratic practices, it is important to note that, from here on, in this essay “WikiLeaks” could be read as a placeholder for similar organizations or a general movement. This is because WikiLeaks proper is the vanguard organization for a movement that demands greater transparency in global affairs with the aim of bettering global governance.
The massive document dumps by WikiLeaks is the realization of an Internet ideal—that of freedom to access and to share information across borders. The Internet is a digital Wild West, where just about anything goes and everyone, anonymous or not, can play on an equal field. The Internet provides information connectivity between machines, and thus, by extension, between people. In most cases, those who choose to use the Internet are free to do so and are limited only by their own knowledge and imagination (or, sadly, by the restrictions imposed by state controls). Equalization by information dissemination is an ideal that WikiLeaks seeks to reinforce with its own mechanisms of accepting and distributing information.
This Internet as equalizer works at various levels. For one, it is now possible to access the Internet to obtain information on just about any topic, regardless of complexity or geographic significance. Instantly one can retrieve a biographical sketch of Michael Jackson, examine the evolution of the tractor, or scan vivid photographs of the flowers of Inner Mongolia. Social and political news are presented almost instantly, so that a student in Bangor can read the news of an art show in Tehran, while a student in Baghdad can read the news of a bloody massacre in Tuscon. Information exchange at this level is an educational force with the ability to uplift general global knowledge and awareness.