Perhaps the biggest revelation to come out of the Wikileaks story doesn’t emanate from leaked documents themselves but from the Obama administration’s reaction to the leaks—a reaction that bares a disdain for democracy and a free press naked for the world to see. The “leaked cables” have become a sidebar to this larger, frightening story. In essence, they’ve proved to be bait, reeling in a government culture determined to take the constitutional violations of the Cheney Bush White House to the next level.
The story centers around Wikileaks, an organization whose identity has been so obfuscated by name-calling propagated by a global officialdom that few folks have any idea what it is. Going by the conventional wisdom, they’re “terrorists,” though not apparently associated with any terror plot. They’re “treasonous,” meaning they’ve betrayed their country, while not seemingly associated with any particular country. They’ve engaged in a “criminal conspiracy,” so devious as to not yet be illegal.
Journalism in the raw
Put simply, Wikileaks is a journalistic organization. They serve as a clearinghouse for whistleblowers from public and private organizations around the world to leak documents into the public domain. Unlike more traditional news organizations, however, Wikileaks collects, categorizes, and releases raw data, unprocessed by spin. By skipping the value-laden contextualization we commonly associate with, and recognize as, journalism, Wikileaks is as close as it gets to being an unbiased source of news—with their only biases coming in the form of what they chose to release.
Bulk releases of raw data, in the form of government documents, interview audio, video footage, or whatever, is a distinguishing component of our new, technologically converged news environment. The internet, through its cloud storage and fat delivery bandwidth, has made it possible to augment news stories with what amounts to “reams” of data. If a reporter interviews a source for a half hour, gleaning two lines of quotations, she can augment her reportage by posting the full half-hour interview. This additional data serves to keep the reporter honest, and to provide invaluable data to academic researchers and other reporters.
Likewise, when a news story cites documents, as in digesting a 300-page report or a 55-page piece of legislation into a 400-word description, the news organization can now augment their reportage by posting the original document, for the select few who might be interested in examining it. Wikileaks, as a news organization, has taken this concept one step further, by usually posting only the large cache of data, while skipping the writing of a story. The Wikileaks editorial staff primarily works in the area of source verification and document authentication—something they are apparently quite good at, seeing as how no one is questioning the validity of their material.
Pissing off everyone
Wikileaks isn’t particularly about government documents. It’s about raw data. Their sourcing and verification of raw data has earned them awards for investigative reporting—a reporting that often leaves its analysis to readers or other reporters. Much of what they’ve reported since their 2007 launch has focused on corporate crime. For example, they’ve taken on the private entity that collects highway tolls in Germany and that country’s private health insurance providers. They’ve exposed labor problems at a private, for-profit education corporation in the US. They’ve exposed illegal, immoral, or reckless dealings by banks in Britain, Switzerland, Iceland, the Cayman Islands, and the US. They’ve exposed illegal toxic dumping, suppressed details on a leaky Japanese nuclear reactor, and the so-called “climate-gate” emails that were embraced by Republican climate-change deniers.
Wikileaks has also exposed government corruption in Kenya, East Timor, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, to name a few examples. They laid bare the nuts and bolts of Internet censorship in China and Thailand. They released documents investigating alleged corruption in Shriners hospitals, and the failure of Catholic hospitals to follow that religion’s conservative ethics codes. Wikileaks documented press censorship attempts in Bermuda, and government surveillance of journalists in Germany. They released documents looking at the role officers associated with the former East German secret police play in unified Germany, and examining the activities of Islamic courts in Somalia. In short, the Wikileaks staff does what journalists are supposed to do—piss off powerful people. Only they do it on a global scale, irrespective of political agendas.
The latest batches of Wikileaks expose the backstory on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as the machinations of the Clinton State Department. These documents, like those Wikileaks has previously released exposing governments and corporations around the world, come from—your call—“whistleblowers” or “traitors.” As journalists have done since the beginning of a free press, the Wikileaks staff took data given to them by sources, and put it into the public domain, turning it into “news.” This is what journalism, when done well, is. This is why an independent press is universally regarded as a “Fourth Estate,” charged with the responsibility of keeping the rest of government and society honest.
The current batch of documents has put Wikileaks in the news, and incited an extralegal US government effort to censor, silence, bankrupt, and otherwise harass the organization and its staff. The reason is that the breadth and scope of this release, encompassing as many as three quarters of a million documents, is unprecedented—as is the embarrassment it is causing for the US government and a select group of government officials. While such officials with things to hide have historically been hostile to a free press, this new depth of hostility, with elected officials making felonious threats against Wikileaks editors, reflects both the scope of the release, and the unprecedented access the internet allows to it.
