Most of the recent attention around WikiLeaks has been focused on the legal issues surrounding its controversial founder, Julian Assange. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to what the organization has accomplished and the critical role it plays as a “stateless news organization.”

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

By now, anyone with even a passing interest in the WikiLeaks phenomenon is familiar with most of the elements of its fall from grace: the rift between founder Julian Assange and early supporters over his autocratic and/or erratic behavior, the Swedish rape allegations that led to his seeking sanctuary in Ecuador, a recent childish hoax the organization perpetrated, and so on. Critics paint a picture of an organization that exists only in name, with a leadership vacuum and an increasingly fractured group of adherents. Despite its many flaws, however, there is still something worthwhile in what WikiLeaks has done, and theoretically continues to do. The bottom line is that we need something like a “stateless news organization,” and so far it is the best candidate we have.

To some extent, WikiLeaks has always been as much myth as substance, and possibly even more so. The idea of a secretive group of information outlaws with servers located in Iceland or deep inside a Swedish mountain, especially a group headed by a white-haired fellow right out of a spy novel, always seemed almost too good to be true. And anyone who has gotten close to the organization, from Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir — who helped edit the infamous Collateral Murder video showing a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq — to former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, has found that the reality lacks a certain something when compared to the myth.

The spotlight on Assange blinds us to the real issues

As Glenn Greenwald noted in a post at The Guardian this week, much of what has been written about WikiLeaks over the past year has focused exclusively on Assange and the rape charges that Sweden is expected to level against him if and when he is ever handed over to that country. There has been little or no coverage — at least from the mainstream media — about the effects of the ongoing financial blockade of WikiLeaks that was instituted last year by PayPal and Visa and MasterCard (which the organization is trying to get around by using the peer-to-peer money system known as Bitcoin) or who might be behind the recent denial-of-service attacks on WikiLeaks that seem to have been orchestrated by U.S.-based sources. Why? Greenwald has a theory:

“There are several obvious reasons why Assange provokes such unhinged media contempt. The most obvious among them is competition: the resentment generated by watching someone outside their profession generate more critical scoops in a year than all other media outlets combined.”

Whatever the reason, with Assange and his legal and personal problems hogging the spotlight, it’s easy to lose sight of what WikiLeaks has accomplished, whether because of or in spite of Assange’s leadership (or possibly both). Whatever you think of the U.S. government or the U.S. military, the Collateral Murder video was a groundbreaking moment in coverage of the country’s activities in Iraq and by extension the rest of the Middle East, and the release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables was also a watershed event, even if the tangible effects of that document dump are difficult to quantify in political terms.

Would any of that information have come to light without WikiLeaks? Perhaps. And it’s important to remember that WikiLeaks didn’t come up with all of those documents on its own — they were delivered to it by the original leaker, who may or may not be former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, the man the government has been holding in a military prison for more than two years without a trial on accusations of espionage.

A former colleague of mine, the Globe and Mail’s European correspondent Doug Saunders, has argued that WikiLeaks was no more than a virtual “brown envelope” for the data that Manning (or whoever it was) came up with, a simple mechanism for distributing the leaks, in the same way that Deep Throat handed over documents to the Washington Post‘s Watergate team in a parking garage. In other words, there shouldn’t be any more attention paid to WikiLeaks than there was to the U.S. postal system or to parking garages. But is that true, or does WikiLeaks represent a significant shift in the global flow of information?

We need a stateless news organization, however flawed

I think it’s the latter. It’s true that WikiLeaks has used publications like the New York Times and The Guardian and Die Zeit to help it sift through and publicize the information that has come out of the leaks it acquired — but that was as much about marketing as anything else. The reality is that WikiLeaks is a publisher, and a radically new variation on the species: one that has no state affiliation, either express or implied, as journalism professor Jay Rosen suggested when he called it the world’s first “stateless news organization.” In a world where even the New York Times fails to discharge its duty properly during events like the coverage of the Iraq war, such an entity is more important than ever.

