WikiLeaks, the neo-journalistic website bent on making government secrets of all kinds available to the public, has become a legitimate phenomenon in recent months.
Only three years old, the Australian organization rose to international prominence with the April release of “Collateral Murder,” the leaked video of an incident in 2007 when American servicemen killed Reuters journalists. In July of this year, WikiLeaks revealed the Afghan War Diary, and in October the website made public the Iraq War Logs; both leaks contained thousands of pages of classified military reports from the major theaters of the War on Terror.
Wikileaks turned the news cycle upside-down again this week, with the release of tens of thousands of American diplomatic cables between Washington and its foreign embassies.
The organization is, of course, fascinating. And the now-public content of the newly released documents is only part of the mystique that surrounds the whistle-blowing website. The methods by which the documents were obtained, the reaction of exposed parties, as well as the organization’s founder himself, Julian Assange, seemingly get more news coverage than the information that WikiLeaks has actually produced.
For us, though, the most stimulating aspect of the sensation that is WikiLeaks isn’t the website’s content or the story behind the organization. Instead, we’re interested in the debate it’s sparked on the more abstract concepts of censorship, freedom of information and institutional privacy — WikiLeaks as an idea, not just a whistle-blower.
Here are our two basic conclusions:
One of our (and many others’) first reactions to the release of these classified documents was simply that, if nothing else, WikiLeaks has definitively proven that far too many of these documents were classified in the first place. Literally hundreds of thousands of these pages were undoubtedly benign, and should always have been available to the public, especially in regard to the reports depicting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. WikiLeaks, by publishing information that should have been public already, did us all a service — as much information as possible should be available to us all.
Unlike WikiLeaks, though, we do believe that some things should be classified. The most compelling criticism of the WikiLeaks’ revelations put forth by opponents of the organization is that unredacted information puts individuals who have cooperated in the American war effort in direct physical danger. If true, this information obviously should never have been made public.
This is the primary tension in the WikiLeaks phenomenon as we see it: What information should be available, what information shouldn’t and, perhaps most importantly, who gets to decide?
As the WikiLeaks’ chief decision-maker, Assange commits the very fault he seeks to remedy — he wants to democratize information, but he does the opposite by giving himself sole editorial authority. The flow of knowledge and information, he argues, is power. And though he is robbing that power from the U.S. powers that be, he has merely stepped into their shoes as international power broker.
And if we are uncomfortable with Assange’s authority, who should have it? The civilian government? The military? The Guardian or The New York Times? Some combination of the above?
We don’t know the answer, and we’re not sure anyone has the perfect solution yet. But what we do know is this: This is the healthiest debate on this topic since the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Now, in the Information Age we have an opportunity to work on a real solution to this question, instead of simply waiting decades for another war, and inevitably another leak.