WikiLeaks has been proving a constant source of controversy these last few months. The whistle-blowing website is poised to release 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war.
The new release has governments the world over (especially the American government) denouncing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks enterprise has recently seen the defection of many of its higher profile comrades stating reasons of disillusionment with their founder and boss.
The defectors portray their enigmatic leader as a man of erratic and imperious behaviour and nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by any awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in blood. 12 weeks ago when WikiLeaks went live with secret Afghan documents, Julian Assange decided without consultation to release them with the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.
I believe there is a man, formerly of the American military, facing a 52-year prison term for passing the documents to Mr Assange. Not to mention the Taliban have admitted to using the information posted on the WikiLeaks website to track down their “most-wanted list”.
Indeed organisations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Boarders have joined the bandwagon of criticism, saying Mr Assange is risking people’s lives by publishing such documents.
Mr Assange himself (in the New York Times article linked above at least) seems to view these as collateral damage necessary for the greater good of bringing these documents into the public domain.
Now I’m all about transparency, but I think Mr Assange has a rather warped concept of a balance of harms. It is ridiculous to sacrifice a bunch of people, who moreover seem to aspire to Mr Assange’s notion of openness, for essentially nothing. The release of the Afghan papers was a story for that week but has since been forgotten by the general public.
The release was more beneficial to the Taliban than any abstract idea of transparency.
WikiLeaks has gone some way towards redefining whistle blowing. Gathering secrets in bulk, hiding them, and then publishing those secrets instantly and globally.
I have discussed citizen journalism in a previous post, but I actually do not feel it correct to classify WikiLeaks as citizen journalism. There is no thought, no critical observations or interpretation; just a mass of documents that frankly no ‘average Joe’ is going to sift through himself.
When The New York Times released the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, the newspaper did not just throw 1000 pages of a secret study of the Vietnam War at its readers. They provided analysis and a map for their readers to follow the reasons why the information contained within the 1000 pages were important and what was being said.
Further, while I’m sure it is not a universal law, newspapers do go someway towards protecting their sources, for instance, by not revealing who they are.
Mr Assange has no doubt done some good with his website. For example the release of a video showing American Apache helicopters shooting 12 people including 2 Reuters journalists in 2007 Baghdad.
But, in its current state, I do not think WikiLeaks is a force of good or indeed of benefit to anyone except people who wish to use the information to harm others. Oh, and I suppose such splashes like the release of the forthcoming 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war certainly bolster Mr Assange’s profile.