By: Chelsea Christensen, Yuna Park, Xuan Feng

No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission for Total Transparency by Raffi Khatchadourian. The New Yorker, June 2010.

This reading gives some background on Julian Assange, the ideology and methodology behind Wikileaks, and a closer look at one particular Wikileaks project, called Project B.

Julian Assange’s entire life has been marked by secrecy, an inherent distrust of government and institutions, and a desire to make those things that are secret more widely available. In the article, it says that Assange had “come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks” (one of this favorite expressions) that contort the human spirit” (15).

Q1: To what extent do you agree or disagree with Assange’s understanding of the “human struggle?” Do you agree that the purity of expressions such as truth, creativity and love are corrupted by government and institutions? What can transparency and accountability do to preserve the integrity of these qualities?

Wikileaks was founded in 2006 and publishes various secret materials, such as documents from Guantanamo Bay to diplomatic cables. The format was originally like other “Wiki” sites that allowed for user comments and edits. Lately, the site has become more closed – probably due to the mounting attention and pressure Wikileaks experiences every day. The whole design of Wikileaks and the way it receives, sends and posts information is extremely secret. For this reason, the site is virtually impervious to lawsuits and government harassment, making it “an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust” (20).

Q2: However, one of the criticisms of Wikileaks’ extreme secrecy is that the site virtually cannot be contested – and in more liberal societies, fair modes of contestation are necessary in order to deter misinformation and abuse. How can Assange confront this paradox?

Lastly, in the article, Project B refers to a 38-minute video taken from the cockpit of an Apache military helicopter in Iraq in 2007. The article discusses the detailed ways in which Assange and his team analyzed the material, and how they chose to present and disseminate the final product.

Q3: Do you believe that Assange’s editing of the material affected it’s veracity? Were the journalists being provided a realistic account of what happened, or did Assange shape the story the way he wanted them to see it? How does such editing of material fit in to the motto and message of Wikileaks?

Video: “Why the World Needs Wikileaks” TED Talk

A group of activists, or the organization known as WikiLeaks has reportedly released more classified documents in the last few years than the rest of the world’s media combined.  It uses sophisticated software to encrypt and protect its sources.

To put into perspective the power of these information leaks, in 2007, WikiLeaks managed to obtain information pivotal in the Kenyan elections.  This information was released and directly affected the voting outcome in Kenya.

The interview also shows the video of US military killing at least 18 innocent lives, two of which were Reuters reporters.  Assange says that the objective for leaking information is to achieve reform.  But has reform been the result?  Could the model that Rosen propose apply here?

In the second half of the video, Assange refutes the popular claim that Wikileaks is in fact being hypocritical against its mission of “shining light on dark secrets” by using high levels of secrecy to protect its sources. For the founder, Wikileaks is “acting in such a way in which people feel morally compelled to continue their mission, not screw it up.” Assange discussed the overwhelming growth of Wikileaks and its difficulties handling such growth due to its highly selective hiring process and the need for trusted employees. TED’s Chris Anderson also inquired about Assange’s core values and how those values translated into creating Wikileaks. Finally, Assange discussed his recent exploits in Iceland, and how Wikileaks led him to work with Icelandic and other international politicians to make Iceland an offshore haven for free press, of which the Icelandic Parliament passed unanimously.

The Wikileaks Paradox by Farhad Manjoo. Slate, July 28, 2010

Is the founding mission of Wikileaks paradoxical to how the company operates by shrouding its sources in secrecy? This is the topic that Manjoo focuses on in his article, by asking many thought-provoking questions regarding the leaker’s personal agenda and how this agenda is hidden with the leakers’ identity.  Manjoo brings up the idea that part of the story behind a particular document and why it was leaked could provide valuable context for the data found in these sources.

