Publish and be damned - the dilemma facing WikiLeaks


WIRED:WikiLeaks must act responsibly or its soft power and pool of volunteers will vanish, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

Most people heard of WikiLeaks after its release in April of classified military video footage of US soldiers killing a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news staff. Since then, the group, led by Julian Assange, has released two detailed logs of incidents in the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Last week, it began its slow trickle of leaks from a cache of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables.

Most people would agree that the organisation has grown ever bolder in its actions. Critics slam Assange’s anarchistic disregard for the governmental need for secrecy. Supporters see the shutting down of the site’s Amazon hosting, an Interpol arrest warrant for the founder, and mutterings of assassination and treason charges from prominent US politicians, and worry for the volunteers’ safety.

What I find fascinating is almost the opposite – how integrated Assange and his crew have become into the compromises and bargaining that constitutes international geopolitics. And the key indicator of this is what WikiLeaks is not publishing: the full, unexpurgated cables.

On July 25th, WikiLeaks published its Afghan war diary, a collection of over 90,000 incident logs from the United States military in Afghanistan between 2004 and the end of 2009. The files included the names of hundreds of Afghan informants, who were potentially at risk from Taliban reprisals. Human rights groups stated their disapproval of the unedited data dump. The Pentagon later stated that they did not know of any such attacks conducted as a result of the leak.

What I have heard from those connected to the project is that the lack of redactions caused a major split among the WikiLeaks volunteers, who effectively presented Assange with an ultimatum – either you come up with a way of making these leaks safer, or we’ll leave. Many did, led by “Daniel Schmidt”, the pseudonymous second-in-command (who later revealed his name as Daniel Domscheit-Berg).

When I last checked with my own coterie of WikiLeaks-watchers, just prior to the Iraqi war logs release in October, our collective guess was that at that time, Assange was essentially locked out of the primary WikiLeaks infrastructure, to prevent him from making any further dangerous leaks. This may or not be true, but matters seem calmer now. In the subsequent, Assange-led Iraqi release (which Assange may or may not have conducted without control of the main WikiLeaks site), the redactions were far deeper and better co-ordinated.

Most people assume the trickle of this latest stash of diplomatic cables (only 485 or so from the 250,000 so far) is a strategy to keep WikiLeaks in the headlines for the next seven years or so. It is also a strategy to allow decent time for redactions to be placed on the content as it comes out.

The mighty WikiLeaks, then, has at least been reined in, if only by the hint of internal rebellion and public condemnation. The biggest remaining source of disagreement between WikiLeaks volunteers (or ex-volunteers) is just how to handle the huge backlog of leaks the group has gathered. Assange himself has seemingly given the nod to Domscheit-Berg’s plans to start up an alternative WikiLeaks.

These, then, are the internal debates that I suspect would be revealed if WikiLeaks itself was to have a leak of its own diplomatic cables.

But here’s the interesting question. What, exactly, are the pressures that oblige Assange to attempt to redact responsibly? If Assange is, as his enemies declaim and his most ardent supporters proclaim, a man who believes there should be no secrets, why not publish all those names? I understand the many worries about accountability that have been raised with regard to WikiLeaks. It is, contrary to its own principles, a uniquely untransparent and unaccountable organisation. But then, so are many of the sovereign nations whose secrets it publishes.

There is no international police force that compels diplomats to play fair.

Nation states, in the darkest corners of global realpolitik, have no masters to force them to do the right thing. But what’s fascinating to me is watching what thin mechanisms of accountability that do operate in global politics apply even to this brand new rogue faction.

Just as the contents of the cables teach us that even North Korea or the United States are surprisingly hedged in by what they can get away with on the international stage, so is WikiLeaks, and by the same forces.

Outrageous actions, if known, result in condemnation and rapidly diminishing options. WikiLeaks cannot just publish and be damned, because if it does, its soft power (and pool of volunteers) will evaporate.

Assange, irrepressible publicist that he is, has belatedly learned this lesson.

If WikiLeaks is a force for anarchy on the world stage, it is far less of a terror than, say, North Korea or the tyrants of Asia. If it is a force for good, it will only stay on that path if we exercise the carrot and stick of popularity and outrage that operate on the great nations. They will work far more keenly on WikiLeaks than on some nations I could mention.