WikiLeaks is a website that leaks classified information from around the world for anyone with an internet connection to see. This week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will defend his project.
Talking to a radio audience of several million people last month, Hugh Hewitt reported on a story written for the Wall Street Journal about the dangers of WikiLeaks. I was in the studio that day and asked Hugh what it was that bothered him most about the site. His response was thought provoking: the world’s major publications have layers of editors responsible for judging and affirming any decision to publish classified information. That process should be deliberate and weighty. WikiLeaks, in Hugh’s opinion, lacked this critical editorial process.
Consider Assange’s opening remarks, “It’s a worry — isn’t it? — that the rest of the world’s media is doing such a bad job that a little group of activists is able to release more of that type of information than the rest of the world press combined.” Assange assumes the lack of publication is due to all of the world’s media doing a bad job. That’s a bold assumption, to say the least. Absolutely everyone else in the world is bad at what they do. It lends credibility to Hewitt’s concern that WikiLeaks doesn’t seem to concern itself over decisions to publish classified information in the same way the world’s leading press outlets do.
Hewitt’s concern should be our concern as well. After all, these secret matters of state could be secret matters of our state. If you believe that there is any justification or use whatsoever for intelligence agencies and classified information, then you ought to think about how WikiLeaks is changing the world.
For example, consider the video WikiLeaks recently published featuring American soldiers in a helicopter gunning down several suspected terrorists as well as a couple of Rueters’ reporters. It does not seem that the soldiers knew that two of the men in their line of fire were reporters. WikiLeaks edited the video to include text and arrows highlighting the reporters (who looked no different than the suspected terrorists). It’s like watching a blockbuster movie knowing that a couple of the good guys are about to get hit. When the video is finished, it’s hard not to hold some degree of ill will toward the soldiers who gunned down the innocent men on the street.
What WikiLeaks failed to label were the known terrorists in that group of men. What they also failed to mention in the video were the numerous precautions that American soldiers have taken in this war. Often they withhold their fire against enemy combatants for fear that innocents might be killed.
Here’s my question: what good did leaking this video do? Assange clearly sees his efforts as heroic and brave, leading humanity toward a greater good. The TED audience seemed to wholeheartedly agree. Well then, what good did leaking this video do? Did it alert us to some deeply unjust military operation? Did it cast light on previously hidden human rights abuses? Did it further the cause of justice in any way? What good did it do?
Assange gives no good answer to these questions. Instead, he talks about how his group has a “harm minimalization policy.” The phrase is eerily Orwellian and Assange fails to outline any meaningful criteria for this policy. When pressed about whether the video would harm people’s perception of the American military by causing them to think our soldiers inhumane, Assange avoided a direct answer to the question. Instead, he simply stated that “it is what the people of Baghdad see every day.”
What do they see every day Mr. Assange? The killing of innocent reporters? Is inhumanity on the part of our soldiers what they see every day? I wish the host would have pushed Assange on his answers because he did not answer the question.
My concern is simply this: for a man who claims to champion transparency, Assange was not transparent about his company’s operations and did not directly answer many of the questions in this interview. If the New York Times publishes classified information and gets something wrong, causing great damage to either innocent lives or institutions, they can be held accountable by their subscribers, advertisers, and the government. Who is holding Julian Assange and WikiLeaks accountable? Who is their watchdog? Or are they simply above reproach?
So is Julian Assange a crusader of light, ought to brighten the dark secrets of the world’s governments? I have my doubts about him, but his project is still very intriguing. The internet has wrought the kind of global connectedness that enables projects like WikiLeaks. These sorts of things are not going away.
The responsibility is on us to consider the source and determine whether or not we will allow ourselves to be influenced by individuals like Mr. Assange. Would that Mr. Assange had used his 19 minutes of TED fame to articulate a clear and thoughtful vision for the just publication of classified information, he may have won me over to his cause.
How about you? Do you think Mr. Assange is a hero or a misguided troublemaker?’