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Why WikiLeaks is worth defending, despite all of its flaws

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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.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user New Media Days

40 Responses to “Why WikiLeaks is worth defending, despite all of its flaws”

  1. Galt's Gultch

    WikiLeaks was a government sponsored program with the sole intent on embarrassing America. In order for it to be worth defending it would have to be an equal opportunity info dumper. The fact that there was barely anything about Russia, China, N. Korea, or the rest of the cabal currently trying to undermine America, shows its true colors. So to me I it is propaganda BS…..

  2. It’s unfortunate that this article and many of the comments so far continue to refer to “rape charges” against Assange. As far as I know Sweden claims to want him for questioning. He hasn’t yet been charged with anything; if he had the extradition would not be so controversial.

    This article refers to “rape allegations” at the top but then uses “rape charges” in the link to the Guardian article which only says “sex assault allegations’.

    Don’t think I’m diminishing the seriousness of rape. Quite the opposite. It’s because it’s a serious offence that it’s especially important not to prejudge: allegations are different from being charged, and being charged is different from being found guilty, at least in democratic judiciaries. And finally, rape is not relevant to the ethics of leaking documents.

    So thanks for separating the fundamental political issues Wikileaks from the personal attacks on Julian Assange. But if you have to get personal, at least stick to what is factual and relevant.

  3. It is an Iranian proverbs:” you Couldn’t hid the moon under baskets.”
    That two women should be honor to be with Julian Assange.
    People need to put pressure on the two fraud women.

  4. When WikiLeaks does releases of Russia secrets and oppression and similarly for secretive dictator led countries then it will be meaningful. Otherwise it is just a bash America effort.

  5. What has WL accomplished? They’ve managed to falsely accuse American soldiers of murder in Iraq and perhaps put militant islam in control of Egypt and maybe Syria by use of stolen materials passed to them by a traitor. On top of this they are run by a man accused of two sexual assaults. WL sounds more like part of the problem than the solution.

  6. Lyndy Cracknell

    Thanks Mathew, appreciate your words. After David Penberthy’s rubbish last weekend in the Telegraph, it is great to see a broad picture of the issue. Well done.

  7. Alex Lester

    We don’t need an organization that defies the laws that they should accept or use the legal methods to change. We don’t need an organization that insists that they are justified by whatever they say or do.

    I don’t get to do these things and they should not get away with them either.

  8. In America, we have established programs to inform the public such as the The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), “a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government” ( It is unfortunate that our need to know “now” without proper analysis or context, has so captured our imagination.

  9. Omar Fourie

    Omar Fourie

    It is always difficult to determine the limits of Free Speech. But when those limits are determined by consensus and broad input from many areas/sections of society, the limits to Free Speech will be pegged at the right place if it needs to be pegged-down at all.

    When governments start to attempt to set those limits unilaterally and in – usually – opposition to the people “out there”, then alarm bells should start going off. This is where WikiLeaks plays a part and this is also where governments seem to be rearing their heads also, i.e. trying to stop/intervene in WikiLeaks and its founder’s narrative stream .

    By Omar Fourie (South Africa)

  10. Oliver Hilsenrath

    After all is said and done, we are all looking at the figures in charge and we expect leadership, charisma and stature. Enter Assange. Unkempt, cross-eyed and now holed up in a banana republic cum freedom of speech heaven. Somewhere a charismatic Jobs-like figure will emerge and a sweeping new world media might emerge. Wikileaks however will and should die.

  11. The so called rape charge is just a setup, Wikileaks should have released all of the information at one time (to 200 hundred new organizations), the wrong headed thinking that thought you could release little bits over time was stupid. A one time release was the best way. Ecuadorby the way isn’t a banana republic anymore that’s why most tea baggers don’t like them Ding Dong.

  12. Ning Ding

    “The spotlight on Assange blinds us to the real issues.”

    I disagree.

    I think the rape allegation is a “real issue”. You may of course, as you do, call avoiding a trial in a country governed by the rule of law “seeking sanctuary.” The “whisky priest” in The Power and The Glory was “seeking sanctuary”. Asssange…me thinks not.

    I also believe you underestimate the ability of people to recognize that there are several “real issues” involved. I would like to keep these issues separate. Because…they are. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

    Anyway, I am happy Assange has found a home in a country that really values free speech and public opinion, as opposed to trying his luck in the corrupt legal system of the banana republic that is Sweden. No, wait a minute…

    • I agree the issues are separate, which is why I dealt with the one I think is more important. That’s not to say rape charges aren’t important, because they are — but they are separate from the public or social value of WikiLeaks as an entity.

  13. John Young

    The RFE/RL report was a hatcheting of disclosure initiatives by a premiere worldwide US government propaganda outlet. It far overstated by cherry-picking quotes the decline of disclosure sites, the threats against them and their cost. It exemplies the crippling techniques of journalism to fail to do sufficient research and to rely instead upon carefully selected quotations to support the editorial position of outlets no matter the underlying ideology., publicity,com, and are biased toward their interests which are commercial, even extending to so-called non-profits.

    WikiLeaks and others like it intend to be an alternative to the dot-coms and commercially-supported dot-orgs. Call them free libraries, user-supported, no ads, no fund-raisers, no chest-thumping, no lying, well that might be too much to expect of any media. Call them tools for discourse and disagreement, free of venal leadership and free market forces.

  14. Jacob Tsabar

    Free speech is something to be lauded, for sure. However, criminal behavior, even if used for free speech is stil criminal and should be prosecuted. Attempted rape charges are very serious and have nothing to do with the free speech argument. Assange who relies on the free speech mantra should man up and go to Sweden to stand trial. If he can prove his innocence – more power to him. If he can’t – he should go to jail as prescribed by Swedish law. I also think he should stand trial for obtaining information illegally and for endangering the lives of many people who act in the service of their home countries, nine of which is excusable by the free speech excuse.

  15. John Young

    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

  16. Supporter

    @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.

  17. 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?

      • 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.

  18. 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.”

    • JohnnyPool

      “Most of the recent attention around WikiLeaks has been focused on the legal issues surrounding its controversial founder, Julian Assange. ”
      Thank you 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.

  19. 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.”

  20. Bill Cromer

    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.

    • Ardyvee

      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.

    • swissfondue

      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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.