WikiLeaks has also spawned a kind of mini-explosion of imitators, including leak dumps that are devoted to environmental data, or information about the corrupt political system in the Balkans, or about dozens of other topics. As a recent piece at Radio Free Europe pointed out, many of these have either failed or are in a state of disrepair for a variety of reasons (not least of which is the fact that running an anonymous document archive that can’t be traced or hacked into is exceedingly difficult), and the most famous of all — OpenLeaks, which was set up by former WikiLeaks insider Daniel Domscheit-Berg — is still mostly nonfunctional.

As flawed as they might be, however, they continue to exist. And the example set by WikiLeaks can be seen even in smaller incidents, like the recent “document dump” that Gawker provided of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s financial records. While there may be no smoking gun in those files, just the fact that they have been made public has changed the game to some extent, and will likely encourage more of the same.

It’s worth noting that even those who have had a falling out with Julian Assange or WikiLeaks, including both Jonsdottir and the NYT’s Keller, have repeatedly said that the organization and its mercurial founder need to be supported, in the interests of freedom of speech. Keller said in an email to me recently that whatever we may think of Assange or his organization, it is a journalistic outlet or entity just as the New York Times or any other newspaper is — and we should be just as protective of its right to free speech and a free press.

That is the true legacy of WikiLeaks: flawed or not, mythical or substantive, it is an engine of free speech and free information, and as such it is worth defending, whatever we might think of its leader.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user New Media Days

  1. Reasonable article, Thanks!
    I think Wikileaks IS Assange and he has been setup.
    Anyhow, is not like wikileaks has a monopoly on leaks, if you are not happy with it feel free to open your own.
    Thank you Assange for informing us.

  2. WikiLeaks was so politicized that it compromised its goals. if it were a genuine whistleblower organization, it would not put politics before disclosure.

    The WikiLeaks brand is compromised – let it die.

  3. Matthew Ingram incorrectly said the Collateral Murder video showed a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq. This is simply not true!

    Hotel 2/6 (American Humvee) called the Apache helicopters (Crazyhorse 1/8 & Crazyhorse 1/9) in for support after being attacked from two positions in the courtyard to his east. It’s unfortunate that the pilots mistook the Reuters employees cameras for weapons – collateral damage – but the rest of the men in that courtyard were enemy combatants.

    The only thing more horrifying than watching this gun-site video is hearing American citizens accuse the pilots, our good soldiers, of murder.

    1. I think the problem is that the war has always been more of a tale to those that do not participate on it, and the video served as an eye opener (one that will be forgotten, yes, but eye opener nonetheless) to the effects war has on people, to the so called collateral damage nobody wishes to talk/think about. I also believe that, assuming what I read was right, people were confronted with “they lied about it”, while covering it up. Of course, the citizens will do what they know best: blame it on others. They mostly forget that those pilots are just the man following orders, and that while it is possible to refuse, you will then think: was it really a threat? did I just get somebody killed?
      Instead, we could just end the war and there would be no collateral damage caused by our troops and we would avoid psychological issues. But that would require action. To accept that the war goes/went on because we let our leaders do so.

      So, no, it’s not those soldiers fault. Or it is. It’s both. They should have identified correctly those on the ground. But they are at war, and they probably had adrenaline rushing through their veins. They also didn’t just decide to go there. They were told to go there. Above all, it’s our fault for not reaching a peaceful resolution and resorting to violence.

      1. Ardyvee you are right.

    2. Don’t you think it’s a little odd that, in ten years of war, the “Collateral Murder” video is one of only a handful of unauthorised videos we have ever seen? Contrast this with the Vietnam war in which independent news organisations brought the reality of that war into our homes every night on TV. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are the first time we have witnessed a near total news blackout orchestrated by government and the corporate media.

      26 US soldiers killed themselves last month alone – doesn’t that tell you something about what’s going on over there that we can’t see?

      It’s an Orwellian dream.

  4. markleiser.phd.law Saturday, August 25, 2012

    Reblogged this on Web.3D.Law and commented:
    Why WikiLeaks is worth defending, despite all of its flaws
    Most of the recent attention around WikiLeaks has been focused on the legal issues surrounding its controversial founder, Julian Assange. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to what the organization has accomplished and the critical role it plays as a “stateless news organization.”

