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.”