In publishing a massive trove of government documents on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has done a useful thing. And because it often publishes information that is embarrassing to government, rather than dangerous to it, WikiLeaks is a good thing for democracy.
I say that to prevent the criticism below from getting me labeled as part of an effort to silence WikiLeaks or distract from the news it generates.
For starters – and this is more about the media than WikiLeaks – there’s the fact that thus far there is little new here. As we saw last week with the Washington Post’s Top Secret America blockbuster, the media fetishizes secret information, even when it merely elaborates on stories we’ve already heard.
My problem with WikiLeaks is its practice of stamping its politics on its leaked documents. For example, in April, when it released that gruesome video of U.S. Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq enthusiastically killing civilians that they mistook for insurgents, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” despite the obvious efforts of the pilots to comply with the rules of engagement.
Now rather than simply put its documents on the web and let people draw their own conclusions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a self-congratulatory press conference where he declares “it is our experience that courage is contagious” and compares the document release not just to the leak of Pentagon Papers but to the opening of the Stasi archive in East Germany. Certainly U.S. forces in Afghanistan have committed war crimes (it would be hard to run a war of this scale and avoid them completely) and spun the war’s progress. If these documents reveal more of those doings, that’s a good thing. But even the harshest critic of the war’s conduct ought to be able distinguish it from the activities of a Stalinist secret police force. I bet that the Stasi, faced with a similar leak problem, would have found a way to plug it by now.
Grandiosity is also evident in Assange’s recent response to transparency advocate Steve Aftergood’s critique of WikiLeaks seeming lack of privacy standards. In one paragraph, Assange irrelevantly brags that he spoke before European parliamentarians, asserts that “WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law,” announces its opposition to “plutocrats and cashed-up special interests” (not secrecy?), and then claims to have inspired Senate legislation to make Congressional Research Service reports public, even though bills to that effect predate his organization’s existence by nearly a decade.
In the future maybe we can get Wikileaks’ product without its commentary.