    1. He still took part.

  5. markleiser.phd.law Saturday, August 25, 2012

    Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Why Wikileaks is worth defending…
    Most of the recent attention around WikiLeaks has been focused on the legal issues surrounding its controversial founder, Julian Assange. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to what the organization has accomplished and the critical role it plays as a “stateless news organization.”

    1. “Most of the recent attention around WikiLeaks has been focused on the legal issues surrounding its controversial founder, Julian Assange. ”
      Thank you markleiser.phd.law for that reply. Much of the media’s attention is focused on other legal issues. But my focus has been on what was published on Wiki leaks and his 60 Minutes interview. Himself and the CBS reporter said that he was a journalist. Not true IMHO. A real journalist knows responsibility for what is published and the affect of it. The article above cites The Washington Post. Those were journalists. Mr. Assange is not. He seemed arrogant about what was reported and didn’t say anything about checking the facts, background or who would be hurt by what he did. This attitude was again displayed when he was on the balcony acting like a little whiny victim.
      And thank you ONU.
      “Missing from this coverage is the discussion on the unbalanced nature of disclosures…..”
      The anti-western trait of that site suggests an agenda. Again, Not Journalism.

  6. Problem is, Assange is now beholden to Ecuador. So as long as he remains its leader, WikiLeaks is no longer stateless organization.

  7. Missing from this coverage is the discussion on the unbalanced nature of disclosures – do we really get a good picture of the worlds troubles when all te disclosures focus on more open western countries with none on the chinas and Russia’s of this world?

    1. That’s a fair point, Onu — but unfortunately leak brokers like WikiLeaks are dependent on the supply of leaks coming from elsewhere.

      1. No, wikileaks is dependent on what people perceive as their political enemies, that’s why its disclosures are so unilateral – i.e. against the US. It’s solely agitprop

        We can see that in your own article: who reads your mention of the leaks of Mitt Romney has the impression that the presidential candidate is somehow guilty until he proves otherwise, a reversion of any democratic principle. Whether Romney wants to disclose his tax or not, he answers to the electorate, but does not grant having his right to privacy violated – nor being treated as a criminal (to be more precise, you mention “that’s no smoking gun”, why? you know he’s guilty of something, just we don’t know).

        Just for the record, I’m not even American – I’m just concerned that whenever WL will become a STASI of sorts, prohibiting undesirable people to have their right to privacy – as in Romney’s example above.

  8. @Ardyvee, your post is an example of “close mindedness” thinking. This my disagreement., the US Army, with all it technology, should have a way to make the difference between a Reporter’s Camera and a Rocket Launcher or whatever…

    Do not say it is not possible, when a 10 inches precision shot is possible thousands of miles away, come-on… let us stop joking.

    Wiki-leaks, pinpointed strongly an issue which is a concern to All Field Reporters. It is good.

  9. And yet, no one defends Penn State?…

  10. WikiLeaks is about more than journalism, quite a bit more. It publishes documents for readers to ponder and does not tell them what to think of the documents. Its initiative is diminished by limiting it to editorial-driven journalism, commrercial or non-commercial. Assange will survive his hostage taking by journalism if not executed by it. If not exterminated or taxidermied, there is a risk he will succumb to Stockholm syndrome induced by journalist captors and spokespersons and lawyers continuously propounding their view of WikiLeaks and Assange. The legion of captors have hardly grasped WikiLeaks in its uncontaminated form due to excessive reliance upon those who over-value and over-valorize journalism, publicity, law and politics. Best would be to benignly neglect WikiLeaks and Assange to recover from professional voluable shills and critics churning their own hyperventilating agendas advanced by piggybacking their careers on WikiLeaks and Assange. And this is done not only to WikiLeaks and Assange, those are the easiest and most profitable to plagiarize and transform into editorialist cant.

    John Young, Cryptome

Comments have been disabled for this post