WikiLeaks’ 16th minute
By Jack Shafer
This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine, a special edition publication ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In late October, a deflated Julian Assange called a press conference in London to announce he may have to mothball WikiLeaks. The reason, he said, was money. Visa, MasterCard, Western Union and Paypal were preventing supporters from donating to the organization, Assange explained. He warned that unless the bankers’ blockade was lifted at once, the cash-strapped organization would soon die.
By then, however, the biggest problem WikiLeaks faced wasn’t financial. After all, the group had always operated on a shoestring, its leader famously sleeping somewhere other than at home or in a hotel most nights. The main concern was productivity: WikiLeaks and Assange, its 40-year-old provocateur, were out of scoops.
And oh, what a string of scoops it had run off in the previous 18 months. WikiLeaks’ 2010 posting of a classified video showing civilian casualties during an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, which Assange titled “Collateral Murder,” drew debate and viewers around the world. Then came its distribution of classified documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Guantánamo Bay prison camp files, and the classified U.S. State Department diplomatic cables to the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and other news outlets.
But after the diplomatic cable stories petered out in September, so too did WikiLeaks. Its slide into irrelevance after months of dominating the headlines should have been enough to humble even Assange. His five-year-old supranational group, with its hardened computer infrastructure and sophisticated encryption algorithms, was supposedly immune to government crackdowns and corporate retaliation. But instead of flourishing, as Assange had predicted, WikiLeaks all but vaporized in its 16th minute of fame: Its auteur was shackled with a security bracelet, fighting extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question him regarding charges of sexual assault; WikiLeaks members and allies, alienated by the dictatorial Assange, had abandoned him; and leakers were no longer making their substantial deposits in WikiLeaks computers.
You can date the beginning of this decline to mid-2010, when Assange’s alleged supersource, U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning — suspected of having leaked the Afghanistan, Iraq, Gitmo, and diplomatic cable files — was jailed. Assange was still boasting to Forbes in November 2010 that WikiLeaks was receiving so many leaks that it had to turn off the submission form on its site and that “about 50 percent” of the documents in its hoard were from the private sector (banking, oil, pharmaceuticals). But despite those boasts, he never delivered those corporate exposés. The Manning trove was his last big data dump, a reminder that journalists are only as good as their sources. Last year, after teasing 60 Minutes about explosive documents he hinted could take down a bank (Bank of America?), he reportedly backpedaled in private. Was he overselling his material, or was he holding back the bank documents for maximum impact later? Only Julian Assange, international man of mystery, knew for sure.
The WikiLeaks fade-out demonstrates the advantage established news institutions have over wildcatters like Assange. He may have found the oil, but he had no way of making it useful to the masses. The established press — love them or hate them — had the means to quickly figure out what the Manning files meant and the skill to present them in readable form, something Assange appears to be incapable of doing. The pressies also had lawyers who knew how to beat back the legal threats of governments, namely the United States, that did not want the files published. Of course, Assange mocked attempts by the Times and the Guardian to discuss the leaks with the governments involved prior to publication as selling out. In a new documentary, “True Stories: WikiLeaks,” Assange snarls that the mainstream media “cannot be trusted” because they are “part of the social network of the elite.” Even if he’s right, that elite is not a static entity with a single set of interests. That governments around the globe recoiled at the Times and Guardian stories based on WikiLeaks material puts the lie to Assange’s sweeping condemnation.
I mean no disrespect to Assange by calling him a wildcatter — or by calling him a journalist! (If digging up state secrets and revealing them to the public isn’t an act of journalism, what is?) The wildcatter label captures the entrepreneurial qualities he brought to his work. Charlie Beckett, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, notes that Assange drew on his skills as a programmer and hacker to spot “a new business model and a novel kind of platform.” As Beckett points out, there are plenty of programmers and hackers out there, so “what made WikiLeaks work was Assange’s ideological drive and his all-consuming desire to use digital communications as a political weapon.”
Although it’s difficult to think of Assange without imagining gigabytes of classified data coursing around the Web, this cybercentric view denies him his proper status in the pantheon of secrecy hackers. He has never been a leaker; instead, he positioned himself as a broker of leaks. At first, he believed WikiLeaks could be a passive platform, dispersing anonymous leaks to an interested world. Assange had moderate success early on interesting journalists in his files — mainstream outlets generated numerous stories from WikiLeaks documents that outraged governments (the Chinese and the British), religions (Scientologists and Mormons), banks, and other power centers. But it wasn’t until Assange started working with the mainstream media on the Afghanistan and Iraq files — aping the traditional source-journalist relationship — that he started maximizing the “yield” from his files.
Assange’s current intimacy with editors and reporters places him closer to the tradition of the all-star leakers of the 1970s — Daniel Ellsberg (the Pentagon Papers), Philip Agee (outing CIA officers), Navy Yeoman Charles Radford (the Indo-Pakistan conflict) — who teamed with journalists or publishers to get their secrets out. Like them, Assange was (and is) on a suicide mission to destabilize the system.
