|By Roger Strukhoff||
|December 8, 2010 12:00 PM EST||
Julian Assange: was this the face that launched a thousand probes? Apparently so, as the Australian's threatened release of hundreds of thousands of documents (about 15,000 of them marked "secret") from within the United States government regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has made him some very powerful enemies and sparked a global debate on government transparency and journalistic responsibility.
As many others, including my colleague Jeremy Geelan, have reported, the Assange/WikiLeaks leaks raise very serious questions about governance and security within the US federal IT infrastructure. The US government simply must answer, and answer soon, if one low-level soldier really did have access to all this information; if so, why; and in any case, what will be done to tighten things up about two dozen notches.
Newly Found Power
This case also reveals the power of the Web, and the power of Cloud Computing. The WikiLeaks site can continue to be relocated almost anywhere in the world. This may be inconvenient to Mr. Assange, but who said taking on powerful governments was ever convenient?
Surely, even if WikiLeaks wears out its welcome in the Western world, there will be somebody, somewhere willing to host the site and deliver its information from the clouds to the desktops, notebooks, and smartphones of the world.
Also most assuredly, Mr. Assange's antics will encourage others to leak and reveal previously hidden communications on a scale unimagined a generation ago.
But should it? Are we really launching into a new era of heroic whistle-blowers, unprecedented revelation, and therefore, governmental transparency?
Start with the fact that the leaks have, so far, revealed nothing earthshaking. That diplomats obscure the truth in their public statements, that even close allies snoop on each other, and that perceived societal pressures cause country leaders to, uh, lie now and then are well-understood realities.
One little subtext also involves the rather indiscriminate use of secrecy classifications for many government documents. It reminds me of grade inflation or clothing sizes. Yesterday's 3.5 GPA is today 4.2, that women's size 4 is more like an 8, and you can fit into those 36-inch pants because they're really 38.5 inches around. Confidential often isn't really anymore, and numerous investigations have noted that the use of Top Secret is often inappropriate, sometimes comically so. The inconsistencies and labyrinthian nature of the US government's classification and compartmentalization programs are numerous and profound.
Computance and Skil
But to me, the big, overriding issue here is one of competence, or rather, a lack of such by Mr. Assange. His quest is admittedly driven by ideology, and he has brought the wrath of governments upon his shoulders in unskillful, inept fashion. Although his WikiLeaks releases have been compared to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate revelations, there are critical differences that beg to be outlined.
The first difference is that Neil Sheehan of the New York Times (with the Pentagon Papers), then a few years later, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post (with Watergate) were journalists first and foremost. They were skilled in their craft, careful with their source material, and committed only to weaving together stories of substance based on what their training and skill told them was important.
In the Pentagon Papers case, the whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsburg, was privy to policies and documents that outlined a long-term, massive web of lies by the Lyndon Johnson administration regarding the Vietnam War. The Times coverage, and later coverage by the Washington Post, focused on specific aspects of the papers that revealed the government deception that led to untold deaths of American soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers and citizens.
The Times was also provided some cover by the reading of many of the documents into the public record by a United States senator who also felt there was a compelling story to be told. These revelations were a bit more serious than whether Angela Merkel is cautious (you don't say?) or Vlad Putin is bossy.
Watergate was an equally serious story, one in which an infamous "third-rate burglary" turned into a massive cover-up headed by President Richard Nixon and which eventually led to a near-constitutional crisis and finally, to Nixon's resignation.
Although both of these famous cases eventually led to the release of voluminous information for reporters and historians to pick through for the next few hundred years, in neither case was the source material itself the entire story.
A Filterless Environment
But with WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange placed himself in the simultaneous position of whistleblower and publisher. Although he has apparently sent the documents he's leaked so far to several leading news organizations, it seems he's holding onto the possibility of having no filter between what he has been given and what he will release. In that case, he would exercise no editorial judgment in the matter. This may be seen as the point of the whole exercise; after all, we're entering our second decade of the decline of mainstream media and the rise of citizen journalism.
To me, this is the huge flaw in Mr. Assange's approach. Citizen journalism is no better than the citizens who report it. It is just another function of Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" dictum, in which there are precious few arbiters of taste or talent in deciding who or what is of consequence. So, during the present era, we've migrated from Marilyn Monroe to Kim Kardashian, from Robert Culp and Bill Cosby to Snooki and The Situation, from Tammy Wynette to Miley Cyrus, and from Sheehan and Woodward and Bernstein to Julian Assange.
There are certainly any number of very strong, even marvelous writers out there, reporting with craft and passion on politics, business, music, film, sports, etc. And there are certainly any number of mainstream media companies pounding out dreck--from Yahoo's groundbreaking coverage of topics such as "pitfalls of watching shopping channels" to the San Francisco Chronicle's "reports" on high-end real estate, to the present-day Washington Post's obsession with "narrative" and "arc" rather than, you know, reporting.
All of this, the good and the less good, have been driven by the insatiable appetite of the Web for more information every second of every day. What Mr. Assange has done is a manifestation of this.
Let Me Ask You This...
But I would ask the civil libertarians in the crowd--the folks who are heaping unadorned praise on Mr. Assange and unvarnished scorn on the US government and its allies--has WikiLeaks really accomplished anything positive? Are governments going to be more likely or less likely to be transparent? Setting aside the strident rantings of the Joe Liebermans of the world, has there been damage done?
Would you enjoy it if every email you have sent out for the past five years was suddenly subject to public scrutiny? Even if you've committed no crime and are the world's most loyal and productive worker bee, have you ever passed along a dirty joke or a nice boob shot? Do you think you might be unfairly judged if you have and this information was suddenly in public circulation?
The leaker Daniel Ellsburg was prosecuted in the wake of the Pentagon Papers crisis. As is known to happen, the prosecutors overshot their mark, did some bungling, and he was not convicted of anything. The Nixon administration further rattled its saber at the media during the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate episodes. Nothing came of it. The First Amendment ruled, as it should today.
Again, these two cases revealed true government malfeasance, the kind that brings entire administrations down. The WikiLeaks case has done no such thing. If Mr. Assange were to have combed through the materials he received, found a great story that simply must be brought to light, then reported on it, he would be on much steadier ground today.
As things stand, Reporters Without Borders is among the organizations that are critical of his approach. Even if he has not yet endangered national security (and I think most people doubt he has), his approach does have the potential to endanger the lives of many people doing deadly work. To argue that all war-related information should be available to everyone is very naive. To be deadset against war is honorable, and to uncover its abuses honorable.
But it seems that Mr. Assange's actions are neither. Although his site says it is committed to keeping governments open, his actions will no doubt lead to further government attempts to control the Internet and Web, yet add no value to body politic. We should never underestimate the inherent potential of fascism within any society. There had already been a lot of hot-and-heavy talk of an "Internet kill switch" in the US (by the egregious Sen. Lieberman, among others). Skillful, useful reporting will not hand any victories to those in favor of such mad ideas; unskilled, random leakage of any and all things will.
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