Looking at a particular instance to prove his point, Manjoo discusses how Assange has reportedly claimed that Wikileaks withheld the publishing of particular Afghanistan war log documents as “part of a harm minimization process demanded by the source.” Given that Wikileaks protects the secrecy of its leakers, the author asks the question of who will actually be harmed in these instances? If it is regarding harm to the troops or politics, is this not hypocritical to decide not to publish such documents?

In the rest of the article, Manjoo discusses the Wikileaks authentication process. He feels that checks on a source’s veracity are impossible under the Wikileaks system are impossible. Specifically, looking at Assange’s statement that the staff examines documents based on “forensic analysis, means, motive, and opportunity, etc.” the author argues that if the source is unknown, how does Wikileaks determine the “means, motive, and opportunity?” Manjoo brings up many compelling arguments in this article, all of which need to be examined before making a stance on the controversial Wikileaks.

The Afghanistan War Logs Released by WikiLeaks, the World’s First Stateless New Organization by Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen’s article on the Afghanistan war logs (documented accounts that offer the first real glimpse into the war from January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2009 by the United States Army) released by WikiLeaks uses one example of the multitude of published secret intelligence reports to make more general assertions on the entirety of the operation and what they means to our society at large.

He begins with the concept of supply and demand in journalism and how this relates to why the logs were given to only three newspapers rather than directly published online.  And then, points out the ironies in how the White House has tried to avoid directly confronting the issue by diffusing the attention and focusing on the qualities of WikiLeaks’ reportage.

WikiLeaks exists everywhere.  If one server is crashes, it can be switched on in another country.  Thus, it is “beyond the reach of any government or legal system” and is free to release information without the restrictions of or partiality towards any nation because of the virtual space it exists in.  In the case of the war logs (also applicable towards WikiLeak publications in general), a stateless news organization has created a particularly interesting paradigm in which the stateless organization has power over the confidential information belonging to states.

He also speculates the question if big revelations equate with big reactions?  What if the story is too troubling and is viewed as “a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget?”  Could cognitive dissonance be responsible for the reaction (or lack of) WikiLeaks has aroused?  Where do we stand if “the job of fixing what is broken would break the system for such fixes?”  Is there hope in WikiLeaks as a platform through which reform is catalyzed or in the concept of “transparency” if the nature of such reform is flawed and “if elites believe that reform is impossible because of the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great the public too distractible”?

“From Judith Miller to Julian Assange” Press Think, December 9, 2010.

This article discusses a 2002 New York Times article in which it was reported that Iraq was trying to buy the kind of aluminum tubes necessary to build a nuclear centrifuge. Over time, it was revealed that this information was misleading and ultimately inaccurate. Yet it was used by Bush administration to support their war views and the fact that it came from the New York Times gave it a certain credibility that resonated with the public opinion.

When asked about the veracity of the article, Miller said, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”

This approach seems to contradict everything that journalistic integrity is supposed to stand for: finding the truth, testing the evidence, and reporting objective facts. These are the tenets that Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks are supposed to stand for, in an era where even the “top pyramid” media seemingly cannot be held accountable.

Q1: One way that WikiLeaks seeks to be more accountable than traditional media is by presenting its evidence in its entirety, often with some commentary but little editorial changes. Do you think that this is an effective way of disseminating information to the public? Do people have the time, energy or concern to read long, technical and dense articles about government, politics and wars? To what extent is Assange’s model more or less effective than the traditional news model?

10 Responses to “Wikileaks Controversy: Weekly Reading Assignment”

  1. aroyce says:

    I had very limited knowledge of WikiLeaks before doing this weeks readings, but I’m really glad we had them so I could familiarize myself with this ongoing story. That being said, I am slightly hesitant to say this, but I really do agree with Assange’s grounds for the website (I had never thought of the power of leaks before), and I think this transparency is something that should be an ideal. I can’t help but think back to the student protest’s fall of ’08; I’m just glad someone else is putting their a** on the line for transparency in reporting. To answer your other question (3) I feel like I’d have to watch both videos to have a proper assessment of what the journalists said, and the editing that was done, but I couldn’t get though 10 seconds without having to close it, however I was glad to see it was still available even if I couldn’t watch it on a personal level.

