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What is Wikileaks?

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This is one of many useful questions asked by Vikash Yadav, one of a few commentators this week less interested in what the cables say, whether they should have been released, or whether the impact will be positive or negative or both. Vikash argues we should be more interested in the broader socio-political implications of the phenomenon Wikileaks represents.

I have some thoughts on that latter that I’ll write up by the by, but for now two things Wikileaks is not, in my mind. At least not necessarily.

A Terrorist Organization. For pity’s sake. How stupid can our wannabe public officials/Fox News commentators be? There is of course no internationally accepted definition of “terrorism” so the claim is neither true, untrue nor meaningful in any objective sense. It only has meaning politically. And as I see it, no possible political interpretation could usefully serve the goals of those who are using the label – which explains why security experts from organizations as radically liberal as the Heritage Foundation moved quickly to dampen such talk:

“I appreciate the frustration but I’m not so sure that’s appropriate,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Don’t get me wrong. [WikiLeaks is] an enemy of the United States and they’ve acted irresponsible. But this is not what this list is designed for. This list was designed for people that are going out and intentionally, actively killing innocents.”

In fact, it is such a stretch to compare a man on a mission to provide unvarnished data to the public with a man on a mission to kill innocent civilians that the trope can only make those using it look stupid, desperate and as authoritarian as Assange would like us to believe every government is by definition. But worse, this kind of hysterical talk risks implicitly throwing support and sympathy to Assange regardless of the merits of his specific tactics, which are rightly being criticized on more nuanced, practical grounds by voices across the political spectrum for reasons having nothing to do with whether they qualify as terrorism.

Mr. Santorum, Assange is spreading state secrets, not fear. Call him a criminal if you think you can make that case. Call for laws criminalizing his behavior if you realize full well you can’t make that case but think that his behavior genuinely threatens public safety. Or perhaps take a more moderate position and simply call him reckless.

Or consider that Wikileaks has done a variety of important things in the public good along with a number of really stupid things that may compromise national and human security, and focus on how it should properly function rather than whether it is inherently good or evil. Polarizing language does nothing but make you look afraid and weak. And it makes it all too easy for your opponents to argue that anyone who criticizes Assange is as idiotic as you are. From someone who has serious qualms about how Assange does what he is trying to do, thanks for nothing.

A “Whistle-blowing Website.” No. At least, not necessarily. Whistle-blowing is about exposing specific cases of wrong-doing by public or corporate officials. Wikileaks has been known to play this important role very effectively. For example, it exposed corporate dumping of toxic materials off the Africa coast. And it brought to light the apparent shooting of non-combatants by a US helicopter crew in Baghdad. In such cases, a platform like Wikileaks – far from constituting terrorist activity – serves the public good, while protecting those vulnerable to recrimination. The Geneva Conventions for example, require soldiers to report war crimes they witness, but they provide no mechanism for doing that short of their own chain of command. Whistle-blowing sites like Wikileaks have the potential to fill an important gap in the laws of war.

However, megaleaks like “CableGate” are different. It may not be terrorism, but nor is it “whistle-blowing” to simply disseminate private or classified information devoid from any context of wrong-doing. You can argue over whether such leaks are good or bad – I tend to agree with those who argue the negative side-effects of this particular dump outweighing the potential gains – but whatever you think, this isn’t “whistle-blowing.”

A New Kind of Journalism? I need to chew on this one. But if it is – and certainly that is how Wikileaks thinks of itself – then the organization and those like it need to seriously think about what sort of “new journalist ethics” is appropriate for this brave new era. And it’s not clear to me – or others – that Assange is even thinking much about this question. I’ll have more ruminations about this by and by, and welcome thoughts on this point to help me refine mine.

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