There is much to cheer about in whistleblowing site Wikileaks’ massive dump of U.S. military documents related to the Afghan War. Details of dubious strategic value to the military, but of significant public-relations value, have been made public. That’s good.
But there’s still a great deal to worry about as Wikileaks reaches increasing levels of power and prominence in the business of gathering and distributing news. Wikileaks is scary, and not for the simple reason that it publishes state secrets.
Let’s take a minute to appreciate the irony that defines the site: It is an organization committed to radical transparency for others, but that itself operates in near complete obscurity.
Wikileaks is the most powerful and least accountable news organization in history. Its ability to publish well-protected secrets is evident in the work it’s produced already, and we already know that more information waits in the pipeline.
As for accountability, let’s examine what we know about the site’s operating structure. From Raffi Khatchadourian’s June 7 profile of Wikileaks founder and public face Julian Assange: “Key members are known only by initials — M, for instance — even deep within WikiLeaks.” Even Assange himself doesn’t have total control over Wikileaks’ technical operations. A high-level Wikileaks engineer told Khatchadourian that Assange and other Wikileaks members “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.”
As Jay Rosen wrote, Wikileaks is a “stateless news organization.” This makes it all the more difficult for governments and powerful corporations to hold it to account. Although this creates an ideal situation for raising global transparency, it also poses a significant problem. Beyond the unsettling idea that there has been no legal or other force (including the U.S. government) to successfully check Wikileaks, the site is so secretive in its conduct that it’s difficult to know what principles and ethics, if any, it will abide by in the future.
Some of the most telling information on this front is tied up in what we know about Assange, who runs Wikileaks. From Khatchadourian’s New Yorker profile we ascertain that Assange plays a key role in deciding how Wikileaks presents the material it uncovers. He gave final approval for the edit of what would become known as the “Collateral Murder” video of U.S. military members killing Iraqis, published April 5.
Here are some other things we know about Assange, as reported by The New Yorker. Many of them inspire something far short of confidence, given the responsibilities Assange has assigned himself:
• Assange forgets to do normal tasks like buying or confirming airplane tickets or packing before a trip and, when he’s working, can’t always be bothered to change his clothes.
• He is an accomplished if not eminent computer hacker in his own right.
• He has tried selling Wikileaks stories to news outlets.
• He says he has spent two months at a time living in one room without leaving; others say he spends long intervals without sleeping.
• He lived on the run with his mother from age 11 to 16 and has had to fight to keep himself out of jail.
• Even his friends often don’t know where he is.
We’re not psychologists, but this set of data doesn’t exactly scream stability.
From this April 19 New York Times Wikileaks story:
• Assange says Wikileaks’ main duty is “to get maximum political impact — to do justice to our material.”
And per Gawker:
[Assange] invented “WikiLeaks advisory board,” complete with unwitting members. Lefty intellectual Noam Chomsky, security expert Ben Laurie and a former representative of the Dalai Lama, Tashi Namgyal Khamsitsang, all told Mother Jones they gave no permission for use of their names. Assange defended himself by saying the board was “pretty informal.”
We’re not ethicists, but we can’t help wishing we knew more about how Wikileaks weighs its decisions.
With his silver hair and even, accented speech, Assange looks and behaves like a character in a science-fiction novel — part mad scientist, part computer vigilante. The literary figures that spring most immediately to mind are Tyler Durden, Fight Club‘s insomniac terrorist, and V, the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing terrorist-hero of V for Vendetta. Assange even shares V’s favorite line, “Remember, remember the fifth of November.”
In other words, a man whose life story reads like dystopian science fiction has seized control of the distribution of sensitive information. That information governs not just the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also political struggles in Kenya, a credit line for Turks and Caicos, the Church of Scientology, and conceivably just about anything else, period.
Here’s a telling moment from the New Yorker profile on Assange’s editorial discretion (emphasis added).
I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.”
Although Wikileaks says that it has held some 15,000 Afghanistan documents due to a “harm minimization policy demanded by our source,” we haven’t found any written overall policy governing decisions not to publish, and it appears at present that the site relies chiefly on the discretion of its sources when deciding whether to post. Assange himself has said, “There’s never been a case that we are aware of that has resulted in the personal injury of anyone.”
We’ve contacted Wikileaks to get clarification on its publishing policies. In the meantime, perhaps it’s best to bear in mind that Assange is running this organization with an essentially fictional advisory board.
Several of Wikileaks’ detractors have said that the 92,000 documents the site has published don’t have much news value. Meanwhile, The New Republic‘ Andrew Bacevich laments the newfound information-warfare capabilities allotted to “disaffected functionaries.”
Neither of these qualms are as valid or significant as this: Wikileaks operates with near impunity and its apparent chief operator is something of a wild man. Although this formula has not yet yielded demonstrable collateral results (aside from the charges levied against alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning), it’s incredibly easy to imagine that a misstep or miscalculation by Wikileaks could result in disaster. It doesn’t matter whether one views Wikileaks through the parochial lens of the U.S. military or that of the doddering media elite. This organization wields life-and-death power, and appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.