Since the Irak "war logs" and the Afghanistan "war logs" took the Internet by storm, the general public's understanding of the Wikileaks phenomenon has evolved, from critical disbelief to a more informed posture, from the guilty thrill of discovering secrets to a sense of the profound change that this media, with its proclaimed ideals and its unusual methods, has already brought about.
This article (1/2) aims at gauging the importance of the Wikileaks phenomenon, even though it is far too early for a complete view. The next article (2/2) will consider the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, as an intellectual in the early 21st century.
In trying to determine the importance of Wikileaks, three aspects are of special interest: the purpose of Wikileaks, the possible evolution of its content, and the impact it is already having on our times.
First, it is worth asking what seminal concept lies behind the publication of confidential information, which in the case of the State Department cables was immediately condemned by public authority in the US, quickly followed by the political leaders in the UK. The purpose of Wikileaks, as expounded by its founder in interviews and conferences, is to render transparent the facts and the analyses upon which public policy decisions are made, including acts of war; to expose and combat corruption, denial of human rights, or prevarication by mainstream media.
The Wikileaks phenomenon, though striking by its daring and the sheer size of the material already released, is not the first in contemporary history. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the "Pentagon Papers" at a crucial time in the war prosecuted by the United States in Vietnam, had made about 7000 pages of secret documents available to the New York Times, and contributed to accelerating the end of that war, as well as the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Incidentally, Ellsberg's fame was instantly enhanced when Henry Kissinger labeled him "the most dangerous man in America", a title later given to a remarkable documentary on Ellsberg by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith. In giving Assange his public and outspoken support, Ellsberg has vouched for the credibility of Wikileaks in the eyes of a number of radical citizens, and helped enlarge their audience in the United States and elsewhere. But this strong and spontaneous support from Ellsberg to his young colleague should not make us overlook the large differences between the two cases. Ellsberg photocopied, kept and later released secret documents to which he had privileged access while serving in a trusted position in the Pentagon; on the other hand, Assange has not had any privileged access, nor does he seem to have pilfered or stolen documents in anything resembling a criminal act, but he is releasing material which was forwarded to Wikileaks by an unknown source (the media consider Bradley Manning, now in solitary confinement in a US Army prison and awaiting trial, as the most likely source). Another difference is that Ellsberg eventually won the case brought against him by the Pentagon and the US Government, making legal history in the process, while Assange has already been jailed, then placed under house arrest and later released on bail, without any charges being formally brought against him. This difference cannot be overemphasized, at a time when public authority in Washington is calling for Assange to "return" the secret documents, with the implication that by accepting the term "return", he would confirm the allegations of theft and unlawful conservation held against him.
However, these different political contexts cannot overshadow the fact that both men share an ethical approach to the challenges of our times: a government's decisions of momentous importance, such as acts of war, are not defensible when based on skewed data and secret analyses which are systematically withheld from that country's citizens. In the interviews he has given in recent years, Ellsberg's position is striking in this respect: far from having sleepless nights over what he did, he only regrets not having released the "Pentagon Papers" a few years earlier, which he claims would have spared the lives of thousands of US soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of Vietnamese and other victims. His frequent use of the word "lies" to characterize the explanations provided in public by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara and others, has probably alienated some scholars of current affairs and a number of practitioners of international relations (diplomats, civil servants, military leaders), but has also had a strong, and more positive, impact on many others, as well as on the general public. In turn, Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg's courageous commitment to truth now serves as the historic backdrop to Assange's revelations, providing a useful precedent to the younger man's initiative. As a senior adviser inside the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Ellsberg took the decision and personal risk of falling under the secrecy laws then in force, but also the harsh judgment of his peers. Assange's point of departure is the need to defend the ethos of journalism, but his action is also aimed at holding public authority to a high degree of accountability. The acquittal of Ellsberg made him a hero in the ranks of civil disobedience towards what he, and many in his time, saw as misguided leadership. The ongoing legal action against Assange, and the constraints under which he operates, may yet jeopardize the survival of Wikileaks. But both initiatives were prompted by what their authors felt was the pursuit of unjustifiable warfare.
Second, what is the probability of an evolution in the content of Wikileaks? A number of factors could bring about change. To begin with, the trove of US diplomatic correspondence being gradually released by Wikileaks, however large, will some day be exhausted: what will happen then? Assange has already indicated, in several interviews, that aside from the State Department cables, documents from other sources have been provided spontaneously by whistle-blowers, not only in the USA, but from Kenya (with a measurable impact on the elections in that country in 2007), countries of the former Soviet Union, or Latin America.
