Image via Wikipedia
Escaping the furore surrounding the latest leaks from Wikileaks is seemingly impossible unless you are a Shaolin monk living high up a mountain in China. Reaction to the leaks seems to vary from outright anger and contempt to utmost respect and praise. As is often the case when a major news story is doing the rounds I’ve been asked by various people on which side of the debate I sit and so I have decided to wade in and join the debate and offer my opinion on this whole affair.
Some people see Wikileaks as a vital force for accountability and freedom of speech. To others it is a dangerous organisation that needs shutting down. Many are now asking have Wikileaks gone too far? Those who sit on opposite sides of this debate seem to argue their point with as much conviction as the religious and atheists do when discussing matters of faith.
In short, I think Wikileaks has done far more good than harm to the world and as such is vital to continuing free speech and keeping governments and massive corporations accountable for their actions. In my opinion this is evident when you look at some of the past things Wikileaks have been responsible for.
The first major release by the website was evidence of an order to assassinate Somali officials in 2006. Another notable leak was evidence of corruption by Daniel arap Moi whilst leader of Kenya. Wikileaks have also published the hacked Yahoo email account of Sarah Palin which showed her illegally using it for official purposes and thus trying to avoid a record of her communications being kept. By far one of the most well known releases by Wikileaks is the infamous “Collateral Damage” video which shows US helicopter troops using unrestrained force and killing unarmed civilians in Iraq. This, coupled with the recent leak of US military documents paints a very contrasting picture of the wars in the Middle East when compared with what the US say in public. It is with leaks such as the ones above where I believe there is a genuine benefit to the public interest in releasing such information. Were it not for these releases we would probably have never known that US troops had murdered innocent civilians in such a cold blooded way, that Sarah Palin was trying to circumvent public record laws, or that the US weren’t reporting civilian deaths accurately.
But, and it is a big but, I believe Wikileaks has gone too far with some of the latest releases. Yesterday’s release of a list of worldwide sites viewed as “critical” to US national security genuinely puts the US at risk. It is essentially a list of places the US government feel were they to be attacked would cause significant damage to the infrastructure of the country. I cannot possibly see what benefit to the public there is in making this public and would go so far as to say it could put the public in danger. Likewise with some of the other releases which could seriously strain diplomatic relations across the world.
When considered in the context of Wikileaks being solely a force for free speech and accountability some of these leaks raise serious questions about the judgement of Wikileaks and it’s founder Julian Assange. It doesn’t take a great deal of intellect to work out the potentially damaging nature of some of this information and with much of it the public benefit is hard to see. So, to understand why Wikileaks has leaked this information, I think it is important to look a little closer at Julian Assange himself, what he stands for and how Wikileaks is releasing the information.
Assange gained slight fame before Wikileaks was founded in 2006 as a computer hacker. His targets were often ethically motivated and his mantra was
“Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information”
Assange also spent time as a computer programmer where he created a “deniable encryption” service aimed at helping human rights workers protect sensitive information in such a way that their passwords could not be extracted through torture.
These ventures go some way to highlight Julian Assange’s motivation and demonstrate that he feels strongly about injustice, human rights and freedom of information. This ties in with the general aims that most people associate with Wikileaks.
There is a problem though. If Wikileaks sole aim is to protect public interest then why have they released the potentially damaging information they have? The answer to this, I believe, lies in the philosophical views of Assange.
In 2006, shortly before Wikileaks launch, Assange, writing on his now defunct personal blog, wrote a number of essays on what he thought about government corruption and the effect information leaks have on them.
In the essay “State And Terrorist Conspiracies” he said
“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not”
And on his blog he said
“the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. … Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
In an essay titled “The Road To Hanoi” Assange draws a parallel between the way a small pothole gets bigger and bigger and eventually renders a road useless and how political “potholes” can do the same to a government. This essay is worth reading as, when read in conjunction with the above essay, it gives a good insight into the way Assange thinks.
The above quotes, in my opinion, clearly shows Assange’s motivation. He is not simply out to put valuable information into the public domain but to go a step further and attack what he sees as a corrupt and unjust form of government and force regime change. This explains why Wikileaks have not just released all 250,000 documents at once. By releasing them in small batches they are able to maximise the impact and damage. Whilst the world’s leaders scramble to repair the damage done by each leak Wikileaks are waiting in the sidelines ready to strike again. Like soldiers waiting and firing when the enemy leave their cover to collect the wounded. Wikileaks have made it clear they have even more secret information stacked up ready to be released, including leaks that could “take down” some major banks. Why are they waiting? So that they can strike at a time that causes maximum damage. They would not be concerned with this if their intentions were purely journalistic.
This is where I have a major problem. If Wikileaks want to be viewed as a credible journalistic outlet with a noble aim then they should remain free from political ideologies. The nature and the way this information is being released puts them into muddy water. This gives credibility to the USA’s claim that the leaks are an attack on their country and weakens Assange’s defence.
As I close let me make this clear. I support Wikileaks in theory and commend much of what they have done but as this affair gains momentum they have to be very careful how they conduct themselves if they are not to be accused of “cyber terrorism”. But I also think the authorities need to be careful. If they successfully prosecute Assange (which, incidentally, will be very difficult) they run the risk of making him a martyr for freedom. The public love a Che Guevara type figure willing to take the law into his own hands for the greater good. Prosecution will not stem the flow of leaks. Assange has made it quite clear that the mechanisms are in place for Wikileaks to continue in his absence.
I leave you with this: is there really much difference between what Wikileaks do and what the rest of the media do when they publish damning stories that governments try and stop? I don’t think so.
(For the record, and to dispel accusations of simply lifting information from Wikipedia, I opted to use the above quotes after reading Julian Assange’s essay and blog before I noticed they were on Wikipedia!)