The Game Changer
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.
The provision of political information on the Internet, then, also provides an opportunity for citizens to make informed decisions about their leadership, decisions that have the chance of removing elites from power. This is the very reason why Internet censorship exists: the more control a leader has over information, the easier it is for him to remain in power (witness Egypt shutting down the Internet during the recent revolution). The practice is as old as time and needs no further explanation here.
Equally ancient is the reality of knowledge imbalances. Rulers, no matter how benevolent, have always had moreknowledge than the ruled. Technology has always been the determining factor in creating this reality. Just as the printing press allowed for the greater dissemination of information and, therefore, the education of the masses about the existence of a wider world (be it of an upcoming opera performance, a scientific breakthrough, or the outbreak of war), the Internet today has increased global awareness of each other and, to a very real extent, fostered the idea of global citizenry. The consequences of this awareness and the ability to interact with others on the other side of the globe can be benign (simultaneous celebration of a World Cup victory) or can seriously upset the status quo (the organization of simultaneous anti-government protests). It is the latter phenomenon that unnerves those in power.
The ability to upset the status quo by leveling the knowledge playing field represents a driving force behind WikiLeaks and its supporters. No longer should information—innocent or sensitive—be limited to a very select few elites, WikiLeaks claims. Without the Internet, neither the War Logs nor Cablegate could have been disseminated to vast audiences, let alone be delivered to WikiLeaks in the first place.
(It is deeply ironic that the alleged culprit of the Collateral Murder, War Logs, and Cabelgate leaks, Private Bradley E. Manning, allegedly downloaded the information from the Defense Department’s secret SIPRNet, a classified version of the civilian Internet. The Internet, of course, was a Defense Department darling.)
The Internet as equalizer is an ideal that WikiLeaks supports. The democratization of knowledge, in other words, is an ideal that Wikileaks supports. When the masses become privy to as much information as their leadership has, status quo power structures are upset. This leads us to the next arena of WikiLeaks’ significance: the subversion of traditional international relations.
Enter Stage Right
The traditional notion of international affairs, that is, the political interactions between states, is one in which governments monopolize power through official engagements. The idea is that, be it a cultural exchange of symphonies, collaboration on a scientific endeavor, diplomatic meetings, or acts of war, nothing happens between states (governments) without official sanction. The playing out of the Cuban Missile Crisis between American, Soviet, and Cuban officials is a good example of traditional international relations and statecraft. Yet this conception of international affairs is extreme and represents a kind of naïve idealism; ever since the international state system came into being (with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648), non-state actors have influenced international affairs. Modern examples of non-state actor influence on international affairs include the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, American students protesting South African apartheid, United Fruit Company’s Central American exploits, al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on 9/11, and Amnesty International’s efforts to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Officials have always contended with non-state actors. Generally speaking though, the relationship between government and non-governmental actors has been manageable because non-state actors usually come together under a single guise, such as a corporate banner, an N.G.O. umbrella, or even rebel group leadership. Non-state actors have generally been easy to contend with because they were accountable to another group (more on accountability later). Lone wolves, though never fully alone, are wildcards dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
The rise of the influence of non-state actors may very well parallel increases in information dissemination. Because of the slow process of printing and the even slower speed of travel, not to mention the lack of telegraph or telephone lines, radical pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, for example, could only influence audiences in a confined geographical region. It took weeks and months for Common Sense to reach audiences that today are a three-hour plane ride away. Increases in the ability to transmit information, by railroad, roadways, telegraph, telephone, fax, cellular phone, and eventually by way of fiber optic cables and satellite technology, exponentially increased the influence and power of those who could read, see, build upon, and share that same information. As I write this, I see on my Skype account that my friends scattered in Taiwan, Burundi, Spain, Slovakia, and Toronto are all simultaneously online. Through me, then, they are all simultaneously connected. With a few keystrokes, I could transmit the same message to all of them instantly, be it a friendly hello or a call for armed revolution. This ability to share information across frontiers at lightning speed is more than exciting—it is empowering. The blogger is today’s pamphleteer; anyone has the potential to be the next Thomas Paine.
This ability to shift the balance of power in information containment and dissemination is a strong driving force behind WikiLeaks. Their capabilities represent a very serious threat to traditional notions of international relations. Knowledge is power; the more that knowledge is distributed, the more that power is diffused. The ability to transfer power from official state actors to any lay person rocks the very foundation on which international relations stands. The empowerment of the less-than-powerful is, in the very truest sense of the word, a subversive act.
