A lot of people have asked me in the last few days what I think about Wikileaks and the ongoing conflagrations over their most recent release of thousands of previously secret US diplomatic communications. I’ve worn myself out yakking on about it, as it’s something on which I do indeed have a view, so I thought it might be best if I scribbled something down towards which I could point future questioners and save myself some oxygen.
The last few weeks have been an interesting time because until recently I sided firmly with Wikileaks specifically and the hacktivist/information-wants-to-be-free movement in general. But I’m getting better at not stubbornly following prior allegiances these days, and given that extra shot of objectivity I can say with reasonable confidence that this time, in my mind, Wikileaks have sadly overstepped the mark.
A lot of people have become aware of Wikileaks’ existence only recently, as a result of this most recent batch of releases. This is unfortunate, because often these people are unaware of previous releases Wikileaks has made, which have been of a somewhat different stripe to the diplomatic cables released during the last few weeks. They have most significantly included video material showing the sanctioned killing of journalists and civilians in Iraq, and most recently the Iraq War Logs — thousands of classified reports of US military activity in that country. These disclosures highlighted widespread abuses and controversy that had up to that point been suppressed from the public.
The distinction here, then, is the concept of public interest. This is the metric by which the ethics of the actions of a leaker or whistleblower are judged, and in the cases I’ve just mentioned you would — I’d hope — struggle to justify keeping that material secret. These are acts carried out by forces funded by the public and administered by leaders that we elected, so they owe us a degree of transparency and accountability. They work for us and in our name, so if they’re carrying out illegal or immoral acts, we deserve to know. We have a right to know.
When it comes to the recent release of diplomatic cables, however, I don’t believe this defence applies. I haven’t read all the material that’s been released; I’ve only garnered tidbits from the media. My understanding, however, is that the material being released is certainly acutely embarrassing and provocative, but not revealing of any abuses, cover-ups or transgressions of any similarity at all to those detailed in, for example, the Iraq War Logs. In releasing these cables, Wikileaks have engendered a lot of red faces, but for entirely different reasons to the Iraq War Logs. The content of these cables does not, for me, seem a valid justification for their release.
Worse, in releasing the cables Wikileaks has, I fear, caused a lot more trouble than they could possibly be worth, and here’s why: without the public interest defence, Wikileaks has lost a massive chunk of the moral high ground on which it previously stood in the minds of many. And in angering and embarrassing the US and international governments as they have, they stand to greatly harm the prospects for anyone wanting to blow the whistle on immoral or illegal activity in the future.
Here’s the thing: while I don’t now look particularly favourably on Wikileaks, it’s my belief that it’s essential that whistleblowers have an outlet in the society in which we live. That outlet used to be newspapers; now it might be Wikileaks; in five years it’ll probably be a different group. But the capability of someone to release information without fear for their own safety — be it abuse of detainees or falsified clinical trials or asbestos in council housing or whatever — is absolutely vital. Without it, all these things go unchecked and those doing the wrongs are never brought to account. Previously, however, those publishing the leaks were themselves held to account and so exercised a degree of discretion over what they published. Wikileaks, it appears, have abandoned discretion and lost a lot of credibility in the process. An organisation that previously garnered a lot of respect now ends up looking at best like the perpetrators of an awful misjudgement and at worst, a bit childish.
My fear is that Wikileaks has now set in motion a revenge machine that will not stop until all these voices are silenced. The pursuit of Julian Assange is largely an irrelevant sidebit in this story — he’s just one face of the organisation, after all — but most people have already forgotten the plight of Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of being the source of much of Wikileaks’ recent material. He’ll likely be sent down for some time, and the stage will be set for any future whistleblower with the message that harsh penalties (criminal or otherwise) await those who want to follow their consciences. What happens to Manning will prove more significant than Assange, but will likely be lost in the media circus. And sadly the US is likely to further reveal its true colours in the measures they take to silence Assange and convict Manning — some already underway and already of great concern — and these will be the dire portents on which future leakers will look.
It’s possible that Manning was coerced, financially or otherwise, but I certainly don’t know and I suspect few do, despite what they may claim. But however they got this latest information, the point is that in ‘freeing’ it as they have Wikileaks may well have greatly damaged the prospects of responsible disclosure happening in the future, and it’s a great shame that the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was a package of watery diplomatic grumblings instead of valuable exposés of evil and outrage at the hands of our governments and militaries.