A few words about Wikileaks

posted 11 August 2011

By now you have probably heard about Wikileaks (currently unavailable via its main domain, apparently due to political pressure, but still available at wikileaks.de, wikileaks.fi, and wikileaks.nl).

Wikileaks is a tough case to take a position on. On the one hand, Julian Assange (it is hard to separate the website from the man, though he obviously has a lot of people assisting him) is clearly a bit of a tinfoil-hat guy, and also a shameless self-promoter (though I do not for one second believe he is a rapist, and since the women involved have both withdrawn their allegations, nor apparently do they*). His claims as to the volume of documents they possess, as well as who does and does not support him, are murky. He is an attention-seeking ideologue.

But on the other hand, Wikileaks has done some things I find it hard to condemn. The Afghanistan war diaries were a worthwhile effort. While not nearly as damning as the hype would have you believe, they genuinely shed light of the hopelessness and frustrations of the effort there that had not been reported, despite continuous media coverage of the war from the starts. It was not a clean win: they contained some recent operational information that was probably a genuine security risk. But the more recent information was responsibly held back until the operational risks lessened. It was not a reckless move.

The US diplomatic cables, over which the most recent fuss is about, are similarly a pretty admirable move. Diplomacy to some degree requires confidentiality, and it's a genuine concern if this move leads to less inter-diplomatic communication, or an abandonment of electronic communication. However an overriding priority is the value to the public of this information. The official position of other Arab states on Iran, mafia connections in Russia, secret nuclear weapons in Europe, the state of the drug war in Mexico, China distancing itself from North Korea, and a hundred other instances of countries giving their true assessments of each other: these are real, important, urgent issues where the "public's right to know" is not merely a get-out clause for a tabloid headline.

Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, Wikileaks' and Assange's handling of the release has been remarkably circumspect. The full volume of the cables is only being very slowly released to the general public; only five news organizations (the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais) have been given full access to the complete dataset. It's telling that these long-standing respect news organizations are not sitting on the data either: they are publishing fast and furious, with fresh revelations every day. Why is it admirable and responsible when they do it, but reckless and damaging when Wikileaks does?

On top of this, the US government's response to these leaks has been heavy-handed and ridiculous. The government of a country that prides itself on freedom of speech is running character assassination on Mr. Assange, and American corporations which have benefited greatly from the open nature of US culture and business are folding left and right under political pressure to shut down Wikileaks access to hosting, DNS, and other services. It is shameful and embarrassing that the country most self-righteous about freedom of the press should be trying so hard to suppress information which is not damaging so much as embarrassing. The US government should not have immunity from scrutiny, even when it is deeply embarrassing.

So I cheer for Wikileaks, but quietly, because I fear that doing so will put me on some sort of list. And that fear, the fact that that fear is justified, should be the most embarrassing part of this whole affair to the US government. The damage down to the US government's reputation and respect by its response to these cables is far greater than the damage done by the cables themselves.


If you want to know more about Wikileaks, their Wikipedia entry is informative and, I'm pleased to see, remains up to date with its current domain name as it shifts around. Their Twitter feed also has the latest.


* I posted this hastily, and failed to note that the article in question is 4 months old. The charges have since been re-applied and there is a European arrest warrant out for Assange. I in no way wish to belittle the claims of rape victims or imply that I do not think he should be questioned and, if there is evidence, a trial should be had. However, I think the timing and political pressure involved is overwhelmingly suspicious.