Yet, as we have seen with detainment of Julian Assange (he is currently under house arrest) and the temporary setbacks to WikiLeaks’ online operations, the WikiLeaks organization is a manageable “problem.” With pressure, their leader was temporarily jailed and silenced, website hosting was interrupted, and corporations ceased handling funds for the group. The reactionary effort to these actions by Operation Payback, a globally dispersed volunteer effort, countered by disrupting online operations for MasterCard, PostFinance, PayPal, among others, and the setting up of hundreds of mirror sites to ensure WikiLeaks never goes down, surely caught officials by surprise. Again, governments responded by disrupting thoseefforts and making further arrests. A game of cat and mouse is afoot.
From a state’s perspective, WikiLeaks and Assange are not, per se, the most troublesome actors to emerge in this affair. Rather, what must really have state officials on edge are the potential whistleblowers—lone wolves—with access to extremely sensitive and embarrassing information. The accused Bradley Manning was a mere private, the lowest rank in the U.S. military, and yet he, allegedly, was able to download and distribute the largest cache of official documentation ever released to the public.
Dana Priest and William Arkin’s extraordinary exposé on the American intelligence sector revealed that 850,000 people working for nearly 2,000 companies in hundreds of government offices and agencies, and spread over 1,300 facilities from coast to coast, operate in a murky, intelligence atmosphere that has grown so large and complex that nobody in the upper echelons of power has a complete grasp—or control—of the system.6 The opportunities for a top secret leak to emerge from this network are endless. How many Bradley Mannings are standing by in the secret hallways and basements of Colorado, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere? No one knows, and this is an extremely unsettling unknown to the powers that be. (Note that none of the Collateral Murder, War Logs, or Cablegate material released thus far is considered “top secret,” and just look at the ruckus it has caused!)
WikiLeaks, and soon OpenLeaks and other copycat outlets, provide forums for disgruntled or activist government or contract employees. If the United States government is powerless to prevent a future leak, where does that leave lesser-protected (and/or more oppressive) regimes, from France to Brazil to Nigeria to Burma to China, and every state in between?
Furthermore, multinational corporations, which are often more powerful than state governments, are also susceptible to the same exposure WikiLeaks provides.
The ability to release sensitive information via WikiLeaks presents a new, hard reality in the realm of international affairs. With WikiLeaks, potentially everyone can play a role in international affairs. Such an opportunity is made even more (enticing / dangerous—take your pick) because it is unclear to whom or what WikiLeaks is accountable (discussed below).
The potential of WikiLeaks and its supporters represents an extraordinary level of power that, as far as states are concerned, must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. In this sense, WikiLeaks’ very presence may prove to be the biggest game changer to international relations since 1648. The question is, to what end?
As mentioned earlier, WikiLeaks’ stated goal is to publish official documents as a means to bettering democracy and governance. Transparency, for WikiLeaks, is a human right and a moral obligation. “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people,” their website states. “Better scrutiny [of information] leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations.”
They further claim:
Today, with authoritarian governments in power in much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. WikiLeaks interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, as a media publisher WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.
Transparency, WikiLeaks believes, raises all boats. Is this true? Market theorists believe that transparent information regarding the exchange of products (their capital investments, components, services, production, price, distribution costs, etc.) lead to efficient marketplaces. An efficient marketplace is a win-win for all involved. In theory, one hundred percent transparency leads to efficient and beneficial marketplaces, but can the same be said of the art and science of politics and governance? Transparency International (TI), an organization that tracks levels of corruption for every country, believes that increased transparency decreases corruption, which in turn improves democratic governance. The difference between TI and WikiLeaks, however, is that the former does not deny that some secrets should exist.
The difficulty over the question of whether more transparency leads to better democracy is that in answering it we must speak in hypotheticals, for there has never been total transparency in government-citizen relations. Increasingly, this reality is changing: on the state side, for example, more and more cameras record our daily activities while digital trails record every financial transaction or website we visit. One the civilian side, civilians willingly give up a lot of private information when they, for example, establish a Facebook account and, of course, make an online transaction using their credit card.