  2. sjevakim says:

    I had no idea about what Wikileaks is and how it works before I read these articles. It was very interesting topic that I enjoyed to read, and it stimulates me to know more about what is secretly going around in this world. Of course, I have watched some interesting documentaries or TV program that reveal many secrets, but the regulation barriers are still standing besides the media to filter information. So, Wikileaks may support all our right to know about truth around us and the world, but I still have a bit doubt that how its system judges what’s truly reliable information. To answer the last question, I think it may be an effective way of disseminating information to the public to use Wikileaks if the news releaser’s purpose is to distribute the information world-widely, since it is using the internet. Also, I believe most people ( as long as you think you live with the others) are attracted to articles about government, politics and war, and they need to know about those issues at least a bit, even though it is long and dense.

  3. Queenie says:

    I first heard about WikiLeaks last year but never really paid attention because something about it seemed fishy to me. Now that I’ve learned about WikiLeaks, I don’t believe that this so-called transparency creates a better society. In fact, I feel like it relies on sensationalism to create controversy and conflict. I agree with the idea of people being informed but some information should not be publicly disclosed for safety and ethical reasons. I’m also skeptical about the sources’ credibility, despite WikiLeaks claims, and I totally agree with the ‘The Wikileaks Paradox’ by Farhad Manjoo.

  4. jenny1rving says:

    I think WikiLeaks is pretty astounding, especially considering how mad Julian must be making people of power…he has really pulled out all the stops in order to keep his website up and running. I think the most interesting facet of this all is the “free speech” aspect. Of course, government officials do not want some of this information reaching the public, but what can they do without hypocritically turning their backs on our first amendment?

  5. ffornasini90 says:

    People may not have the time to read through thousands of official documents, but they should find the time to. Summaries of information are inevitably biased, as authors must decide what they deem to be important. Theoretically speaking, I think Assange’s model is more effective as it is straightforward, and unbiased. The issue, however, is that Assange is unable to verify sources and therefore whether or not the information is authentic or not.
    The thing about Assange’s model is that the majority of the responsibility is delegated onto him. Though Assange can be a trusted figure, a hero of the modern era, one has to wonder to what extent Assange motives are honest. Furthermore, if Assange were to fall, who else would take upon the great responsibilities of WikiLeaks?

  6. peternenov says:

    I think that posting the 1000s of page of easily accesible documents may lend more credibility to the editorial pieces written about them. While ideally it would be great for us to read tje orignal posts, the time and discipline required would be immense. On the other hand, a short summary that includes quotes and states that the documents are available in their entirety seems to reinforce their credibility and may lead the reader to interpret the piece as more objective, ignoring the many framing decisions made by the author, such as what information was chosen to be included in the piece. In his interviews, Assange mentioned that he had many leaks to sort through and he seems to make similar framing decisions in what information to label as priority. Ultimately, to have a completely transparent and objective press organization, users themselves would have to read and sort through an unreadable amount of information. Even then, however, readers would find stories that would become a priority to them as individuals. The sheer volume of information that can be found demands that some of it be labeled a priority and that it be summarized so that it can be transmitted to a wider audience. By choosing to emphasize one story, it is ultimately a choice to not focus on another story.

  7. bettycwang says:

    I have followed WikiLeaks closely, especially since I was traveling to Istanbul, Turkey last semester during the time of the released confidential information. (There were several WikiLeak documents that tarnished U.S- Turkey relations.) While I appreciate Assange’s efforts to emphasize transparency in politics (after all, that is the idea behind a free country with free press and information), I can’t help but agreeing most with Jay Rosen on this issue. Now that WikiLeaks has circulated around the globe, that sensitive information can never be erased. These are, without a doubt, “big revelations” about the state of international politics. However, the reality of our flawed world is that not everything is fixable, therefore, there might not be a big solution to the revelation. There are good reasons for keeping these documents private, especially in the interest of peace and cooperation between nations. Of course, at the same time, it is inappropriate and inaccurate to say that all these documents were released in the interests of “crying over spilled milk.” For example, Wikileaks video titled “collateral murder” shows a very grim reality of the Iraqi War; that the military and its soldiers do not always have the morals of conduct when they complete missions, that civilians are often injured or killed and that the U.S Government needs to seriously reconsider mission priorities and intensive background research before engaging in a violent act.

