Does WikiLeaks show us the possibility of the "World Wide Web"? Or is it a sinister threat to our sacred institutions?
Only The Government is Qualified to Redact?
Last weekend, as everyone knows, WikiLeaks posted documents that uncover the mundane details, the daily dirt of the Afghanistan war. The leak is unique in its sheer volume. It's also unique in that information is not condensed to a seconds long news flash with an explanation provided by a general or government official, in order to insulate us from the shock value war carnage. War is ugly and complicated, as described in all the books about the Iraq war that many people read, like Fiasco; or one I liked, Rory Stewart's The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. But for other citizens in the US and watchers of cable news, the wars abroad are remote and easy to ignore.
The WikiLeaks documents challenge the our architected ignorance of war by documenting unsavory details of our country's various "allies", the killing of civilians by wayward drones, intelligence mistakes, and small details like the attempted poisoning of an American geologist. In short, the everyday deaths, maimings, destructions and deceptions. War is of course, war.
Assange asserts that in airing these documents, he hopes citizens pressure the government, and that the details revealed embarrass some generals and goad them to behave better. While Assange has his agenda, involved states struggle to frame the leak within their agendas. Citizens have been barraged with guidance from official and unofficial sources about how much attention to pay to the deluge of unsettling news. At first most officials advised there was No New "News", which could mean anything, but seemed to implore: Pay no attention! Pay no attention! That compelled WikiLeaks and some news outlets to argue that indeed, This Was New News, detailing line item after line item of the gory "new news".
So then commentators put forth a more nuanced stance. Take the statements of Stewart A. Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the United States Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, who talked with Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute in "Dangerous Leaks", on BloggingHeads TV today. There was no "new news", Baker said, but new details about people and places that endangered military strategy and individuals. When told by Sanchez that WikiLeaks was redacting information in 15,000 docs to prevent that sort of thing, Baker responded that WikiLeaks was inept at that task because they couldn't know which information was dangerous. WikiLeaks could only pretend to protect sources and individuals in the documents, Baker said. The government was far more qualified to know which information to redact when they released information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But even the government made mistakes he said. In other words, we are told not to pay no attention because the news is not important, then told that the news endangers people and it must be stopped, then told that we should have asked the government to give us the important news that the didn't give us in the first place. What are we supposed to think about these contradicting statements? Will anarchy break out if the public knows more via "unofficial sources"?
House of Critics
It's not just governments who pursue Assange. Competing organizations in the "important leaked documents space" also criticize WikiLeaks and the personal motives of Assange. The owner of Cryptome says WikiLeaks' mission is corrupted by money. Steven Aftergood, of Secrecy News blog, has said that WikiLeaks threatens individual liberties by disclosing documents for disclosure's sake. Other hackers have accused WikiLeaks of endangering national security.
Some naysayers have other disputes. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called accused Assange of not working with journalists, saying:
"This is not journalism...did they write stories, talk to sources, analyze the information, go to the government for a response or put it in context? Did they do something to inform the public about what these documents show? No."
Still others accuse WikiLeaks of working under the mantle of transparency, but operating in a completely opaque fashion. Following the New Yorker's June 7th article on Assange: "No Secrets: Julian Assange's Mission for Total Transparency", one letter to the editor of The New Yorker criticized Assange's leak history, citing inconsistencies between his stated goals and the history of his actions: "On the surface, [Assange's] ideology seems to say: Full transparency leads to greater honesty and a better global society.", the letter writer wrote, "But why then publish private church data intended for the use of its leaders?"
This specific quote refers to the release of Church of Scientology leak described in the June 7th article. But let's consider that. The Church of Scientology has its awful secrets. Other churches, for instance the Catholic Church, and its leaders, also squirreled away very private church data for centuries. Only when many brave victims, mostly young boys, stepped forward to reveal the priests' transgressions was the destructive force of those private crimes revealed. If technology had enabled a leak earlier? Would some of those crimes been prevented?
The Sacrosanct Institutions and Freedom of Information
The letter to the New Yorker editor might as well have been referencing the "church" of government. It could have been referencing the church of the military, the church of hacking, or the church of journalism, all sacrosanct institutions to some.
Look for instance at "the church" of journalism. What is "journalism" these days? Is it a useful tool for eliciting government response and context as Lucy Dalglish says? Or is journalism, due to technology and psychology research, more and more the public relations arm of institutions? Does it live up to its potential? Do we really need generals to put war incidents in context for us? Or, as citizens, can we be enticed to be both interested and trusted as intelligent judges of how effectively our tax money is being used in wars? Or is that a fairy tale? More pragmatically, isn't there just too much information for the fourth estate to efficiently parse?
You don't need the FOIA to access WikiLeaks' cache of secret documents. The government has (at least momentarily) lost a tiny bit of control, as have the government journalists. The Church of Scientology has fewer secrets. Assange asserts that this is a good thing and that it was all his goal. We don't know. Long ago, when the internet first came to be, some crazy people thought it would provide a new frontier for open information, would break the barriers erected by states. But ordinary citizens have always found themselves on the wrong side of information asymmetry when it came to knowing what governments were up to. Does WikiLeaks shows another possibility? Maybe in this new age, as Obama promised, government will be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Maybe the Obama government will accomplish its stated transparent information goals. But perhaps all the transparency won't all be found at sites like transparency.gov in the cloud. But maybe Open Government will be defined by citizens too.