PUBLIC INFORMATION — Steven Aftergood, whose Secrecy News blog tracks federal resistance to transparency, has called into question the ethics and motivations of WikiLeaks, the weebsite dedicated to outing information governments and other powerful institutions want to keep hidden. As Aftergood noted Monday, one of the nation's chief sources of foundation support for innovative online efforts to open government in the public interest has declined to give WikiLeaks a grant.
In the past week, both the Washington Post and the New York Times have referred to WikiLeaks.org, the web site that publishes confidential records, as a "whistleblower" site. This conforms to WikiLeaks' own instructions to journalists that "WikiLeaks should be described, depending on context, as the 'open government group', 'anti-corruption group', 'transparency group' or 'whistleblower's site'."
But calling WikiLeaks a whistleblower site does not accurately reflect the character of the project. It also does not explain why others who are engaged in open government, anti-corruption and whistleblower protection activities are wary of WikiLeaks or disdainful of it. And it does not provide any clue why the Knight Foundation, the preeminent foundation funder of innovative First Amendment and free press initiatives, might have rejected WikiLeaks' request for financial support, as it recently did.
From one perspective, WikiLeaks is a creative response to a real problem afflicting the U.S. and many other countries, namely the over-control of government information to the detriment of public policy. WikiLeaks has published a considerable number of valuable official records that had been kept unnecessarily secret and were otherwise unavailable, including some that I had attempted and failed to obtain myself. Its most spectacular disclosure was the formerly classified videotape showing an attack by a U.S. Army helicopter crew in Baghdad in 2007 which led to the deaths of several non-combatants. Before mostly going dormant late last year, it also published numerous documents that have no particular policy significance or that were already placed in the public domain by others (including a few that were taken from the FAS web site).
WikiLeaks says that it is dedicated to fighting censorship, so a casual observer might assume that it is more or less a conventional liberal enterprise committed to enlightened democratic policies. But on closer inspection that is not quite the case. In fact, WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.
Last year, for example, WikiLeaks published the "secret ritual" of a college women's sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau. Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities "exposed" by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has. Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group's confidential ritual just because it could. This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism.
In fact, WikiLeaks routinely tramples on the privacy of non-governmental, non-corporate groups for no valid public policy reason. It has published private rites of Masons, Mormons and other groups that cultivate confidential relations among their members. Most or all of these groups are defenseless against WikiLeaks' intrusions. The only weapon they have is public contempt for WikiLeaks' ruthless violation of their freedom of association, and even that has mostly been swept away in a wave of uncritical and even adulatory reporting about the brave "open government," "whistleblower" site.
On occasion, WikiLeaks has engaged in overtly unethical behavior. Last year, without permission, it published the full text of the highly regarded 2009 book about corruption in Kenya called "It's Our Turn to Eat" by investigative reporter Michela Wrong (as first reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian on April 9). By posting a pirated version of the book and making it freely available, WikiLeaks almost certainly disrupted sales of the book and made it harder for Ms. Wrong and other anti-corruption reporters to perform their important work and to get it published. Repeated protests and pleas from the author were required before WikiLeaks (to its credit) finally took the book offline.
"Soon enough," observed Raffi Khatchadourian in a long profile of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange in The New Yorker (June 7), "Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most–power without accountability–is encoded in the sites DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."
Much could be forgiven to WikiLeaks if it were true that its activities were succeeding in transforming government information policy in favor of increased openness and accountability — as opposed to merely generating reams of publicity for itself. WikiLeaks supporter Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com wrote that when it comes to combating government secrecy, "nobody is doing that as effectively as WikiLeaks." But he neglected to spell out exactly what effect WikiLeaks has had. Which U.S. government programs have been cancelled as a result of Wikileaks' activities? Which government policies have been revised? How has public discourse shifted? (And, by the way, who has been injured by its work?)
A less sympathetic observer might conclude that WikiLeaks has squandered much of the impact that it might have had.
A telling comparison can be made between WikiLeaks' publication of the Iraq Apache helicopter attack video last April and The New Yorker's publication of the Abu Ghraib abuse photographs in an article by Seymour Hersh in May 2004. Both disclosures involved extremely graphic and disturbing images. Both involved unreleased or classified government records. And both generated a public sensation. But there the similarity ends. The Abu Ghraib photos prompted lawsuits, congressional hearings, courts martial, prison sentences, declassification initiatives, and at least indirectly a revision of U.S. policy on torture and interrogation. By contrast, the WikiLeaks video tendentiously packaged under the title "Collateral Murder" produced none of that– no investigation (other than a leak investigation), no congressional hearings, no lawsuits, no tightening of the rules of engagement. Just a mild scolding from the Secretary of Defense, and an avalanche of publicity for WikiLeaks.
Of course, it's hard for anyone to produce a specific desired outcome from the national security bureaucracy, and maybe WikiLeaks can't be faulted for failing to have done so. But with the whole world's attention at its command for a few days last April, it could have done more to place the focus on the victims of the incident that it had documented, perhaps even establishing a charitable fund to assist their families. But that's not what it chose to do. Instead, the focus remained firmly fixed on WikiLeaks itself and its own ambitious fundraising efforts.
In perhaps the first independent review of the WikiLeaks project, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation considered and rejected an application from WikiLeaks for fin
ancial support. The Knight Foundation was actively looking for grantees who could promote innovative uses of digital technology in support of the future development of journalism. At the end of the process, more than $2.7 million was awarded to 12 promising recipients. WikiLeaks was not among them.
"Every year some applications that are popular among advisors don't make the cut after Knight staff conducts due diligence," said Knight Foundation spokesman Marc Fest in response to an inquiry from Yahoo news. "WikiLeaks was not recommended by Knight staff to the board."