Two months ago, when WikiLeaks’ latest document dump was just a speck in Julian Assange’s nefarious eye, I watched the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in the World ““ Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. As an aspiring journalist, I find it fascinating how, despite the lengths to which government officials routinely go to protect classified information, it has a way of worming out. I respect Ellsberg’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in an effort to end the Vietnam War, but Assange is no Ellsberg.
While Ellsberg’s release of a 7,000-page history of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam war is somewhat comparable to WikiLeaks’ publication of 492,000 pages of field reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it seems Wikileaks’ intentions are less noble than Ellsberg’s and are based around the mantra that “knowledge is power,” even uncurated, decontextualized knowledge. The contrasts don’t end there.
Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo acted alone in copying the Pentagon Papers. Both men ultimately turned themselves in to authorities on charges of espionage and treason, with Ellsberg taking full responsibility for his actions, saying, “I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
WikiLeaks founding member and spokesman Julian Assange, however, solicits leaks from government officials, but has notoriously done little to protect either the sources of his leaks or the identities compromised in leaked documents. He once glibly claimed that WikiLeaks is “not obligated to protect other people’s sources.”
In the case of the Afghan War Logs, Assange withheld 15,000 documents, claiming WikiLeaks was redacting names of Afghani informants and other sensitive information, but only after failing to adequately vet the initial document dump and being heavily criticized by Amnesty International, among other organizations.
Whether WikiLeaks is a media institution and Assange a journalist is up for debate. I’d argue that, by dint of its function and how powerful its publications have been, WikiLeaks qualifies as a sort of postmodern newspaper for that part of the masses who have time to troll hundreds of thousands of documents (everyone else just gets the condensed version from CNN, Fox, NYT, et. al.). But Assange has done little to curate WikiLeaks’ massive file dumps or control the flow of information, and in that respect he is quite different from Daniel Ellsberg.
After copying the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg divided them into volumes and contacted Henry Kissinger, as well as several Senators he knew were favorable towards ending the war in Vietnam, asking them to read from and distribute the Papers while the Senate was in session. Kissinger and the senators turned down his offer, prompting him to give the volumes to a reporter at the New York Times, which only began publishing the Papers four months later, after significant debate about the legal and moral ramifications of doing so.
There’s also a fundamental difference between the content of the Pentagon Papers and that of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and the foreign relations cables. The Pentagon Papers were copies of a government-ordered history of the Vietnam War, culled primarily from White House memos and other documentation, and revealed that four consecutive presidents had misled the American people about their intentions for Vietnam. The Johnson Defense Department’s famous memo, which outlined the top reason for America to persevere in Vietnam as “70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat,” couldn’t have been clearer or more obviously significant.
Whether the WikiLeaks’ dumps, on the other hand, are truly impactful is up for debate. Most of the reports released in the Iraq and Aghan War Logs were labeled secret, which is not a high level of classification, and many of the incidents recorded had already been reported by other news organizations or were simply too mundane to signify much. Assange claims the War Logs are groundbreaking because they offer “the most comprehensive history of a war to have ever been published during the course of the war.” To a degree, the bulk of data they represent is historically useful, but the lack of discrimination in publishing the leaks seems to be more a sign of laziness than compulsion to not deprive the public of a single report.
The foreign relations cables contain more examples of “sound and fury, signifiying nothing.” Is anyone really shocked that world leaders gossip and snipe at one another or that the U.S. engages in espionage and arm-twisting negotiation techniques? Is anyone surprised that the Middle East is still a mess of back-stabbing allies and menacing enemies or that corruption is rampant in Afghanistan or that North Korea is on the verge of collapse? This string of revelations, unveiled in rapid succession, does little to actually inform the global public and has put the U.S. government on the defensive rather than created a dialogue regarding policy changes.
While the individual revelations themselves may be unremarkable, the sum total of the recent leaks is likely to result in U.S. diplomats finding their foreign counterparts more chilly in the near future, as the world is now skittish about having their dealings with the U.S. splashed across global front pages. Additionally, one of the most recent pieces of leaked information to go live, a list of sites the U.S. has dubbed “sensitive,” is the perfect example of an information tidbit that is in no way useful to the average global citizen (though terrorists might appreciate the blueprint for which factories to bomb), casting doubt on WikiLeaks’ insistence that it’s just a media source trying to enlighten the people.
Julian Assange is important, though perhaps not as important as he thinks he is. He’s ushering in a new era of open-source file sharing for news, in which governments would be wise to realize practically no secret is safe. The public’s right to know has always been delicately balanced between the need to protect national interests and the need for transparency in government, and I think we’re slouching towards an era where transparency will reign supreme. How the government prepares itself for that and whether or not media outlets like WikiLeaks learn how to properly polish and curate content, will affect whether or not the digital age marks the beginning of a lot of breaking ugliness, or simply more open governance.