Why WikiLeaks Changes Everything

Julian Assange
Julian Assange; drawing by John Springs

WikiLeaks changes everything. We can act as if the old standards of journalism still apply to the Internet, but WikiLeaks shows why this is wishful thinking. On November 28 the Internet organization started posting examples from a cache of 251,287 formerly secret US diplomatic cables. The few thousand journalists in this country who regularly track the State Department’s doings would have needed a couple of centuries to wheedle out this volume of information by traditional methods; the linkage of disparate government computer networks (a well-meaning response to the compartmentalization of data in the pre–September 11 period) apparently allowed one disgruntled Army private to pull it off in a few moments. As WikiLeaks itself boasts, this is “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.”

The scale is unprecedented. So, too, is the intent—or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Raffi Khatchadourian on the New Yorker website speculates that the aim of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “is not to reveal a single act of abuse…, but rather to open up the inner workings of a closed and complex system, to call the world in to help judge its morality.”1 This may indeed be Assange’s vision, but he doesn’t seem capable of articulating it himself. The WikiLeaks website contends that it’s out to expose “contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors” (as if a charge of hypocrisy were an adequate reason for exposing official secrets) and informs us that “every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington—the country’s first President—could not tell a lie.”

Among the cables released so far are revelations that have prompted headlines around the world, but there are also dispatches on Bavarian election results and Argentine maritime law. If the aim is to strike a blow against American imperial designs—as Assange has suggested in some of his statements—I don’t see how these particular cables support it. Assange has claimed to Time magazine that he wants to “make the world more civil” by making secretive organizations like the US State Department and Department of Defense accountable for their actions; he also told Time that, as an alternative, he wants to force them “to lock down internally and to balkanize,” protecting themselves by becoming more opaque and thereby more “closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.” This is, to say the least, a patently contradictory agenda; I’m not sure how we’re supposed to make sense of it. In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see coherently articulated morality, or immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void.

As Alan Cowell has written in The New York Times, the careers of some foreign officials—and not necessarily high-level ones—have already been destroyed or threatened by these…



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