News & Politics

7 Reasons Why We Should Celebrate Wikileaks, and 8 Reasons It's Not the Panacea Some Are Calling It

The release of thousands of documents from the failed war in Afghanistan is a major milestone that should be celebrated. But it also opens up questions about Wikileaks.

The release of Wikileaks’ acquired records from U.S. forces in Afghanistan on 25 July 2010, and the simultaneous deluge of reports from the three newspapers (Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times) that had the records for a month in advance of their release, is without a doubt an event of major significance in our time. First I will outline some of the main reasons those opposed to the war in Afghanistan and to the policies of the U.S. state should celebrate this event and what it signifies. Then, however, I will discuss some of the very serious problems with these records and the way that Wikileaks released them, pointing to several issues that the established news media have failed to raise, and about which Wikileaks has not yet been questioned.

What is significant about the Wikileaks release that should be celebrated?

1. Support for the anti-war movement.

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From the start, Julian Assange, who has become the iconic public face of Wikileaks, made it clear that the purpose behind the release of these classified records was to uncover the brutality and futility of the American war in Afghanistan. Already some of the newspaper reports, using these records, have detailed some especially heinous actions, and the cover up of civilian deaths. There is some evidence of war crimes as well, of shooting sprees by U.S. troops, and a revenge attack by a Polish unit, that blasted an entire village with mortar fire. We learn more of the dark side of counterinsurgency, of special dedicated units of killers, such as TF 373, and that counterinsurgency is not what the embedded media told us: a series of acts of kindness, of candies for children.

2. Empowering citizens.

Putting classified records into the hands of the public is a way of saying to the public that it does not need to depend on the state for the authorized version of the truth. Individuals, and the communities they form on the Web, can conduct their own investigations and draw their own conclusions. When the state asserts a particular narrative, as the correct way to understand reality, the public now has a means of cross checking that narrative. This creates a participatory and more democratic media. Now everyone can reap the rewards that were previously enjoyed by hackers, or to those in military intelligence with security clearances.

3. Imposing limits on the state.

Given what was said in the last point, the state no longer has an absolute hold on the facts of war. The state is increasingly relegated to one voice among many, pleading for attention in a public sphere crowded with many skeptics. The state is forced to account for its actions, and for the obvious discrepancy between what it previously asserted to be true, and how the actual records fail to support their assertions. The state is no longer the ultimate authority, or the final arbiter of truth, but merely one competitor among many, no longer with exclusive resources for imposing particular, preferred understandings. Orthodoxy may now drown in a flood of leaks.

4. Counter-surveillance.

The ascent to dominance of the national security state began shortly after the Second World War. Today, as many of us know already, and was further quantified recently by the Washington Post in another series of high impact articles worthy of mention (“Top Secret America”), state surveillance of citizens, both at home and internationally, has reached massive proportions, becoming a major growth industry in its own right. According to the Washington Post, “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.”

The Wikileaks phenomenon promises something different: citizens with the power to stare back, to scrutinize the state, to pull the curtains back and reveal the inner workings of the state. For states that increasingly fear their own people, this is a tremendous reversal. What was seen by the state previously as an almost natural order of things, has now become a perverse world—it makes the state want to scream. From now on, the possibility always exists that someone on the inside, for whatever reason, could leak massive amounts of secrets. Making records more secure will be an elusive goal, or else government organizations will make the records so secure that they become invisible even to those within such organizations that need access. Not keeping records is not an option, not with such a swollen bureaucracy as described above—word of mouth is good for villages, and small cells of fighters, not gigantic state bodies that thrive on making and keeping records.

There will always be the occasional person within a state body who will consider releasing sensitive information. It could be someone who has been made unhappy by the injustice and contradictions of a large and impersonal institution. It could be someone who is increasingly troubled by his or her conscience. It could be someone who intentionally sought a job inside the state in order to subvert it from the inside. There are many possibilities. The important thing is that now they know there is a process, an infrastructure, and a worldwide community ready to receive and publicize their disclosures. Surveillance is not just the game of the state and large corporations (such as Google); it’s also our game now.

5. Soft Power in reverse.

For the U.S., the exercise in “soft power” has become important, to gain support and legitimacy because violent impositions of policy can achieve only limited goals for a limited time. Image management and public relations are prime concerns, and to a large extent President Obama is himself an instrument of America’s global image management—to dampen down opposition to the U.S., which now has a Nobel Peace Prize winner in charge. For the U.S., and in particular the State Department, social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc., have become useful platforms for spreading the message that America is really about peace, democracy, and human rights. The Wikileaks release disrupts all of that, and turns American soft power into something cynical, depriving it of credibility, rendering it hollow, and marginal. Now the masses also have soft power, or smart power as it is sometimes called, and they seem much more clever and adept in using it to push back against the imperial state. Israel’s hasbara campaign has similarly fallen to ruin.

