As a standard-bearer for responsible disclosure, Wikileaks is a deeply flawed organization. Too much Julian Assange’s brainchild, its moralizing and the obvious glee in spiting institutions it exposes serves only to undercut the often important information Wikileaks brings to light. I suspect that its high-profile will only serve to make sources, like Bradley Manning, more reticent about sharing classified information. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Afghanistan war documents apparently compromised the identity of some Afghans who have aided NATO forces. What conscience-driven whistle-blower is going to entrust information that could harm comrades and allies to an organization that does not respect the import of the information? Wikileaks may have harmed its mission.
This all looks rather bad until you consider its adversary, the Department of Defense. The other day, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell demanded that Wikileaks “do the right thing” by returning the leaked information to the DoD, and removing it from Wikileaks’ website and computers. It was when the DoD invoked the justice and morality of its cause that I remembered exactly why an organization like Wikileaks is so important.
The only reason the government is appealing to Assange’s and Wikileaks’ better angels is because, for once, it has absolutely no coercive power or legal protection. Men like Morrell or Adm. Mullen are shocked, shocked that an organization devoted to the disclosure of classified information would leak information that offers insight into American operations and might reveal the identity and methods of classified sources. Missing from this self-righteous anger is an acknowledgment that the government has made a habit of classifying any information that sits still long enough for its lawyers to get to it. We need leakers and snoops to steal government information because the government has long since stopped providing it legally.
Where was this dedication to “the right thing” when the US kidnapped Maher Arar? Or sent him abroad to be tortured? Where was justice when it came time to hear his case in court? Nowhere, because “national security” means the government can do as it damned well pleases.
When Reuters used the Freedom of Information Act to inquire exactly why in the hell two of its Baghdad bureau reporters were slaughtered by American gunships, did the DoD own up to what had happened? Of course not. They gave assurances that the shooting was in accordance with the rules of engagement, and blew off the FOIA request. It only became a problem once Wikileaks released a video showing the shitty judgment and half-assed oversight that led to the killing.
(If you’re going to offer a “we can’t judge” defense or complain that the video doesn’t show enough conquest, save us both some time and don’t. From 7:30 on the long version of the video, it’s an unambiguous fuckup.)
Then we have the Obama administration descending on leakers and whistle-blowers with the zeal of the Inquisition. This isn’t just about people ratting out his administration, it’s going after people who called the Bush administration on illegal activity and waste. Now it’s true that there are proper channels for employees to take their grievances, but proper channels are worthless if they’re controlled by the same corrupt people you’re trying to expose. In such cases, speaking truth to power is a quick way to ruin your career. Maybe your life. So it’s little wonder that troubled federal employees choose to go the press. Or, to even better protect their anonymity, go to Wikileaks.
But, come on Wikileaks, do the right thing.