As the never-ending saga that is the WikiLeaks case continues to unfold daily in the headlines, I think it would be opportune to consider the case calmly and rationally, to analyze the most recent developments intently, and to form an opinion on this intriguing issue without giving in to the howls from either side.
Let us begin with the facts of the case before considering their implications. WikiLeaks is a mysterious organization (a rarity in our days, and also possibly in conflict with their manifesto of absolute transparency) whose public face is Internet activist Julian Assange.
The site appeared online in December 2006, and in January 2007 it claimed to have 1.2 million documents it was preparing to publish. In April 2010, WikiLeaks published a big “hit,” which they titled “Collateral Murder”: a video showing Iraqi civilians and journalists killed by US forces. In July, a series of documents from the war in Afghanistan were leaked. Four hundred thousand documents from the Iraq War were leaked in October. Finally, in recent weeks, Assange and his followers have been leaking US diplomatic cables, causing the current stir.
The question that I ask myself is, “What is Mr. Assange’s endgame?” Many fiery rhetoricians, including Bill O’Reilly, have suggested that Assange’s goal is to aid terrorists in their efforts against the United States. This, in my opinion, is completely absurd. Assange and WikiLeaks clearly have a flair for the dramatic, and any terrorist attack would be devastating for them. While people may rally around free press in times of peace, an attack would change everything. Not only would WikiLeaks be blamed, but the popular pulpit from which they have enjoyed preaching for the past year would be violently swept out from under them. However, supporters’ contention that Assange is a digital-age archangel crusading for world peace and government accountability are equally misguided. Many documents leaked are clearly irrelevant to the American people. That Muammar al-Gaddafi travels with a personal Ukrainian nurse enlightens no one except comedy show writers, who are certainly heartily enjoying such revelations. It seems clear that many documents are included in the leaks only to needle the government, which certainly undermines Assange’s credibility as a caped crusader for justice.
Additionally, recent documents detailing facilities around the world that the United States considers “strategically important” does nothing to rebut the charge of a terrorist conspiracy. Whether this or that factory in eastern Europe is important for national stability is totally irrelevant to anyone except one who seeks to become a destabilizing force. Equally silly is the contention that the public is entitled to know what goes on behind closed doors in international meetings. Even the most fervent democrat must recognize that we cannot all be privy to all information all the time. As soon as we move on from being roving bands who settle disputes by the sword and endorse settled governments who pursue diplomacy, we abandon our right to absolute information. The basis of a representative democracy is the delegation of important decisions. It is ludicrous to claim that in the brutal and incredibly complex arena of foreign affairs, a government can operate with total transparency. Why not then ask a poker player to compete with his cards face up?
Let it not be said that WikiLeaks has not done good. The “Collateral Murder” video is the epitome of what could be accomplished. Just as it is not necessary for the American people to know what was said between the Chinese and American ambassadors at an informal dinner, it is absolutely crucial for them to see the deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of the US. If not for WikiLeaks, the video certainly never would have been released, meaning that the deaths it had captured would never have been seen by the people whose responsibility it is to keep their government in check. The argument the government presented at the time against the release was laughable. Of course such videos will fuel anti-American sentiment around the world, possibly helping terrorist organizations to recruit new members. The solution is to refrain from committing such atrocities, not withholding the knowledge of their occurrence.
As perplexing as the fact that WikiLeaks seems to find evidence of criminal killings by the occupying force in Iraq comparable to mundane chatter between diplomats is the way in which the site goes about releasing its data. The group is founded on the precept that government and major media are bad. Our information, Assange says, is corrupted by political figures who pursue their own interests, who censor the news and tell us what they want us to hear. To remedy this problem, the raw information is disseminated onto the Internet, where it is available to the average citizen to interpret on his own. However, ahead of big releases, the site has consistently given early access to big newspapers (The New York Times in the United States) so that they could report on the most important items as soon as the leaks went public. Equally contradictory is the fact that by releasing so many documents, WikiLeaks puts the power back into the hands of the mainstream media. Since at least 95% of the documents are uninteresting and insignificant to the average viewer, the important and revealing tidbits are drowned in a mass of garbage. Only a well-funded and organized corporation could devote the time and resources to have multiple reporters read the leaks for days so as to ascertain what is relevant for general consumption.
As the story continues to develop, with attack and counterattack, let us remain on the lookout. Let us stay as skeptical of the self-righteous claims of hackers who temporarily shut down the MasterCard and PayPal websites “in retaliation for their termination of service to WikiLeaks” as we are when we hear that the European manhunt for Assange this past week had no political motivation. Let us hope that the Australian will get a fair trial. His danger to governments should not convict him, but his celebrity should not exonerate him if he truly did commit the crimes of which he is in Sweden. Let us all ask but one question throughout the next stages of this story: “What exactly does Julian Assange want?”