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Friday, Aug. 13, 2010
WikiLeaks makes a splash
Mr. Julian Assange is a child of the Internet age. A former hacker and software programmer, he helped found WikiLeaks in 2006, a Web site that publishes otherwise unavailable documents provided by anonymous sources. It calls itself "an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking." WikiLeaks simply spills the beans, shining light on information governments prefer to keep secret.
In the year after it was founded, WikiLeaks published some 1.2 million documents, establishing itself as a thorn in the side of numerous governments. Among the materials it "liberated" was a report on the corruption of Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, leaked just before the 2007 elections (and unleashing sufficient outrage to allegedly swing the election outcome); operating procedures for the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; technical manuals for the Church of Scientology; former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's private e-mail; e-mail in the controversy surrounding the Climate Research Group at East Anglia University; and documents related to loans by an Icelandic bank just before the collapse of that country's financial sector. Thus WikiLeaks would appear to be an equal opportunity offender.
The organization has caused the most controversy with two recent postings. In April, WikiLeaks revealed "Collateral Murder," a 38-minute video taken from the cockpit of a U.S. Army helicopter that showed U.S. soldiers in a series of attacks in Baghdad nearly three years earlier that resulted in 18 deaths, including two journalists. Last month, the organization posted 92,000 documents related to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, most of them raw field reports. This time, WikiLeaks partnered with three news publications — The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — to try to give the disclosures a relevant context.
The data dump unleashed a torrent of criticism. Complaints range from claims by senior U.S. officials that the documents have not been properly screened and that their release exposes informants, threatens their lives and will keep others from helping the U.S. and its allies, to the argument that allegations of Pakistan intelligence service support for the Taliban exposes rifts in the alliance that will destroy the consensus needed for success in Afghanistan. Others claim that the documents demonstrate that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is a failure and that the Obama administration has been lying to the world about the situation in that country.
There is something to the first charge. The documents were not thoroughly vetted and some informants might have been disclosed. Reports that the Taliban are going through the postings to find informants makes WikiLeaks "morally culpable," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. WikiLeaks is said to be postponing further release of documents until they are properly screened. Mr. Assange counters that "in our four-year publishing history no one has ever come to physical harm that we are aware of or that anyone has alleged." He blames the U.S. military for putting informers at risk by being "lackadaisical with its Afghan sources."
Leaks of allegations that elements in Pakistan give the Taliban secret support could threaten alliance unity if they were news, but they're not. That fact undermines criticism that the leaks show the U.S. government has deceived the world about the real situation in Afghanistan. The documents cover the period from January 2004 to December 2009, and the recent change in U.S. policy is a response to the situation that the documents reveal.
In other words, apart from some ground-level reporting — which could threaten sources — there is little in these leaks that changes what we know about Afghanistan. That explains the immediate official reaction to the leaks, which was that they pose little threat to U.S. national security.
Some compare the document dump to publication of the Pentagon Papers, which documented the duplicity embraced by U.S. administrations during the Vietnam War. The analogy is flawed: There has been no duplicity, just flawed strategy. (Anyone who claims to be deceived by the situation in Afghanistan has not been paying attention.)
The real issue is the shifting balance of power in the struggle between governments and publics over government secrets. Technology, in the form of huge databases, international communications networks and powerful encryption algorithms, has created a new global space that is not subject to government control. Advantage citizens.
But the restoration of power on the side of the people is only effective if publics take notice. Democracy is not a passive exercise. It demands an informed citizenry. That obligation has been too easily shirked in recent years. Governments have exploited that seeming indifference to gather more power, make more decisions for which they are not accountable to the public and, on occasion, resort to illegal activity. WikiLeaks enables a new balance of power and helps make possible a 21st-century democracy — but only if citizens do their part.