Still, the balance of power, as it always has, remains in the hands of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks seeks to rectify this imbalance.
Nominally, the organization is non-partisan: they are willing to accept, analyze, and publish official documentation, regardless of the country or company of origin, so long as it proves “significant” to society (at their discretion). This does not mean, however, that WikiLeaks will publish everything that comes across its desk. Last year the group was criticized for publishing the names of individuals assisting American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unclear whether or not retaliations have been carried out on named individuals, but the consequences of such exposure are grave and not to be minimized. Up until recently,7 WikiLeaks has taken measures to ensure similar oversights are not made.
The fact that redactions are made indicates that the organization does have limits to what it will not publish; what those limits are, however, remains unclear. Just as well, the redactions also indicate that WikiLeaks is not a proponent of one hundred percent, true transparency. Again, their philosophical limit on the issue is opaque.
How much information is too much? Would we decry the exposure of arms shipments intended to overthrow an oppressive regime (like Burma)? Would we share the same reaction to the revelation of a similar plot to overthrow a legitimate regime (like Spain)? We might be crazed about the revelation that American diplomats are charged with collecting biometric data of foreign officials… or are we even upset by this WikiLeaks exposure? In this latter case, has too much been revealed, or not enough?
Steven Aftergood, a fierce proponent of increased transparency, asserts there are limits to full disclosure. What Assange fails to realize, he argued in Time magazine, is that “some uses of secrecy serve to strengthen and defend an open society against attack from without or subversion within.” And in a spirited discussion on Democracy Now! that is worth viewing in its entirety, Aftergood states, “So it’s really not a question of WikiLeaks or nothing. It’s a question of a smart, well-targeted approach or a—you know, a reckless shotgun approach.”8
Does increased transparency lead to better global governance? No doubt. Does fulltransparency lead to the best governance? Again, it has never happened, so we can only surmise. Time will show what positive and/or negative impacts WikiLeaks will have on governance. What is sure now is that on many levels the actions of WikiLeaks raises very serious questions about accountability.
Accountability on Both Sides of the Coin
The idea of accountability in the context of the WikiLeaks affair exists on two levels: the first is the idea that leaks (transparency) are made in order to hold accountable government and corporate power-holders for their policy decisions and behaviors. The second level speaks to WikiLeaks itself: to whom or what is this organization or movement accountable? Implications for answers at both levels are broad and deep.
In order for a democratic regime to thrive, it must rest on a foundation of legitimacy, which is granted by the governed through popular vote. Ideally, leaders are expected to fulfill campaign promises and to act in a way that generally improves society. When the leadership fails, it is removed from power. In a democratic society, this accountability is made easier through transparent practices. In the United States, for example, legislative votes are made public, debates on House and Senate floors are broadcast on television, the president’s advisors are made known, Supreme Court majority and minority decisions are made public, and so on. Likewise, laws like the Freedom of Information Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Espionage Act provide measures of transparency in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as law enforcement arms. The American system is not without its flaws, but these measures allow it to function better than most democracies around the world.
The fact that there is room for improvement, however, provides motivation for WikiLeaks. While much of our governmental affairs are made available to an inquisitive public, there is also much secrecy. Secrecy, that is, a lack of transparency, provides fertile ground in which seeds of corruption, deceit, hypocrisy, and general mischievousness can grow—factors which are generally antithetical to democracy.
By promoting transparency and eliminating secrecy, WikiLeaks seeks to foster an era of good governance. With exposures of lies and misbehavior it is hoped that this can be achieved by holding the leadership accountable by a) shaming the leader and her peers to act with better judgment, and b) providing justification for the governed to change leadership. Presumably, transparency could also lead to rewards if the exposed behavior is met with approval by those withholding judgment—the voters (or consumers).
In such a system, accountability can thus be measured by a) gauging a leader’s behavioral changes to better comport with expectations, b) removing the leadership by popular vote should said behavior not change approvingly, or c) rewarding the leadership by keeping them in office in the next election.
To use an example revealed in Cablegate: it is revealed that in 2003 Spanish legal authorities bowed to U.S. pressure to drop the case against three American troops blamed for the death of José Couso, a cameraman who perished when a tank shelled Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, a place well-known to be occupied by civilians and journalists (a Ukrainian Reuters journalist was also killed in the attack, and three other Reuters journalists were wounded). The ruling by the three-judge panel cannot be appealed. El País, Spain’s largest daily newspaper, hammered this story. The Spanish public was up in arms upon learning of the American pressure to have the case tossed out of court. Couso’s family, livid beyond description, was on the air nonstop giving interviews to express their disbelief and anger about the apparent acquiescence.
