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WikiLeaks: Frustration & Hope

2010 December 8

Julian Assange turned himself in Tuesday, and Gemma Lindfield, for the Swedish authorities, disclosed the allegations.

While there are a number of holes in this case, the largest appears to be that both “victims” bragged about their hookup: Anna Ardin via Twitter, and Sofia Wilén through SMS texts. Ms. Ardin even threw a party at her flat after the act in Assange’s honor, but this was of course before the two of them “‘sought advice’, a technique in Sweden enabling citizens to avoid just punishment for making false complaints.” If that alone doesn’t convince you that the charges are bogus, I suggest reading this article by James D. Catlin, a Melbourne barrister who acted for Julian Assange in London in October.

I suspect both women have ulterior motives, possibly involving outside influence, and the fact that these charges just sprung up again with the onset of the US Embassy Cables release suggests that this may have been more about distraction than anything else, so let’s not stay distracted.

The “with/against” question is a difficult one with WikiLeaks, because there is legitimate moral ambiguity in their releases.

Let’s start on the “with” side: Some are siding with WikiLeaks without reservation. Their position might be due to a combination of sticking it to the man, exposing corruption, and Julian Assange’s position that the media and powerful governments have been slandering WikiLeaks by fabricating allegations that their leaks are putting people’s lives at risk. This position was recently summed up in the article he wrote for The Australian, released Tuesday:

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted in a letter to the US congress that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been compromised by the Afghan war logs disclosure. The Pentagon stated there was no evidence the WikiLeaks reports had led to anyone being harmed in Afghanistan. NATO in Kabul told CNN it couldn’t find a single person who needed protecting. The Australian Department of Defense said the same. No Australian troops or sources have been hurt by anything we have published.

But while what he’s saying is technically true, it’s not the whole truth, and it’s quite misleading:

…Gates said most of the information published related to ‘tactical military operations.’… ‘The initial assessment in no way discounts the risk to national security,’ Gates wrote. ‘However, the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.’

Gates said the documents did contain the names of some Afghans who cooperate with the United States and could potentially face reprisal from the Taliban, but a NATO official told CNN there haven’t been any instances of Afghans needing protection or having to be moved because of the leak.

Gates also said the Pentagon still views the leak as likely to cause significant harm to U.S. national security and said the military is working closely with its allies to mitigate the damage.

Assange chose his words sneakily, and in so doing misconstrued Gates’ letter. The fact of the matter is that the identities of Afghans who provided information to the US Army were among the leaks. Yes, it is fortunate that no harm came of it, but this is not the sort of thing that should be completely ignored as a non-issue by the figurehead of WikiLeaks.

I have also been told by a member of the military that the Afghan War logs release was so extensive that the Taliban could theoretically piece together some patrol routes, especially in areas of relatively low troop activity. There’s no way to know if this has indeed occurred or led to any deaths that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, unless the Taliban start bragging about it, which is far from likely. While this is not exactly a clean-cut document entitled “US Troop Movements in Afghanistan,” it’s still something to think about. Most of the leaks didn’t involve any cover-up or corruption, so the only reasons to leak them are either insufficient man-power or otherwise the desire to have bigger, more impressive numbers of documents released for more media attention (we’ll return to this later).

There was also the embassy cable of sites worldwide that are critical to US Security. 

Sure, this is being blown out of proportion by some media outlets, but the question remains: is this something we really need to know? I don’t think so. And yes, the odds are greater than 0% that one of these sites will become damaged as a result.

In short, since achieving superstar status following “Collateral Murder,” WikiLeaks has made some decisions to release information that can arguably be considered immature and unnecessary at best – placing people’s lives and US security in danger at worst.

Let’s turn to the “against” side: Some say that this information is secret for a reason, and disclosing classified documents is wrong, either because it’s accomplishing nothing other than damaging national security & relations, or because, well, it’s illegal. (I apologize for simplifying the potential reasons for supporting or opposing WikiLeaks. I mean no disrespect, nor do I believe that peoples’ reasons are actually limited to this extremely brief summary of what I’ve observed).

