WikiLeaks follows the basic idea of the admirable Pentagon Papers model of releasing official internal documents to the public, and thus undermining the corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism. But the internet has enabled WikiLeaks to add two important new wrinkles.
The first is that they do not need to find a news organization to agree to publish their material. They can put it on their own servers for the world to see.
The other new and extremely important wrinkle with WikiLeaks is that it is a loosely linked transnational organization made up of volunteers the world over that is not tied to any national interest and thus has much greater freedom to operate. The major media in any country is under pressure to show loyalty to their country, which means being subservient to their governments. WikiLeaks does not have any such constraints.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has dismissed the idea that he has an obligation to protect the interests of the US or any other state. He makes no secret of his own antiwar motivations, saying he “loved crushing bastards” and likes “stopping people who have created victims from creating any more.”
“It is not our role to play sides for states. States have national security concerns, we do not have national security concerns,” he said.
“You often hear … that something may be a threat to U.S. national security,” he went on.
“This must be shot down whenever this statement is made. A threat to U.S. national security? Is anyone serious? The security of the entire nation of the United States? It is ridiculous!”
He said he wasn’t interested in the safety of states, only the safety of individual human beings.
“If we are talking a threat to individual soldiers … or citizens of the United States, then that is potentially a genuine concern,” he said.
He also scorns the mainstream media for pulling their punches, giving the government advance warning of what they intend to publish and withholding important information if the government requests them to do so. Can anyone doubt that the reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have managed to continue for so long at such a great cost in terms of lives and money without public outrage is because the coverage has been sanitized?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has an excellent piece, with good links to source materials and analyses, on the first release by WikiLeaks of the documents on the war in Afghanistan. He points out that we are witnessing a major shift in news with the arrival of big name ‘stateless’ news organizations like WikiLeaks that are not beholden to any government and hence cannot be pressured or feel the need to self-censor in order to stay in the government’s good graces. He adds that WikiLeaks has a shrewd understanding of how news is valued and used that knowledge to give three newspapers in three different countries exclusive looks at the documents three weeks in advance so that they could study them and prepare stories that were embargoed until Monday. This was done to ensure maximum exposure.
WikiLeaks definitely knows how to get publicity. It gives out what are effectively trailers for forthcoming releases, thus whetting the appetite of the public and the media. It has promised the release ‘soon’, any day now, of even more explosive documents and this is undoubtedly causing some concern to the government about what those documents contain.
In trying to combat WikiLeaks, the Obama administration has been trying to maintain two contradictory positions. On the one hand, it claims that there is nothing new in the dossier and that ‘everyone’ (by which they mean ‘everyone who matters’, i.e., the Villagers) already knew it. On the other hand, it claims that WikiLeaks is threatening national security, and is using that charge to whip up public opposition to the organization and seeking to shut it down.
Daniel Ellsberg has for a long time been appealing to government employees to become whistle blowers and leakers. His own personal regret is that he waited too long to do what he did, and that if he had acted earlier, he might have saved a lot of lives. (I am looking forward to seeing the highly praised documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers which has been nominated for a 2010 Academy Award.) Just recently he listed four documents that he would like to see leaked.
In the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern writes a poignant personal account of how he, in the course of his normal duties, came into possession of secret cables that directly contradicted official US government statements on the strength of the Vietnamese forces. Revealing that secret might have shortened the Vietnam war and saved lives but he kept it secret out of a combination of concern for his career and a misplaced sense of loyalty to the government. He now deeply regrets his inaction and wonders if the equivalent of WikiLeaks had been around then, whether he and other professionals who were sick of hearing their government lying might have been more willing to release documents that told the truth.
The idea of obtaining and revealing official documents so that anyone has access to the raw data and engage in informed analysis is a radical break from current practice where the truth is closely guarded, only selected people are allowed to see and analyze raw information, and we are told to simply trust the analyses put out by the inner circle of establishment journalists who are given access to filtered information in return for favorable coverage. The WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Diary provides a rich trove of raw information for honest and independent analysts, the kind of people who would normally be shut out, and many have seized the opportunity. Phillipe Sands has a good analysis on what the revelations say about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Eric Margolis, who has been trying to expose the lies and propaganda concerning the Afghanistan was since 2001 says that the dossier reveals the alleged duplicitous role that Pakistan is being blasted for in the US is merely the result of acting in its own self-interest. Surely this is information that the public has a right to know?
Next: The effort to counter WikiLeaks
POST SCRIPT: Mitchell and Webb on the greatest invention yet