FROM THE VAULT: A Primer on WikiLeaks
Editor’s Note: This piece was written in 2012 when WikiLeaks and Julian Assange first became famous. Now that Assange has finally been arrested after all these years, I thought it was worth pulling this up now as a primer. This is all a bit complicated and doesn’t fit a neat narrative, including a left/right one…
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
With the recent document dump by the website Wikileaks.org, 25,000 State Department cables that had been previously classified were released into the public domain in one fell swoop. As with most controversial political issues of the day, pundits and public leaders around the world came out by the thousands to comment on this unprecedented event. The latest episode came on the heals of the previous big Wikileaks story: the release of thousands of secret documents regarding the conduct of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a military video of a tragic killing in an Iraqi neighborhood by American troops from an Apache helicopter. As with the embassy cables, the war diaries run the gamut from the mundane, which is mostly the case, to quite serious and disturbing. I recommend for all of you to read the fascinating New Yorker account of how this came to pass.
The Wikileaks exposures of sensitive government documents that were not meant for public consumption represent societal conundrums that are yet to be judged in either a court of law, or of public opinion. Is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a hero, a whistle blower, a criminal, or a terrorist? Is he a force for good or evil? He has been called all of these things. And in an exceedingly rare case of a person entering the world stage in so dramatic and important a way, he cannot be pigeonholed as any one of these. This would be a gross and unjust oversimplification. For Mr. Assange, ladies and gentlemen, is all of these things at once- defying definitions and straining our moral assumptions.
Whatever the outcome of all this, and whatever your opinion of it might be, Wikileaks has helped alter the course of human history by catalyzing a form of rogue journalism that is impossible for governments to prevent or stop. For a change we have someone throwing caution to the wind instead of erring on the side of caution.
Technology has made it possible to run your website piecemeal on servers all over the world in countries with varying laws about censorship and cyber security. Once Wikileaks documents are published on the web, they cannot be easily taken down, and will never disappear from the public eye once documents have gone viral. The documents are already out there, and the backups of the backups have backups. Finances and operations are decentralized and run by shadowy members around the globe. What’s been done can never be undone. This is the largest shift from how secrets were stolen before- a tape, a person, a room, a computer, a camera, or a notebook with sensitive information can be stolen or destroyed even if there are multiples. Document dumps onto the web cannot.
So what now? The future of the website or the copycat movement it will spawn are hard to fathom. We can only conjecture on what has already happened. It’s time for the good, the bad, and the… highly entertaining.
No Page-Turner. After skimming the site and reading numerous accounts of the supposedly juiciest tidbits that Wikileaks has published, I was disappointed by the lack of truly interesting documents. Far from earth-shattering, most exposed documents describe routine matters and few surprises. So diplomats send cables about Libya’s dictator traveling around with a “voluptuous blonde” nurse, or Putin likes to get drunk with Berlusconi? Less interesting than a single page of any Nelson DeMille novel. I was actually pleased to see that diplomats played hardball when trying to convince foreign countries to accept Guantanamo detainees- offering aid here and a meeting with Obama there. That’s awesome- that’s what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s what we pay them for! Reading any given cable to the extent it’s worth it, is less a surprise than an affirmation that many at State were pushing US interests hard. Good.
Public Service?. Government agencies got a horrific wakeup call that was desperately needed- and of little surprise to most astute observers. For this reason, and the fact that little if anything truly dangerous leaked out yet, Americans should be highly grateful to Wikileaks. If the US Army or the State Department could allow disgruntled runts to simply waltz out of the office with thousands of sensitive documents capable of causing such an international stir, security measures are woefully lacking. There are far too many people with high-level clearances, too many sensitive documents floating around, and too little control of the flow of information we are told is so goddam critical to national security. If this stuff was so critical, it should have been guarded far more jealously. The current situation is unacceptable. President Obama should call an immediate review of US government agencies’ information security practices. Governors and Mayors across the nation need to do the same. This isn’t just for the Pentagon or State; other agencies one wouldn’t usually expect to need worry about such as the Department of Agriculture, Social Security Administration, or the state DMV all harbor documents we wouldn’t want in the wrong hands and certainly not out in public.
The Danger Zone. This brings us to why Wikileaks is potentially a big threat. It demonstrates how a small group of determined individuals seeking to perform chaos can probably manage to do some serious harm, using a small network of inside informants and tech savvy hackers in key places. They could release documents that could get people killed if terrorists or foreign governments got a hold of them. This in itself should worry us. Although there is something fair and even democratic in the end product being seen by website visitors- government documents in their original form for one to judge for himself or herself, something traditional journalism does not give us- Wikileaks self-selects what documents get released and when. The site decides on the sources to use, and they are not made public. However socially responsible their goals may be, and however noble a goal it is to investigate how taxpayer money is really being spent, it is dangerous to wield this power to decide who and what makes the cut. You cannot shine a light from a dark place over a long period of time. It carries the type of potential for abuse of power that Wikileaks is supposed to be against.
Should it be Shut? There is much talk of shutting down the site, arresting its principals, and making an example of them. Clearly a number of U.S. laws have been broken regarding release of classified information. However, Assange and most of his team are not U.S. citizens, and in fact many of them are not known. The information was leaked from the inside of government first, and in the case of State it’s not clear which runt(s) were responsible. While the Wikileaks team could be considered accomplices to the initial crimes of stealing, the unique nature of what the website has done so far will never be stopped. In fact, imprisoning Assange could make him a sort of martyr, which could be exactly what he wants in order to accelerate the movement exponentially.
Spreading Democracy? Although the American media is largely missing this point, closed and corrupt governments such as those in China, Russia, North Korea, Burma, and Iran are much less concerned with what US diplomats are saying about them than what Wikileaks could say about them. In this sense, Wikileaks has done Western governments and people the most important service of all. Autocrats trying to keep things close to the vest are probably pretty worried right now.
At its best, Wikileaks could expose things to the global public that journalists, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement cannot or are unable to. It could even help bring down or alter regimes more easily than a superpower can. If it stays open, I hope Wikileaks does so. And if a byproduct of this is some more accountability at home, then so be it. Those who follow the rules generally have less to worry about.