But more importantly, Wikileaks will have to take seriously the criticism that, so far, its revelations have been detrimental to mainly one state, the USA. And critics are quite right in pointing out that in spite of its shortcomings, democracy in the USA is incomparably more vibrant than in the Russian Federation, countries in the Middle East, or China. The case is made that although appreciable changes were brought about in the Arab & Muslim world (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran...) by US diplomatic cables confirming massive corruption and political repression in those countries, the USA have suffered a loss of credibility, with leaders across the world now less willing to engage in confidential discourse with US diplomats.
The people at Wikileaks are probably aware that this criticism cannot be brushed aside. And whereas they can hope -or at most made a public call- for whistleblowers outside the USA to volunteer confidential information, spontaneous contributions from Moscou, Riyad or Beijing do not seem likely. This fact will place an increasing burden on Assange and Wikileaks, because as time goes by, they will be perceived more and more as being driven exclusively by an anti-US sentiment, whatever their noble aspirations on a global scale. And although Assange is careful to place himself under the intellectual tutelage of James Madison, one of the drafters of the First Amendment, he cannot avoid being seen by many US citizens as simply anti-American.
Change could also be driven by competition. Wikileaks may still be unique because of the scale of its revelations, but other media also rely, to a certain extent, on non-traditional methods of investigation. Among these, OpenLeaks could become a serious competitor, but for the time being it seems to be experiencing some difficulty in getting started.
One could also imagine conscious change happening through a voluntary process on the part of Wikileaks, for instance if it moved progressively towards a novel way of harnessing "crowd wisdom" which would include, say, a reliable system for peer reviewing analyses and opinions on current affairs, aimed at broadening the classic perspective offered by Foreign Affairs or the Harvard Law Review. Change could also be brought about by pursuing investigative reporting on topics which have been avoided by mainstream media, such as the need for a new, independent and thorough inquiry into the implosion of three World Trade Center buildings in New York on the 11th of September 2001.
Third, Wikileaks has an undeniable impact on our times. One measure of this, for what it's worth, is to google "wikileaks", which currently produces more than 106 million references, compared with, say, "new york times" (120 M), "the economist" (38 M), "der spiegel" (20 M), or "le monde" (385 M on google.fr). This enormous volume of interest is due in part to Assange's strategy, which was to seek a partnership with mainstream media in revealing the US State Department cables: The New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France), El Pais (Spain) lent respectability to what would otherwise have remained an underground operation, and neo-conservatives would have found it easier to lambast, yet again, a "conspiracy theory".
Increasingly, media refer directly to, or implicitly support, the aims and some of the methods of Wikileaks. For instance, whereas Assange willingly gives credit to the ethos and methods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the latter carries documents from the Iraq "war logs" from Wikileaks. Fora for public debate such as TED Talks or Democracy Now, are shaping a more informed, less hostile attitude towards Assange and the media he created.
Another measure of the acceptability, indeed of the influence, of Wikileaks is reflected in the acclaim for itself or its founder. The Australian Peace Prize, jointly managed by the University of Sydney and the City of Sydney, was awarded to Assange in 2011, the (rarely attributed) gold medal carrying a citation "for exceptional courage in pursuit of human rights". The 2011 Amnesty International Media prize was awarded to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for the Iraq "war logs" from Wikileaks.
Not everyone considers that Wikileaks will have a durable effect. In November 2010, then US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, while cautioning that "every government in the world knows the US government leaks like a sieve", forecast that the disclosures would have only a "fairly modest" impact of US foreign policy. It's interesting to note that, the previous day, Hilary Clinton underlined that the leaks were "an attack on America, an attack on the international community". Some have been more threatening, for instance Tom Flanagan, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Harper, calling for the assassination of Assange (paradoxically, the death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976).
The disclosure of the State Department cables, along with the revelation of classified information pertaining to the military occupation of Iraq and US military operations in Afghanistan, has also been taken up in the debate on the freedom of information. Antagonistic views are aired about this, but by and large there is a sense that by withholding some important information which constitutes the background for military operations and acts of war, governments are not properly discharging their duty to their citizens. This does not imply a denial of the validity of official secrets, but it does signal a heightened awareness about the ethos of journalism, and a call for more accountability on the part of public authority.
The next article (2/2) will consider the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, as an intellectual in the early 21st century.
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