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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.