Why online whistleblowers need protection from the powerful
PRESENT TENSE:IMAGINE THIS trailer for a slick new Hollywood thriller: a plucky group of human rights activists and investigative journalists band together to expose illegal government behaviour and corporate corruption.
In the process they help whistleblowers reveal fraudulent banking practices and government-sponsored torture programmes, quickly becoming a thorn in the side of some of the world’s most powerful elites. Then, on the eve of exposing their biggest story, a military massacre that recalls My Lai, the group comes under hostile pressure from the government forces they have sworn to scrutinise. Just before their findings are revealed to the world, something terrible happens . . .
We’ve seen the film, or something very like it, plenty of times before. But this time the drama is unfolding in the real world, and it would be wise if we started paying attention to the plot, because the twist at the end could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
The crusading group of heroes in this story is WikiLeaks, an innovative website that facilitates whistleblowers from all over the world. If you have evidence of wrongdoing, or even just a wealth of information that some group would rather keep quiet, you can submit it to WikiLeaks through its secure servers. On Monday, the site will reveal video footage of what is said to be a US military massacre in Afghanistan, most likely an air strike from last May, in which 97 civilians were alleged to have been killed.
Needless to say, you don’t get to screen evidence of an incident like this without attracting some attention, which is where the plot thickens.
Founded in late 2006, WikiLeaks is run by a small army of volunteers who operate under an advisory board, with editor and co-founder Julian Assange very much the public face. The Guardianhas called WikiLeaks “a brown paper envelope for the digital age”, and it is tempting to imagine how easily Daniel Ellsberg could have leaked the Pentagon Papers if WikiLeaks had existed back in 1971 – and then imagine how much suffering could have been spared.
Previously, WikiLeaks has published material about British National Party membership, Scientology, the Climate Research Unit e-mails, illegal activity by various banks in Switzerland and Iceland, as well as leaks relating to the US military, including the Standard Operating Procedures for Guantánamo Bay, which revealed how detainees were treated.
In recent months, Assange and the WikiLeaks team have been helping Icelandic politicians draft legislation that would make it a paragon of transparency, with strong whistleblower protection and reasonable libel laws. In an era when London has become the home of libel tourism and the super-injunction, Iceland would operate as the antithesis, a haven for global investigative journalism, which is about the most elegant, just and effective response to financial chicanery and political enabling as it’s possible to imagine.
But it is in Iceland that WikiLeaks has become the focus of an alleged surveillance campaign by the US. In 2008, the US Department of Defense drew up a counter-intelligence study outlining how it planned to undermine and neutralise WikiLeaks – a study which was subsequently leaked and last month published on, of course, WikiLeaks. The document discusses how WikiLeaks uses “trust as a center of gravity by assuring insiders, leakers, and whistleblowers . . . that they will remain anonymous”. It then goes on to emphasise the importance of damaging or destroying that trust so as to undermine the site.
Assange and his colleagues are no stranger to powerful enemies – China, Russia, Thailand, North Korea, Zimbabwe and even Australia have all attempted to block WikiLeaks, while, last year, the home of the owner of the German WikiLeaks domain was raided by police. However, according to Assange, the prospect of Monday’s screening appears to have intensified the “counter-intelligence programme”.
On March 23rd, tweets from the WikiLeaks account included some alarming messages: “WikiLeaks is currently under an aggressive US and Icelandic surveillance operation. Following/photographing/ filming/detaining”; and “If anything happens to us, you know why: it is our Apr 5 film. And you know who is responsible.”
In an interview with Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald last week, Assange explained that “the information which is concealed or suppressed is concealed or suppressed because the people who know it best understand that it has the ability to reform. So they engage in work to prevent that reform.”
At a time when such reform is more important than ever, WikiLeaks helps chip away at the corrosive culture of secrecy that enables bogus wars and widespread financial fraud, with the incalculable human costs they bring. The twist in the plot is about to be revealed, but this isn’t a Hollywood thriller, it’s not just another “little guy sticking it to the man” narrative. It is relevant to our real lives because if we want to see real change, then the continued success of groups such as WikiLeaks (see wikileaks.org) is critical.