Don’t let the name fool you, WikiLeaks is not associated with everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. But both websites do embody a similar ideal: access to information. The difference is that WikiLeaks wants to give access to classified information. Without condemning or condoning WikiLeaks and the actions of its Editor in Chief, Julian Assange, let’s review what the site is, what it is doing, and some of the major ramifications that may ensue.
WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a website for leaking confidential information, with a mission to make governments more open. In its early days, WikiLeaks focused on corruption in African governments, most notably in Kenya. The site even won some media awards from Amnesty International and The Economist. Now, however, WikiLeaks has turned its attention to the U.S. government and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly everyone cares about government secrecy/privacy (depending on your view) when it is their own government coming under fire.
The latest leak, in November, was that of over a quarter million U.S. State Department email communications (frequently referred to as cables). These cables, courtesy of U.S. official Bradley Manning, range from completely uninteresting to diplomatically damaging to possible war time espionage. Whether or not the leak is actually harmful to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Read this article for a more in depth analysis of the situation and more detail on the contents of the cables.
Should we toss Assange in jail and throw away the key? Accept WikiLeaks as a new facet of governing bodies? What are the sides here? To be sure, leaking documents that are classified, is against the law. If Assange were a U.S. citizen there might be a case for treason. However, he is Australian. But is it really espionage? Maybe. This article by the Economist explains the need for government secrecy in diplomatic matters and the difficulty posed in prosecuting a web-based organization like WikiLeaks, because the internet transcends borders.
Amid calls for Assange’s head on a platter, others are running wild with praise for WikiLeaks. Arianna Huffington writes here about how this could be the tipping point for political backlash against the war in Afghanistan, which she says cannot be won. In light of anticipated upcoming leaks about some mega banking corporations, this blog article likes the idea that sources like WikiLeaks might keep giant corporations on the up ‘n up if their inner-workings could be exposed at any time. Still others, simply think that governments should be more open, and that WikiLeaks is a much needed venue for government accountability. This article is somewhat on the extreme side but makes the case for transparency in governance. I am a big fan of transparency and accountability in government, and yes, information is power, but do I deserve to know classified information about tactical troop movements in Afghanistan? No, I don’t. WikiLeaks is a slippery slope my friends.
Regardless of the right or wrong of WikiLeaks, the issue represents an historical moment in the evolution of governance. The technology that created WikiLeaks is there and is evolving as you read this. This article discusses how, even if WikiLeaks was shut down, another could easily take its place. We are living in the information age. If people want the information, and have a just little bit of web-savvy and a thumb drive, they can get it. Well, as long as people like Bradley Manning are willing to share it, that is. But consider this; the U.S. government has thousands of employees with security clearances, and gives out hundreds more each year. Why would the U.S. government make it so easy to exchange classified information? In the wake of 9/11, calls abounded for cooperation and better sharing of intelligence across organizations. So now they have done that . . . and now this. There are two sides to everything, and those sides are very rarely black and white. Certainly though, as long as the technology exists to leak information it will force governments to be more discriminating about the information that is or is not labeled top-secret. Who knows? Maybe the threat of a WikiLeaks expose will steer governments towards more honest diplomacy at home and abroad. Honesty? In politics? We live in interesting times. Interesting times indeed.
World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern