WikiLeaks and Secrecy
Why should Julian Assange decide which secrets to give away?
The idea that governments keep some things secret that they shouldn’t seems fair enough; clearly, the knowledge that the Bush administration manipulated evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was a good revelation. It helps Americans choose whether or not to vote for more people like Bush and warns them to more stringently hold their leaders accountable for what they say. But this doesn’t mean the entire world should know everything the U.S. government does. Some things are kept secret for a reason, and “secrecy” does not deserve to be consigned to a list of proscribed words. Julian P. Assange, editor-in-chief and spokesman of WikiLeaks, seems to think otherwise. He also seems to think he should be the one to decide what gets leaked. The recent release by his so-called “whistle blowing” website of nearly 400,000 U.S. military field reports on the Iraq War—hot on the back of the August release of a similar stash of records from Afghanistan—does nothing other than put yet more lives at risk while maliciously representing as fact every detail of reported rumor and witness hearsay found in the “Iraq War Logs.”
The media’s characterization of Assange as a “whistle-blowing journalist” is unwarranted and falls for his entire strategy. Assange is no such thing: Journalism should be about gathering, editing, and accurately reporting news. Indiscriminately leaking some 400,000 stolen documents, while passing off everything in them as “the truth,” does not qualify as journalism. Real journalism should also be accountable and transparent; WikiLeaks operates by trying to avoid being held accountable in any one jurisdiction. While reports of turning a blind eye to torture and the murder of more civilians are indeed distressing, it is spurious to present initial evidence gathered by the military as incontrovertible fact. Real journalists with experience in war-torn countries have written repeatedly of the extreme difficulty in establishing what amongst the trough of rumors and hearsay actually happened.
Yet journalism appears less and less to be the true goal of WikiLeaks’ actions. Instead, Assange uses WikiLeaks to promote a radical anti-government and overtly anti-American ideology. In a widely reported email exchange, Assange reportedly denied a request for interview on the grounds that “I’m too busy ending two wars.” To accept that Assange is a journalist is to accept his implicit impartiality.
The release of these files cannot do much further damage to the already-tattered reputation of the U.S. military in the Middle East and beyond. Still, this leak provides a mass of information to anyone on the workings and the operations of the U.S. military, including in some cases the names of Iraqi informants. The administration’s continuing inability to suppress these publications only makes America seem that much less reliable an employer and a trusted ally to foreign citizens.
This is not to say that all information WikiLeaks spreads is bad or particularly harmful. The effort to publish the full report behind a large toxic spill in the Ivory Coast likely contributed to the strength of the victims’ cause, while the decision to release a video of a helicopter killing (later-to-be-found) innocent Iraqis in 2007—widely known as “Collateral Murder”—is hardly an issue of national security. The leaking of 50,000 text messages sent during the 9/11 attacks may have been pretty tasteless yet still far from causing anyone a serious problem today. Even so, none of this is real journalism; much of it simply requires the guts and legal anonymity to publish things that other people won’t.
Assange’s ability, on the other hand, to give away so many classified files, many of which have nothing to do with alleged misconduct, to the globe is not so innocuous—especially considering his remarkable success so far in passing off what’s reported as fact. While undeniably succeeding in his tacit goal of harming the interests of the U.S., Assange is only helping prolong turbulence in Iraq and Afghanistan. This kind of leak—what it does and doesn’t show, how it gets represented, who it harms—is an example of why we need some secrecy more than we need none at all.
Eli B. Martin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.