The Wikileaks editors showed restraint so far with the information they’ve released, redacting it as they release it to remove names of operatives and informants, as well as personal information. Such responsible handling of information that could otherwise lead to people getting hurt or killed is expected of journalists, who have the professional responsibility to balance their obligation to get the story out with an appropriate amount of caution in doing so. Given their small staff and the enormity of the task at hand—reading and redacting 250,000 documents of varying lengths—the US government should allow the group some peace to properly undertake this task, rather than trying to destroy the only organization that has the power to edit these releases.
I’m more conservative than the Wikileaks editors in that I’d like to have seen them weigh privacy rights a bit heavier in their release equation. Human decision-making, like sausage-making, isn’t always a pretty process, as the diplomatic cables demonstrate. The process of weighing options and reaching sometimes difficult conclusions requires candor, as does the nasty work of cutting sometimes onerous political deals. Diplomacy is a cloak-and-dagger operation. That’s why it’s important to keep confidential information confidential—which, in this case, the government failed to do. There was no espionage here—this data was leaked.
The vast majority of the information Wikileaks shared with the world, however, was misclassified as secret. This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one seems to notice. Many of these documents should have been releasable into the public domain in compliance with the federal Freedom of Information Act, but, because of misclassification, were not. “Secret” classifications are supposed to be used for data whose release would cause “grave damage” to national security—not for documents whose release would cause grave embarrassment to individuals in the government, as appears to be the case here. Misclassifying documents, in order to keep them out of the public domain, is a form of censorship. Yet no one is talking about this scandal.
The 1,200-pound gorilla in the room is the conspiracy by various financial corporations to cripple the news organization by freezing its accounts, as one bank did, or withholding contractual services, as Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Amazon.com, and a host of Internet routing companies and service providers have done. So far, no one has charged any officials from Wikileaks with any criminal activity, yet these corporations, who most of us rely on to process our daily financial transactions or route our Internet signals, used extrajudicial means in an attempt to cripple Wikileaks. If they get away with this, what media organization or political party will they target next? Let me put this into perspective: You can use your Visa or MasterCard, according to the London Guardian, to donate to the KKK, but you can’t use them to donate to Wikileaks.
These actions to silence Wikileaks have also exposed the fallacy of the Internet. Yes, the Internet can be censored. It can be turned on and off like a spigot. Right now there is some breathing space for a cyberwar, but make no mistakes about who owns this toy. As we watch the Wikileaks site get shut down over and over, we really need to revisit whether or not it was such a good idea to migrate almost the entire global alternative media into this closing net.
The espionage of truthtelling
And there’s another 1,200-pound Gorilla, it turns out. Lost in the hullabaloo over Wikitreason is any outrage in the fact that the leaked documents evidence a disturbing pattern of government officials knowingly and purposefully lying to the American people and press about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. With no one in the government denying the authenticity of the Wikileaks documents, this should be the front-page story. This is also a major reason why government officials around the world risk their careers and sometimes their lives to leak such documents—because a democratic society cannot function with a culture of official lies. Instead of expressing outrage at the liars, however, our response instead has been to shoot the messenger.
It gets worse. Our 1,200-pound gorillas seem to be mating, and still nobody notices. And this is the most terrifying chapter to this unfolding story—the attempted criminalization of dissent. Despite the fact that their former secrets are now globetrotting in the public domain, the feds are trying, ex post facto, to reel these millions of propagating paragraphs in. Toward this end, they’re reiterating that what you see on the web and read cited in newspapers are still “secrets,” albeit the worst kept secrets in history. Hence, they are telling government employees not to read these embarrassing stories, and if they have, to have their computers scrubbed, at taxpayer expense, of the offending digits. This seems like silliness, to try to make US government employees the only people on earth without access to these government documents. But don’t simply dismiss this part of the story as a “News of the Weird” candidate. Many Americans are now intimidated and afraid to access websites, and a new social reality forces us to question the very notions of free speech and democracy.
More frightening is the news that the Obama administration is dusting off the notorious Espionage Act of 1917, the World War I vintage statute that criminalized antiwar speech and other forms of dissent, to use against the Wikileaks staff. Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was jailed under this law for making a speech urging young men not to join the military. Poet E. E. Cummings was arrested, while serving in World War I, for stating that he did not hate Germans. Most references to this draconian law cite it in the past tense, as if it had been repealed instead of just forgotten along with thousands of obsolete ordinances. But it still exists. The Nixon administration unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the now famous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Ellsberg went on to become a hero while Nixon’s life ended in shame—something President Obama might want to note.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.