6. Working around the mainstream news media.

The major, established news networks in North America have been a source of serious disappointment for those who were conscious of their role in boosting the war efforts, saluting all soldiers automatically as heroes, running stories that spoke of progress, and embedding reporters with the military. Indeed, some of the networks are themselves owned by major military contractors, such as NBC (owned by General Electric) and CBS (owned by Westinghouse). Al Jazeera itself produced an excellent documentary detailing the extent of U.S. military dominance of the media. The publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has also been subject to strict controls when it comes to war reporting. Brian Stewart, a top journalist with the CBC, recently revealed that Canadian reporters are regularly forbidden from reporting any Taleban attacks except major ones, to keep the number of incidences down, and not alarm the Canadian public about the daily intensity of fighting facing Canadian troops. Very little is allowed to escape military control, and the usual justification, now applied to almost everything, is “operations security.”

The Wikileaks release has also disrupted these patterns of either self-censorship, or military censorship. Now we can read exactly what we have been prevented from knowing. We do not need permission. We do not even ask for it. We do not depend on the mainstream media—we are too busy reading the records ourselves and coming to our own conclusions.

7. Distributed training in information warfare.

We are all hackers now. The Wikileaks release has not created something new, but it is a pinnacle, and a turning point. Part of going on the Web now will always be with the expectation that we can learn from secret documents taken from the rich and powerful. We collectively train each other on how to understand these military documents, what the many different abbreviations mean, how to understand the coded language of the insiders. Just as Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia have fundamentally transformed the Web, and have become primary pillars of our online information environment, now Wikileaks and future sites like it will join that constellation. It is marvelous and we should feel privileged to witness this as it is happening.

Reasons for Concern

But euphoria and celebration cannot be the only side to this story.

What are some of the most serious problems with the Wikileaks release that could damage the intentions behind the release, and those named in the records? Why might there be much less to celebrate than we thought?

1. Not much new support for the anti-war movement.

When it comes to uncovering the brutality of American military and covert operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is in fact not much that is new in these records, and not much that will compete with the revelations made in the established media that have had a very high profile. Wikileaks seems to be depending now on individuals to privately sift through thousands of records, and then to presumably publish their findings outside of newspapers, months from now, about events that happened perhaps years ago. This is great for historians, and not so great for anti-war activists who deal in the immediate, in the present. There is little here to compete with revelations of American mass killings of civilians, and disregard for human rights, as revealed by the very regime of Hamid Karzai, or by intrepid reporters such as Jerome Starkey and Michael Hastings. Whatever is found will often not have as much impact as the Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal, and his own admissions about the failures of the Marjah offensive, and of the dark side of the war that would turn off most Americans if they knew more. They can know more, but with considerable labour, and on their own, and that seems to be expecting a lot of citizens on the Web, especially when so many distract themselves with hedonistic pursuits online.

2. New support for fighting the Taleban.

Julian Assange assumed his intentions were good enough that they could control the narrative that would be constructed around these records. He may learn differently. Assange told Der Spiegel that he enjoys “crushing bastards,” and he later told CNN’s Larry King that by “bastards” he meant U.S. forces in Afghanistan The problem is that the news media have already made the question of who is a “bastard” more complicated and ambiguous, for showing the atrocities which the reports allege have been committed by the Taleban. The Guardian was first, speaking of the Taleban’s use of “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs): “the IED…not only strikes foreign troops on ground patrols and in road convoys, it is also an indiscriminate terror weapon killing and injuring thousands of civilians…. Taliban fighters appear to have been prepared to blow up large numbers of people in order to assassinate a single target, such as a high-ranking government official or police chief,” and the article says the reports show that the Taleban are responsible for the majority of civilians killed in Afghanistan. We might suspect that some elements of American public opinion will use this kind of information to renew the call for crushing the Taleban, the only group that patriotic Americans would ever call “bastards,” as if fighting the Taleban was an end in itself, one worthy of so much American blood and treasure.

3. Support for expanding the war to Pakistan and Iran.

Is there a straight, logical line from these records to greater popular support for the anti-war movement? Clearly, there is not. Indeed, some of the first newspaper reports dedicated themselves to showing that Pakistan’s intelligence services and military cannot be counted upon as a good partner for the U.S. For some, that will mean pushing to have more American covert forces in Pakistan, thus further widening and Americanizing the war, the same way as happened in Vietnam and the region around it. Personally, the big shock for me was this article in The Guardian: “Afghanistan war logs: Iran’s covert operations in Afghanistan.” According to the article, “Iran is engaged in an extensive covert campaign to arm, finance, train and equip Taliban insurgents, Afghan warlords allied to al-Qaida and suicide bombers fighting to eject British and western forces from Afghanistan.” A connection between Iran and Al Qaeda? Was it not the suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that was used by the Bush administration to successfully capture American public support for the Iraq invasion? And now that the U.S. and the European Union have escalated sanctions against Iran to a point beyond which the next steps can only lead to war, do these records not serve to provide a service to pro-war propagandists? As I write this, the very pro-war Fox News has fixed its attention on this very aspect of the Wikileaks records.

