Friday, December 3, 2010

The Significance of WikiLeaks

by Richard Crews
Over the past few weeks an organization named WikiLeaks has made public hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. government documents. It has done this by providing them to leading newspapers--The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and others--and by posting them to a public website (

The documents range from field memos of combat units to notes and emails regarding military and diplomatic meetings. They reveal many instances in which "news" put out by the U.S. government was untrue--for example, civilian deaths were under-reported, and misconduct by U.S. troops and friction with allies was unreported or even denied. The documents also contain brutally candid assessments by U.S. diplomats of foreign dignitaries.

The WikiLeaks documents have been an embarrassment to the U.S. government, especially to the State Department (responsible for international diplomacy) and the Department of Defense (responsible for running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). In addition to this embarrassment, numerous government officials have condemned the WikiLeaks process as detrimental to U.S. interests and dangerous for our friends and allies.

What is the true significance of the WikiLeaks from a diplomatic, military, technological, and historical perspective?

From the standpoint of our present international diplomatic relations, the effects are minimal. As one foreign diplomat said to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made dozens of international phone calls to warn about and apologize for the insults that were on the way, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you." The world of international diplomacy is one of mock esteem and thinly disguised self-interest; all participants know the game.

As far as revealing military tactics and policies is concerned, there too the effects are minimal. A military unit's tactics and policies are known as soon as they are enacted. Revealing them in retrospect is not significant. As far as the claim that the leaks endanger the lives of troops or informants, the documents were thoroughly redacted (stripped of personal identifying information) before they were published. In fact, the Pentagon has stated that they do not know of a single instance in which someone was put in danger by the WikiLeaks.

From a technological standpoint, WikiLeaks presents a very interesting challenge to modern electronic communications security. The Web was originally designed to be open--freely and fully accessible to anyone. But as it has expanded and diversified, security in many areas has become a serious issue, for example, the security of personal information, bank account access, or shopping data. The WikiLeaks phenomenon adds to this challenging problem. There are many questions of privacy, range of use, encryption, and decorum yet to be answered.

Most of all--and though last, far from least--the historical significance of the WikiLeaks is, in fact, immense. Not only does it provide historians with a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes information about politics, diplomacy, and war in the 21st century, but it also potentially raises the bar regarding ethics and honesty in communications from the government. A free, democratic people are supposed to be fully and accurately informed of their government's activities. Another round of acute embarrassment like that caused by the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate Scandal--another round of evidence that the government does not, at times, communicate openly and honestly--can only be culturally healthy in the long run.

The WikiLeaks' publication of secret government documents was an important historical event. Julian Assange, the founder and principle administrator of WikiLeaks, is a journalist who has won several international awards for courageous integrity in journalism. He published the documents so that the U.S. government would be called to account for a pattern of widespread deception in its communications to the public. He hoped to further the cause of free speech and civil liberties. He knew that he might be arrested for his actions, and might well spend years--perhaps even the rest of his life--in prison. But he also felt that advancing the impetus toward responsible government was worth the risk and sacrifice.

That is the significance of WikiLeaks.
Update--Dec. 3, 2010

From this morning's RSN (Reader Supported News):

Daniel Ellsberg's Goodbye Letter to Amazon
Daniel Ellsberg, AntiWar.Blog
Daniel Ellsberg says goodbye to Amazon with conviction. Here's just the first paragraph: "I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China's control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing."

WikiLeaks Fights to Stay Online
Charles Arthur and Josh Halliday, Guardian UK
"On Friday morning, WikiLeaks and the cache of secret diplomatic documents that have proved to be a scourge for governments around the world were only accessible through a string of digits known as a DNS address. The site later re-emerged with a Swiss domain,"

Later note: Within a few hours of the government's attempts to suppress the WikiLeaks publication online, the site had been picked up and was being mirrored by several hundred Websites around the world.