But unlike Assange, the aforementioned focused their outrage on a single issue: Ellsberg exposed the lies at the heart of the United States’ Vietnam policy; Agee, a born-again Marxist, opposed what he considered to be U.S. imperialism; Radford (who served his Mormon mission in India) objected to the Nixon administration’s favoritism toward Pakistan. These lone wolves understood they had booked one-way trips — that having unloaded their stash of secrets, their next stops were jail, exile or obscurity.
Assange’s self-defined role as go-between rather than leaker, and his ambition to build a perpetual secret-exposing machine, further differentiates him from the all-stars. Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, says: “The WikiLeaks disclosures were presented — above all — as a challenge to official secrecy rather than as a focused revelation of any particular scandal or misdeed or an effort to redirect U.S. foreign policy.”
Despite his many troubles, Assange is still swinging. In December, he gave the Washington Post sales brochures from which the paper fashioned a page-one story about the worldwide market for invasive surveillance technology. (Not exactly groundbreaking, but worthy enough.)
Whatever WikiLeaks’ current status, it’s fair to ask what it has accomplished. Can we identify any significant changes in politics or policy prompted by its revelations? (To be fair, that’s a tough question to ask of any news organization.) Its most tangible accomplishment must be that it has given the world a better look at how the United States prosecutes its wars and conducts its diplomacy. “The releases included quite a few records of enduring interest, but many others of only passing curiosity, and perhaps a majority that are of no particular significance at all,” says Aftergood. “We probably need more time and perspective to reach a final judgment on WikiLeaks’ lasting impact … The Pentagon Papers were a phenomenon, but what was their impact, really? Did anyone actually read them? Or did their significance arise from the over-reaction of the Nixon Administration?”
But who can deny the impact of the leakers of the 1970s? A new breed of national security reporter, inspired by the revelations of those whistleblowers, began filing tough dispatches. The Freedom of Information Act, established in the late 1960s, was strengthened, giving reporters additional leverage in their investigations. And Senate hearings exposed the multidecade excesses of the CIA, the FBI and the military intelligence agencies.
WikiLeaks hasn’t inspired much in the way of official government investigations, open-government legislation or even successful imitators. Governments and corporations have proved how good they are at stifling leakers and their depositories. The most direct effect, Aftergood notes, is a tightening of U.S. government computer security: Security had been loosened after 9/11 to make dot-connecting easier in the hope of preventing another attack. Aftergood also notes that the diplomatic cable leaks caused the U.S. to transfer some personnel and curtail diplomacy, and that the revelations strained U.S. diplomatic relations with some nations. In this case, WikiLeaks may have shaken the earth, but Assange’s organization did not really change it.
Or maybe it did. Gideon Rachman gave a wonderfully perverse reading of the impact of the publication of the diplomatic cables last December in the Financial Times, declaring that Assange and WikiLeaks had done America “a massive favour” by “inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy … Where WikiLeaks does reveal a gap between America’s public statements and private discussions, it tends to be because U.S. representatives are being diplomatic rather than duplicitous.” Although the candor in many of those cables embarrassed the United States, the complete dump flattered it because it showed the public positions of the United States are nearly identical to the private positions expressed in the cables. This consistency, Rachman argues, dispels the “idea that something sinister is going on behind the walls of the U.S. embassy.”
Rachman’s formulation sounds flip, but it isn’t. Obviously, some of those cables and action reports embarrassed the U.S. government or did damage to its coveted “sources and methods” of information collection and diplomacy. But when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ripped the leak of the diplomatic cables as “an attack on the international community,” she gave hyperbole a bad name. Secretary Clinton’s claim that the confidential conversations between governments of the sort that WikiLeaks exposed “safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity” reads like a hack passage out of a civics textbook. The reason governments, totalitarian and democratic, labor to keep their diplomatic works — trivial and important — wrapped in secrecy has less to do with ensuring world peace and prosperity than with avoiding scrutiny by their citizens. If international diplomacy can be redefined as politics by other means, what governments most object to is not the leak of cables but a full public discussion of what governments do in private in the public’s name.
Setting aside for a moment Assange’s bad manners, his megalomania and his supreme skills as a bridge-burner, we are in his debt for reigniting debate over the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Better than any leaker — or broker of leaks — before him, Assange figured out a new mechanism for the many to monitor the powerful few.
“The dominant message conveyed by WikiLeaks was, ‘You cannot keep your secrets from us,’” says Aftergood. “But the gathering official response is, ‘Oh, yes we can.’” Aftergood is right. The careers of leakers are traditionally short-lived. Even if they aren’t caught and prosecuted, the Ellsbergs and Mannings who leak get evicted from the secrets trove. The dependency of the press and other institutions, including governments, on leakers is well documented. Journalists, of course, need leaks to perform their watchdog function. But governments depend on them, too, to check and balance the bureaucracy that has grown unaccountable.
What WikiLeaks demonstrated in its 16th minute of fame is the extreme dependency of leakers on strong institutions. It may be too late to rescue WikiLeaks by sending Assange to the Emily Post Institute for remedial studies in good manners. But his example stands — for any news organization or pirate outfit bold enough to follow his lead.
PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the High Court in London, December 5, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett