So how about that WikiLeaks right? A paper for class…

Q: In disclosing large numbers of confidential records from the US State Department, Wikileaks has operated on the basis of a systematic breach of trust and in doing so has endangered the public record that will be available for future generations. Discuss.

The information WikiLeaks has exposed will affect the public record going forward, but this will be the result of abusive government responses. I don’t feel WikiLeaks can be condemned for these responses.  The government bodies which it has embarrassed and made trouble for will almost certainly respond by opportunistically increasing their records’ ‘classified’ status, abusing the public trust by putting documents out of public reach. This, it has been argued, is already the case and has been in the United States at least since the 9/11 attacks[1].

A compelling refutation of the position which holds that WikiLeaks, by releasing sensitive government records without authorization, has effectively constricted access to public records going forward is that this view does not hold in the inverse; without WikiLeaks, is it reasonable to assume that government record-keeping policies would naturally move toward increasing availability? If history is any guide, there seems little reason to believe that, barring any spectacular breach of official barriers to access, official record-keepers will grow more generous in their willingness to grant public access to government archives. The case of scores of improperly withheld boxes of documents relating to the government’s Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, over forty years after that sordid episode was leaked by government employees, is a telling one[2].

Nevertheless I agree with those who say that governments have the right to discuss and consider the state of the world and their options in it in secrecy and confidence. But again, WikiLeaks cannot be held accountable for the restrictive record-keeping policies which governments may adopt in response. What obstructions governments throw up from here on out are theirs to answer for, and in open societies they will have to. The argument that WikiLeaks should have refrained from making military and diplomatic documents available, or kindly returned them to the governments they belonged to (which, since late November 2011, has meant the United States), in order to protect the citizens of the future seems to me to endorse irresponsibility in a different, but equally misguided, way.

Recently a classmate suggested that the WikiLeaks documents will damage the public record going forward because after being exposed in this fashion—that is, unwillingly, on short notice, and on a global scale—government workers, specifically those serving in diplomatic capacities and their ‘partners’[3] abroad who may be exposed to aggressive action by those who could perceive them as threats, will cease to communicate candidly, convey sensitive information, and / or take measures to ensure that documentation of their actions are destroyed before they ever enter the public record. According to this thinking WikiLeaks has, by greatly and possibly recklessly accelerating the speed at which some US government documents entered the public record, caused government workers to shun the record-keeping systems that ensure governmental transparency.   

I find that cannot fully agree with this view. First, it seems to me that WikiLeaks’ disclosures will only damage the public record for future generations if we accept as plausible the notion that any democratic government, held to a reasonable level of public accountability, can be run effectively without creating and preserving written records.

That any organization involving more than two people, not located within earshot of each other, could manage merely to meet at the same place at the same time without using some means which generates a record seems highly unlikely to me. Surely, the idea that a government of any size could accomplish anything at all without doing so is preposterous.

That a government of substantial size enjoying even a limited degree of open government within a multiparty system could long maintain that a false record, cobbled together to order after the events it was meant to memorialize, was genuine and accurate seems far-fetched as well. Such fictions may be sustained in dictatorships, totalitarian regimes, juntas—governments that do not allow opposition, from within or without; I do not think it is too idealistic to assert that the internal tensions inherent in pluralized political environments tend to squeeze out and expose such duplicity. Of course, they don’t always succeed right away, and bad men still get away with bad stuff. But falsehoods requiring many complicit actors do not tend to thrive under the scrutiny of a motivated opposition, especially if that opposition knows it is protected by law, and that law is enforced. A ‘destroy-all-records-retain-fake-docs-only’ policy would be virtually impossible to maintain in any organization large enough to require records in the first place. Furthermore, turning out your pockets to show ‘you got nothing’ tends to create more suspicion than it allays; the absence of evidence still doesn’t make for solid evidential value of absence.  

Open elections in a political environment supporting incisive debate between multiple parties, a free press bound to giving equal time to a wide variety of viewpoints, a widely available and unrestricted internet network, departmental structures allowing for independent intra-governmental oversight, distinct governing branches operating in equilibrium; these are qualities which discourage (but by no means eradicate) secrecy, encouraging a symbiotic relationship between reliable record-keeping and transparency. They are also qualities that the United States exercises vigorously (certainly compared to some of its ‘partners’), though clearly quite imperfectly. A write-nothing-down policy, and certainly a shred-everything-rewrite-it-all-later policy, could hardly be expected to escape notice within a political culture as surreally partisan and opportunistic as Washington D.C.’s—ask Richard Nixon, or Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby.  

WikiLeaks seems to operate not on a desire to systematically violate trust but rather from a wobbly sense of altruistically fighting the Man. Their target is clearly and admittedly the United States[4], but they occupy an odd place in the landscape of 21st century media and statecraft; neither a crusading journalist organization nor a malicious hacker collective, neither informed prankster, political insurgent, official or ‘unofficial’ instrument of state, nor quite data anarchist. WikiLeaks seems to want to encourage government transparency by grabbing one of the most powerful ones by the (intelligence) briefs and tearing them off as the world watches. Their actions may show, as a US diplomat characterized French President Nicolas Sarkozy, that the emperor is ‘less than fully dressed’ but if the emperor then returns to the scene clad in riot gear, was it worth exposing that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi will not travel without his ‘voluptuous blonde’ ‘Ukranian senior nurse’[5]?