  8. When I first heard about WikiLeaks it was most likely with everybody else. I learned what it was only after the Afghanistan War Logs were released and The New York Times picked up the story. I had viewed the whole situation as amazing and overwhelming. I never once went to the site myself to check out the documents. I realized there was too much information to sift through. I would never know what to do with all of it or how to analyze it. I needed to read what journalists thought. I needed The New York Times to do all the hard stuff. After reading The New Yorker’s story “No Secrets” I got the feeling that Julian Assange expected me to though. His idea of “scientific journalism” is something that I find to be interesting but problematic. The idea that once the information is out there people will “replicate it, check it, verify it” makes sense but can also go wrong because in the process people can also change it. Farhad Manjoo writes about this in his article on Slate. He claims that radical transparency is not actually the best method and I have agree. Just because something is anonymous doesnt mean its true and doesnt mean that it wont be tampered with.
    I am mostly weary of WikiLeaks because of Julian Assange and his extreme paranoia. I understand that he has some reason to be worried about his security and safety when it comes to the government but he seems to have go overboard and is borderline schizophrenically insane. I also feel that he has become his fear, he runs an institution that gives information and has the capability to choose and edit what is brought to the public’s attention. My hesitation toward Assange also comes from a recent article in The New York Times that discusses the paper’s involvement with Assange while writing the War Log story. It can be found here if anyone wants to know just how insane Assange can come across.

  9. cassidyraehavens says:

    Like many others who have posted, I too like the idea of a free, stateless news organization such as WikiLeaks. As our world is increasingly globalized and interconnected, I feel like it’s almost necessary to have something like that in existence. And, like everyone else, I also have some problems with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. First of all, I don’t really trust the guy; perhaps that’s just the paranoid schizophrenic picture that is painted of him, but I couldn’t really tell you otherwise. As discussed in “The WikiLeaks Paradox,” I’m sort of perplexed about how this “no secrets” organization intends to exist in total secrecy. Of course, I understand that people need to be protected and as citizens of a particular government they are liable to be prosecuted, but I feel that the secrecy that Julian Assange and his team exude just makes it harder for people to be convinced that they are legitimate. That was an issue also discussed in “From Judith Miller to Julian Assange.” I appreciate that these stories are being leaked to the public for the public’s benefit and knowledge, but I think half of the important information is always where these documents are coming from and exactly why they’re being handed over to the public at this specific time.

  10. Matt Gorman says:

    All of this reading about WikiLeaks has given several different views about the organization, which I will admit, I was pretty biased against before reading. After looking through all this, I think I have a better understanding of what WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are about, and I can see the idea behind it all, but I’m still concerned about what the consequences of releasing sensitive information can be. For example, releasing documents regarding the war in Iraq may be nice in the sense that it allows US citizens to see what is going on and what our tax money is going to, but I think it is important to keep in mind that by putting these things online, EVERYONE can see them, not just American tax payers who may be good-intentioned. On that note, this authority which Julian Assange has created as the decider of what gets released and what does not is almost contradictory to the idea of transparency. People may trust Assange because he is releasing things that are “for good,” but in reality, he is the one who decides what “good” he is working for. Just like any other news source, he could release stories that reinforce what he believes and not present the other sides at all if he wanted to.

    Regardless of Assange’s intentions and all politics aside, I think that while the idea of transparency in the world’s governments is quite noble, it is irresponsible to release documents which have been received anonymously and are presented out of context, especially when the global implications of the documents is more than a small group of people could understand.

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