With this example, Spanish citizens now have substantial information on a judicial issue for which they can base an electoral vote. They can punish those directly involved in the appointments of the three judges by voting them out of office. Enough pressure could even force the resignation of one or more judges from the high court. At the very least, the court will be hesitant to handle any future cases in a similar fashion, and indeed they may see such a case through in such a way to make up for the misstep.
At a simplified level, this sounds like the practice of good, democratic governance (or at least corrections). The process cannot happen, WikiLeaks contends, without near-total transparency.
There is a downside to this scenario, however. While an evolution toward better governance can begin, the exact opposite could also occur. Governments (recall the balance of power generally resides with them) can counter WikiLeaks-type activism by either punishing whistleblowers and their conduits harshly, and thereby deterring similar actions, or by increasing levels of secrecy and further minimizing transparency, or both.
We have already discussed retaliatory measures the American and its allied governments took against WikiLeaks (imprisoning Assange, shutting down websites). What has not been mentioned is the treatment of whistleblowers and the discouraging effects this can have on similar actors. In July 2010, Bradley Manning was charged with downloading classified information onto his computer and disseminating the material to unauthorized sources. Manning now languishes in a prison cell for 23 hours a day in Quantico, Virginia where he is allowed to speak with guards and other nearby prisoners (but he is not allowed to see them). It remains to be seen what kind of further punishment Manning will receive; nonetheless, whatever is doled out on him will surely cause more potential military whistleblowers to reconsider their actions.
Other whistleblower discouragements exist. Consider the case of whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld, who revealed to the U.S. Department of Justice illegal activities by his employer, banking giant UBS. Bizarrely, Birkenfeld was jailed for forty months. In an open letter published by the World Policy Journal, Birkenfeld warns that “…by taking legal action against me, the whistleblower, Washington has discouraged other whistleblowers from ever coming forward.” Not one of the bankers involved in the UBS scheming, which netted the U.S. government hundreds of millions of dollars in owed money, has been jailed. What message does this send to a potential whistleblower? It takes an immense amount of courage to come forward and expose the truth; it takes a heroic effort to come forward knowing that you may be imprisoned for doing the right thing. There is something inherently unjust about these outcomes.
Lastly, rather than discouraging secret activity, exposures like that of Cablegate may have the reverse effect: “So in the U.S. national-security establishment, the scale of the loss induced a retreat from the ‘need to share’ culture that emerged after Sept. 11, 2001, and that pressed rival agencies to exchange information instead of hoarding it,” reported Time magazine. “In the run-up to the WikiLeaks dump, the State Department cut the link from its Net-Centric Diplomacy database, which stores cable traffic, to the Pentagon’s classified SIPR.Net.”9 WikiLeaks may be unwittingly ushering in a potentially harmful information balkanization in the U.S. government.
A truly vexing question in this whole affair, one that has received almost no attention, is that of accountability on the part of WikiLeaks. To whom is the organization accountable? Financial donors? (WikiLeaks is non-profit, so there are no shareholders to answer to.) Is it accountable to its sources/whistleblowers? Does its accountability lie diffuse among the world’s “non-elites” or population in general? Democracy advocates? Transparency advocates?
The question becomes even more muddied when we consider that media outlets likeThe New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian are complicit in WikiLeaks operations. That these newspapers have published and continue to publish documentation provided by WikiLeaks makes them just as culpable in any accountability scheme. Ultimately, then, are the outlets for WikiLeaks information dissemination more culpable than the data provider itself?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we somehow determine that the WikiLeaks organization (and its personnel) as well as publications like The New York Times are to be held accountable in these affairs. Who, exactly, is to hold them accountable? Since WikiLeaks provides documents to The Times, and The Times provides the information to the general public, do we all get a vote as to whether or not the two organizations are doing a good or bad job?
And if they are not meeting our expectations (whatever those may be), how do we punish them? We can boycott The Times, but will that necessarily punish WikiLeaks? Would WikiLeaks, sensing consternation amongst the masses, change its behavior, like it expects of politicians?
