In a number of respects the Iraq War Diaries constitute a repeat of the Afghan War Diaries – a massive data dump bringing to light few unknowns but casting knowns in much sharper relief. And as in July, Julian Assange is predictably being hailed or harangued by different corners. However, a few things that are different this time ’round:
1) Assange was previously criticized, including by me, for protecting his sources but exposing the names of vulnerable individuals named in the documents themselves.* In July Assange claimed this was justifiable and at any rate couldn’t be helped. In his newest public statements, however, Assange has bent over backward to insist he did a more careful redaction this time, “beginning with everything blacked out and then carefully deciding what to put back in.” My cursory examination of some random documents suggests it may be true. While I withhold judgment until either I or someone else has looked through a larger number of them, I do feel generally a bit less uncomfortable than I was last time he unleashed a dump like this – if only because he acknowledges the norm of limiting collateral damage in war reporting as well as war fighting.*If he has in fact internalized some ethical standards prominent among human rights defenders, it may help him avoid a backlash from the very individuals whose work he aims to support.
2) Based on his statements, Assange now seems to understand what constitute “war crimes.”
“There are over 300 recorded reports of coalition forces committing torture and abuse of detainees across 284 reports and over 1,000 cases of Iraqi security forces committing similar crimes,” WikiLeaks added. “There are numerous cases of what appear to be clear war crimes by U.S. forces, such as the deliberate killing of persons trying to surrender.”
Indeed, those would be war crimes – as compared to some of his earlier claims. In short, Assange is developing a clearer understanding of international law and discourse, something that will help him frame the significance of what he is trying to do and may raise his credibility within the human rights community.
3) Wikileaks’ mode of information dissemination is also much more sophisticated this time. The Afghan War Diaries site was fairly rudimentary, a simple portal through which individuals could download the entire set of files. Warlogs.Wikileaks.org includes a search engine with a topic model, and in the absence of a search presents documents from the files seemingly at random.* (I like the tool that automatically expands acronyms.) Most interestingly is the separate page where individuals can comment on bits of the logs without downloading the whole, flagging specific documents and providing commentary. I don’t know yet how this will affect the way in which the data is interpreted but it will be interesting to watch. Truly, “War Diaries 2.0″.
4) Finally, the answer to the question in the title may ultimately be based less on learning from external critiques and constraints and more on internal dynamics within the organization itself – which are also in constant motion. An excellent source to follow on what Wikileaks is, as opposed to what it does, is here.
More observations about the media coverage and the archive itself over the next few days.
*However, see my addendums to this point at Duck of Minerva.