4. The incomplete and fragmentary nature of the records.

In my own research with these records, involving the use of American social scientists in units known as Human Terrain Teams, I have come to some important realizations. These records are only some of the records that we might have had. They are incomplete and fragmentary. Can anyone believe that the records Wikileaks obtained, almost 110,000 of them, are all the records produced by the U.S. military in a period covering six years of war? If not, then what was left out? Why were these records released, and not others? How can we make any credible claim based on these records, without knowing what has been kept from our view? What if what we do not have would somehow modify or reshape what we now claim to know?

5. The records are not the same as “the truth.”

These are records written by combatants on one side in a war. They are written by elements of the American military, with a military audience in mind, and to suit the purposes of that military. That many of the records are based on hearsay, rumours, and unsubstantiated allegations that would not survive review at higher levels of military intelligence, is also the case. The records lack context and often lack depth: short, terse bursts of information. Information is not the same thing as meaning, nor is it understanding. It is just data, and data is dead until an analyst gives it life by adding value. The worst thing that could happen would be to have great masses of people insisting that something is true because it was reported in these records. To add depth and context, one has to cross check these records, examine other records, interview the key participants, understand the larger aims and narratives. The people writing these reports are neither infallible nor objective. If few people understand this, we could end up with arguments that seem to be factually muscular, and yet are intellectually malnourished.

6. The lack of ethical concern, and an inadequate review process.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks has now repeatedly asserted what he told Der Spiegel in an interview: that the source of the leaked records went through his “own harm-minimization process” (we do not know what that process was, nor the identity of the source). Assange added:  “We understand the importance of protecting confidential sources, and we understand why it is important to protect certain US and ISAF sources.” Suddenly, the person who declared he enjoyed crushing the bastards, is very concerned about their protection, but he says little about protecting the identities of the many Afghan sources who are named and whose locations are revealed in the records. Assange says, “we identified cases where there may be a reasonable chance of harm occurring to the innocent. Those records were identified and edited accordingly.” However, I have seen absolutely no evidence to support his claim. First of all, when someone edits an original document, you must indicate in that document something like this: “name deleted,” or “section deleted” or simply black out the text to show that portions are being kept from view. I have seen none of that. Second, the names of Afghan informants have been retained and are in full public view. This subjects them to the possibility of being executed by the Taleban, and it will be thanks to Wikileaks.

Assange has told TIME that, “Our groups—the New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and WikiLeaks — covered about 2,000 reports in detail.” That is only 2,000 of the total of almost 92,000 that were released. By his own admission, only a small fraction of the records were reviewed in detail. And who is involved in that review process? Does it include military and intelligence specialists? Does it include any of the people who were actually there, in the situations described in the records? Does it include the Afghans who were named? Does it include any Afghans at all? Assange, who has never been to Afghanistan, nor served in the military, would not have the experience and sensitivity to understand what constitutes harmful information, outside of the local context. What if the same is true of those who were responsible for the small scale review that occurred? I understand the need to protect the identity of one’s sources—indeed, that is my argument here—but not the need to protect the identities of those who supposedly assisted Wikileaks in its review process. Name them, tell us their qualifications, let us hear from them.

Why are the news media not even asking these questions?

7. Dependence on the mainstream news media.

There has also been a lack of credibility from Assange on the issue of why Wikileaks chose to suddenly depend on the mainstream news media for the release of the records—or at least he has failed to explain the obvious in a clear manner. When Wikileaks released the now famous video footage from the viewpoint of an Apache helicopter, firing on and killing civilians in Iraq, “Collateral Murder,” it was done independent of the established media. On YouTube alone, that video has been seen in excess of 7 million times. It does not seem that Wikileaks failed to gain notice and interest, and the news media still reported on its release. So why is it that the mainstream news media, so faulted by Assange for failing to do their job in covering the reality of the Afghan war, are now the primary intermediaries for this release?

The answer would seem simple: these written records are numerous and written in a specialized language, requiring journalistic expertise to make stories out of them. A video can be viewed by anyone and immediately apprehended. Or so one would think. There is nothing straightforward about visual imagery, and it can be hotly contested.

8. Crowd sourcing: an ideal with little substance?

Having first chosen mainstream news media for the release of the first stories based on the records, Wikileaks now turns to the wider public, sourcing opinion and analysis from the “crowd.” If Wikileaks had real faith in that process, it could have better appreciated and understood the wide range of expertise in the worldwide community of bloggers, and understood that the power to gain traction from a story can come just as much from below, as from above. Presumably Wikileaks understood this, and even cherishes this principle, which is what makes its choice of dependence on the news media strange. The crowd is not homogeneous. The crowd, just like with mainstream news media, contains sensitive specialists, and miserable propagandists. There is no escaping this. When one goes crowd sourcing, one must expect a lot of opinion that is based on poor understanding, inadequate training, selective reading, wishful thinking, and a deliberate desire to distort what the records say in order to suit certain political ends. The results will certainly be mixed, and these records will settle very little in our continuing public debates. But we should always expect surprises…including nasty ones.

Maximilian C. Forte is a professor in anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He writes at Zero Anthropology. He can be reached at [email protected]