Just as with increased transparency at the government level and the desire to hold leadership accountable, doing the same with whomever is accountable in the WikiLeaks episode can have positive and/or negative outcomes. On the one hand, perhaps WikiLeaks and its ilk will begin to adopt standards of information acquisition and dissemination, standards that set limits to what it will /not expose, how, and when, and for that matter, to what end. They may even adopt many hardened journalistic practices (many of which they already incorporate, like not acting on rumor and checking for documentation authenticity).
On the other hand, if deemed to be acting inappropriately, an organization like WikiLeaks may perceive the criticism as an attack and become entrenched, if not outright vindictive and antagonistic. This could lead to inappropriate information disclosures (for example, health records, bank account numbers, informants’ names) simply out of spite or retribution.
Determining and acting on levels of accountability for WikiLeaks and similar organizations is a very fine line to walk. These are questions that may take time to answer, but they cannot be ignored. If WikiLeaks’ goal is to improve democratic governance, it must be held accountable to its actions toward that end, regardless of positive or negative outcomes.
It is not too early to ascertain the effects WikiLeaks has in important segments of international society. Diplomacy, media practices, corporate behavior, and citizen activism (via whistle blowing) have all been affected tremendously by WikiLeaks and its activities.
The release of Collateral Murder had a chilling effect on the U.S. military and its operations in Iraq. With the release of the War Logs, American military and NATO personnel (not to mention high ranking politicians) were sufficiently rankled by often embarrassing and sometimes damning revelations. Yet because much of the material was dated, very little damage was done toward respective war and anti-terrorist efforts.
Cablegate continues to release new information, exposing more details of the inner workings the American and global diplomatic corps. The lasting effects of this particular document dump are yet to be determined. As of this writing (August 30, 2011,) 143,912 of 251,287 cables have been released.10
What is clear, however, is that taken together, and with full knowledge that there are more, potentially damaging releases to come, WikiLeaks is nothing less than a game changer. The organization, its operations, and its global appeal have shaken up media companies, governments, military apparatuses, and corporations in the United States and around the world. WikiLeaks’ very presence has altered the way information is disseminated at very high state and military levels and has caused major corporations to rethink their risk strategies.
No longer can the powerful engage in a questionable and/or highly sensitive act without pausing and wondering if somehow that information will find itself in the hands of WikiLeaks or a similar organization, and, in turn, the media, and thus to the masses. WikiLeaks is determined to foster an era of better global governance through its transparency activism. As such, there is no doubt it has become a major, if mysterious, player in the realms of international affairs and corporate action. Such power must be wielded wisely.
1. Typically sensitive names are redacted, but in WikiLeaks’ most recent exposure, that may not be the case. See: Scott Shane. “WikiLeaks Leaves Names of Diplomatic Sources in Cables,” New York Times (August 29, 2011):http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/us/30wikileaks.html.
3. Bill Keller. “Dealing With Assange and the Secrets He Spilled,” New York Times Magazine (Jan. 30, 2011).
4. Andy Greenberg. “Ex-WikiLeaker Explains His Spinoff Group, OpenLeaks,”Forbes.com (Dec. 9, 2010):http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2010/12/09/how-openleaks-the-first-wikileaks-spinoff-will-work/.
5. Raffi Katchadourian. “WikiLeaks Evolves,” newyorker.com (Dec. 1, 2010):http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/12/wikileaks-evolves.html.
6. Dana Priest and William Arkin. “Top Secret America,” Washingtonpost.com (July 2010): http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/.
7. See Note 1.
8. Barton Gellman. “Julian Assange,” Time (Dec. 27, 2010-Jan. 3, 2011): 90-4; Amy Goodman interviews Steven Aftergood and Glenn Greenwald. “Is WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a Hero?” Dremocracynow.org (Dec. 3, 2010):http://www.democracynow.org/2010/12/3/is_wikileaks_julian_assange_a_hero.
9. Barton Gellman. “Julian Assange,” Time (Dec. 27, 2010-Jan. 3, 2011): 90-4.
10. Which makes one wonder: after all of the hype, why haven’t ALL of the cables been released? Is it because WikiLeaks is actually policing itself and mining the material so as not to release information that might get, say, an informant killed? Or is this slow leaking a promotional ploy to ensure that the organization stays in the news?