Trust in this case is complicated by that, like its home the worldwide web, WikiLeaks is in effect a multinational, a stateless entity; it becomes less clear what the ‘public trust’ and even the ‘public good’ is or might be when that public is global. If a Yemeni citizen learns through WikiLeaks that missile strikes against local Taliban factions within Yemen were carried out not by her own government (as Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed) but by US armed forces[6], whose trust was then violated?

And who trusted WikiLeaks, and with what? Knowing what we do now makes assuming WikiLeaks could be trustworthy appear bizarre, but it is worth asking whose interests they were, and are, beholden to protect. The US military apparently did not want video of one of their Apache helicopters gunning down Iraqis in broad daylight and then, in short order, those who rushed to their aid[7], made widely available. But is the military’s discretion worth maintaining, in such a case? The military stood only to lose a skirmish in the battle for hearts and minds, not a tactical advantage. Private First Class Bradley Manning, the man suspected of giving WikiLeaks the ‘Iraq War Logs’ as well as the US diplomatic cables and now being held in a Virginia military prison, can be expected to warrant the trust of the government for which he worked as an Army intelligence analyst. WikiLeaks cannot.

Manning allegedly brought one of WikiLeaks’ most incendiary documents to them, the ‘Collateral Murder’ (the title is from WikiLeaks) video from the ‘Iraq War Logs’, of a US helicopter gunship killing Iraqis on a Baghdad street in 2007, two of whom were later identified as Reuters employees[8].

This, in my view, was a crucially important record to bring to the attention of the world’s people, particularly those whose tax dollars were funding the Iraq War. The ‘Collateral Murder’ video could conceivably have had an effect similar to that of Eddie Adams’ 1968 photo of a point-blank execution on a sunny boulevard in Saigon (Figure 1) by sharply diminishing the US public’s appetite for a distant, expensive, long-running war which yielded few tangible benefits and apparently molded young men and women into shockingly callous soldiers we hear goading one another on in the video.

Figure 1, ‘Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon’ Eddie Adams, 1968[9]

The context WikiLeaks apparently added to the video (providing subtitles, identifying the men depicted in it, editing the length but not, it appears, the sequence of action,) tilted their hand and revealed their condemnation of the event, but the images in it, seen at Figures 2 and 3, are difficult to view without feeling disgust.

Figures 2 and 3, from ‘Collateral Murder’[10]

And this is not to forget that the US armed forces do not merely fight our wars and soberly convey progress via statistics and geographic names and coordinates. The military are perfectly capable of putting forth their own version of events, as the falsehoods perpetuated about Cpl. Pat Tillman’s death by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan in 2004, and the false story propagated by the US military about Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s battlefield derring-do as ‘little girl Rambo’ (her words) before her capture by Iraqi forces in 2003, both of which were repudiated before Congress by Mr. Tillman’s brother Kevin and by Ms. Lynch herself in April 2007[11].

And these are only the more clumsy examples of the military’s influencing the public record via public relations. Little is said about the Navy Office of Information-West, which is happy to offer its vast resources to Hollywood filmmakers, provided their scripts cast the sharp end of American foreign policy in a virtuous light[12].

But by making available documents which reveal that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shamelessly panders to Vladimir Putin (surely the least scandalous aspect of the leadership quirks of a man, currently on trial for sex charges, with a heroic propensity for scandal) and also exposes Saudi Arabia as a major contributor to Middle East terrorist organizations whose leader King Abdullah characterizes Iran as a snake whose head ought to be cut off[13] is perhaps the real problem with WikiLeaks; it’s an issue of appraisal.

The site makes material available without judging its evidential or informational value, which trivializes and makes volatile the material they pluralize.

[1] David Samuels, ‘The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange’,

The Atlantic Monthy, 3 December 2010

[2] As discussed in Professor Tywanna Whorley’s essay ‘The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Access and Control Over Controversial Records’ in the 2005 collection Political Pressure and the Archival Record, in Political Pressure and the Archival Record, edited by Margaret Procter, Michael Cooke, and Caroline Williams (Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 2005)

[3] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘FACT SHEET: U.S.Government Mitigation Efforts in Light of the Recent Unlawful Disclosure of Classified Information’ 1 December 2010

[4] George Packer, ‘The Right to Secrecy’, 29 November 2010

[5] Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘Special Oops: Frenemies’, The New Yorker, 13 December 2010

[6] Scott Shane and Andrew W. Lehren, ‘Leaked Cables Offer Raw Look at U.S. Diplomacy’, The New York Times, 28 November 2010

[7] Raffi Khatchadourian, ‘No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission For Total Transparency’, The New Yorker 7 June 2010

[8] Sarah Ellison, ‘The Man Who Spilled the Secrets’, Vanity Fair, February 2011

[11] Michael Luo, ‘Panel hears About Falsehoods in 2 Wartime Incidents’, The New York Times, 25 April 2007

[13] Scott Shane and Andrew W. Lehren, ‘Leaked Cables Offer Raw Look at U.S. Diplomacy’, The New York Times, 28 November 2010


About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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2 Responses to So how about that WikiLeaks right? A paper for class…

  1. Ether Continuum says:

    Interesting. Very interesting. Keep posting.

  2. Ether Continuum says:

    Do you post quarterly? Is that the thing about this blog?

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