To address this opposition, let’s first rewind to some of WikiLeaks’ recent highlights:

  • Secret order that let US ignore abuse of Iraqi detainees.
  • The case of Khaled El-Masri (a must-read for those unfamiliar).
  • The Madrid Cables
  • The British Government secretly offering assurance that it would “‘Protect US interests’ at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.”
  • “British and American officials colluded in a plan to hoodwink parliament over a proposed ban on cluster bombs” involving “a loophole to manoeuvre around the ban and allow the US to keep the munitions on British territory.”
  • Using our Embassies as a network of spies, targets including the top leadership of the UN.
  • This one was particularly disturbing:

…another horrific taxpayer-funded sex scandal for DynCorp, the private security contractor tasked with training the Afghan police… According to most reports, over 95 percent of [DynCorp’s] $2 billion annual revenue comes from US taxpayers… And in Kunduz province, according to the leaked cable, that money was flowing to drug dealers and pimps. Pimps of children, to be more precise… The Afghanistan cable (dated June 24, 2009) discusses a meeting between Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and US assistant ambassador Joseph Mussomeli. Prime among Atmar’s concerns was a party partially thrown by DynCorp for Afghan police recruits in Kunduz Province… this DynCorp soiree was a bacha bazi (“boy-play”) party, much like the ones uncovered earlier this year by Frontline… bacha bazi is a pre-Islamic Afghan tradition that was banned by the Taliban. Bacha boys are 8-15 years-old. They put on make-up, tie bells to their feet and slip into scanty women’s clothing, and then, to the whine of a harmonium and wailing vocals, they dance seductively to smoky roomfuls of leering older men… After the show is over, their services are auctioned off to the highest bidder, who will sometimes purchase a boy outright. And by services, we mean anal sex: The State Department has called bacha bazi a ‘widespread, culturally accepted form of male rape.’

And I could certainly go on with this list.

If anyone thinks that WikiLeaks acted irresponsibly in releasing those leaks, I suppose we’ll just have to disagree. These are the sorts of secrets that, in my opinion, should be exposed. I don’t care if it damages the US; we deserve it. So, I’ll continue under the assumption that they’re important, extremely valuable releases. But I’ll also continue under the assumption that the irresponsible instances mentioned earlier should not have been released.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think that Julian Assange, while innocent of these silly claims, and while an extremely brave, intelligent man, is nevertheless an attention-whoring tool who is contributing to providing very effective ammunition to those who would see WikiLeaks undone, and a very small part of me would be happy if he disappeared forever after WikiLeaks dumps its forthcoming release on Russia (that probably makes me a terrible person). But I also believe that WikiLeaks is an incredibly powerful entity, on the brink of restructuring governments’ accountability, with the potential to gain virtually unanimous widespread support from the world’s masses.

Under Assange’s reign, WikiLeaks has arguably been immature in releasing massive quantities of documents without filtering them. Yes, it is probably true that they receive a higher volume of leaks than they have time to filter without creating a crippling backlog, but they could simply dump it all on news outlets and drop the journalism bit. Surely major media outlets have more resources and incentive to leak the documents responsibly (of course, they’ll probably continue paying attention to worthless gossipy documents as seen in the first days following the Embassy Cables release, but at least we probably wouldn’t be seeing any serious red flags). If WikiLeaks wants to keep the journalism bit, then they ought to read every single document they leak, and only leak those which they genuinely believe are worth releasing, which is simply not feasible right now, nor will it be for the foreseeable future.

There is also the question of whether an attractive, well-spoken leader who spends a great deal of time campaigning for publicity is still beneficial. As much as I’m frustrated by Mr. Assange, I must admit that he’s done spectacular job of getting WikiLeaks a level of publicity that now allows them to dump information to the world’s leading media outlets with a guarantee that they’ll immediately allocate massive resources to releasing it. That is an incredibly powerful position. But they’ve achieved their super-stardom now, and I suspect these sex crimes shenanigans will not be the last instance of character defamation. Perhaps if WikiLeaks wasn’t more or less synonymous with its figurehead in the public eye, this would become less of a concern.

WikiLeaks has barely scraped the surface. Their last three US-related releases all came from SIPRnet, which roughly 2.5 million US Government employees have access to, and which doesn’t go above the classification of “secret.” If WikiLeaks focused on simply becoming a hub for leaks, leaving the journalism to the world’s most established news agencies, and if Mr. Assange could swallow his pride and steer clear of the limelight from here on out, I believe that WikiLeaks could come to be known as a trustworthy, responsible, sober source for leaks. That just might lead to higher-level leaks, it just might lead to widespread support, and it just might lead to a norm wherein governments are held much more accountable than they are today.

But one thing’s for sure: whether or not WikiLeaks cleans up its act, this phenomenon is not dying. There are plenty of mirror sites for WikiLeaks, and plenty of employees who will trudge on with further releases. If it loses its credibility, the next player will surely come along. And, if some government finds a way to outsmart Tor, the next generation of software for anonymous online communication will sprout up shortly thereafter. If the governments of the world want to keep their privacy, they’d better figure out how to shut down the Internet.

Maybe part of the reason I’m rooting for WikiLeaks is it’s name. Damn that’s catchy.

Colin Lissandrello met many of these hooligans at Bard College. He worked in the solar thermal industry for two years after graduating in ’08, and now works as a freelance editor and writer.