Founder Julian Assange Talks WikiLeaks – Lunch w/ TED

Lunch with TED — By on July 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

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?’


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  • http://faithfulpolitics.org Kolburt Schultz

    Very thought provoking post. This just highlights yet another ethical and moral quandary brought about by the technological age we live in. Though I still disagree, it's getting harder and harder to laugh off my friend's assertion that the anti-Christ is a computer, but that is a different topic…

    It seems to me that Mr. Hewitt's point about editorial supervision is one that WikiLeaks needs to consider. No one should be trusted to make weighty decisions alone, especially when national security is involved (our's or any nation's for that matter).

  • http://faithfulpolitics.org Kolburt Schultz

    Very thought provoking post. This just highlights yet another ethical and moral quandary brought about by the technological age we live in. Though I still disagree, it's getting harder and harder to laugh off my friend's assertion that the anti-Christ is a computer, but that is a different topic…

    It seems to me that Mr. Hewitt's point about editorial supervision is one that WikiLeaks needs to consider. No one should be trusted to make weighty decisions alone, especially when national security is involved (our's or any nation's for that matter).

  • drsteeve

    Kolburt,

    I agree, WikiLeaks raises a number of ethical and moral quandaries – quandaries that are introduced by the technology that enables WikiLeaks.

    I do not believe Mr. Assange alone makes decisions to publish classified information. Per this video, it seems he might have a team. However, if his team is of like mind with Mr. Assange, then they seem to lack the sobriety and thoughtfulness that other mainstream news organizations worldwide possess.

    Like I said in the post, had Mr. Assange taken his time to explain his philosophy for publishing this information as well as explaining why it was that other news organizations refuse to publish the information (and why they are wrong for refusing), then he may have won me over to his cause. Instead, it seems like Mr. Assange and the audience both felt like the novel use of the technology combined with the occasional story of using classified information to flesh out “bad guys” provided all the justification that any of them needed.

    Thanks for the thoughts Kolburt!

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  • ap Rhys

    Western govenments classify information because to not protect it could result in lives lost. By releasing classified information with abandon, Assange has pulled the trigger on numerous people. Their number will probably not be known. But he now has blood on his hands. What did he receive in exchange for human lives? Money or fame? It does not matter. He has blood on his hands and is a criminal, not a journalist.

  • Iiso

    His contract should be terminated soon enough.

    Sincerely,
    IP bounced.

  • Albert

    Excuse me, “the sobriety and thoughtfulness that other mainstream news organizations worldwide possess”?

    From what I’m reading in this post it seems to me you are not taking into account (or not aware of the fact?) that “mainstream news organizations” have to watch it for themselves over what they publish for this type of topics, and not mainly for the benefit or stability of society, but for the obvious fact that they would be risking their own company if they did. I think it is irrational to consider the possibility of CNN or FOX News releasing the information Wikileaks has released (unless of course their CEO’s started doing LSD).

    In the same way (or even worse) if it were a mainstream news organization outside the US. It would obviously not only compromise a company, if the organization we were talking about happened to be “Al Jazeera”.

    If it weren’t Assange and Wikileaks, it would have been some other independent organization 5 or 10 years from now. I think it should be highlighted as obvious, that it is very naive to consider the possibility of any “mainstream news organization” coming out with this type of material, just as it is to think they wouldn’t release this information because they proceed in some sort of “sheppard” way, watching over what people should and shoudln’t know… They watch over what their company Should and Shouldn’t release… when it comes to compromising material such as this, so let’s not compare between Wikileaks and MNO’s, and let’s not assign virtues to those who keep their mouths shut over prudence, or better said, fear.

    Are you aware of the amount of non-mainstream news organizations that have tried to make people aware of these type of things, and how their numbers have risen in the recent years? Most of their claims are either ridiculous or lack tangible proof. But they have been there, and increasing, Wikileaks isn’t any novelty, beyond the fact that it is the first one that gets it’s hands on tons of tangible, solid proof.

    Moving to the questions in your post you would like to make to Assange, here’s my point of view which I think is pretty down to earth:

    “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?”

    Yes, it sparks interest in those who had just heard rumors about the -unjust military operation- and either didn’t believe them or were not concerned enough.

    “Did it cast light on previously hidden human rights abuses?”
    It unquestionably casts light on something that was either an accident or an abuse, but drives attention to the rest of abuses being committed in Irak by the US military.

    Did it further the cause of justice in any way?
    It is by bringing these things into the notion of people, that people gain the opportunity to make their stand in regards to them. Logically, not all will, but clearly more will, so yes, it furthers the cause of justice, at least if you think sexually abusing and humiliating prisoners, bombing areas compromising innocent people, and things of the sort that happen in a war fought over taking control of a foreign country’s goods like that one, happens to be unjust…

    What good did it do?
    It sparks doubt… on a naive… population… :)

  • Tafxkz

    15,000 unacknowledged civilian deaths – kids in the car – Christ have mercy on the American military and the evangelicals who extend their whole hearted support

  • Mpra

    You guys are deluded about the righteousness of your own governments and corporate interests. As a an evangelical christian from outside the US, I applaud much of wikileaks, but both the governments, corporations and Assange will stand before Jesus