Thursday, August 26, 2010

Holding WikiLeaks Accountable

The self-styled "intelligence agency of the people," WikiLeaks, has whipped up quite a media dust storm in the last six months, first with a video showing two Reuters journalists being shot at and killed by American forces, and then last month with the release of 91,000+ documents related to the war in Afghanistan. The organization of cryptographers and network specialists -- spread out all over the world and not confined by any kind of physical headquarters -- combines hacker ethics and anti-authoritarian values with a civic pride to defend "the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history." Here's more, with my emphasis added:
The power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history. The public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Which official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.
Today, with authoritarian governments in power around much of the world, increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever. In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.
All of this sounds rather heroic and vital: undermining the venal or incompetent impulses of elected and unelected power through "principled leaking" of information by those with proximity to power. As WikiLeaks itself likes to point out, the Pentagon Papers represented just such a leak, and had a real impact by calling into question the honesty of officials orchestrating the Vietnam War. But notice the framing of powerful institutions versus WikiLeaks itself. The former are often "unaccountable," "secretive," "feared," and "corrupt" while the latter is "principled" and not "parochial". Though I take no issue with the notion that powerful organizations get to be that way by, at times, becoming some or all of those bad things, I'm not about to simply take WikiLeaks' word for it that it isn't capable of the same institutional behaviors. In particular, I fail to see how WikiLeaks itself can be defined as "accountable".

The first question we should ask ourselves is, Does WikiLeaks have an agenda? Is it acting on a virtuous philosophy, or does it selectively target particular people or organizations for embarrassment? Julian Assange, the face behind the organization, has voiced opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One would hope that Assange would not think twice of publishing leaked documents showing, say, that COIN was effective in Afghanistan if such a thing were made available. And personal email leaks are something that should perk everyone's privacy antennas up when they occur. Some of Sarah Palin's personal emails were published during the campaign, and I was initially disheartened to hear about this breach. Later, I read that the intention of the hack was to show that Palin was using personal email accounts for governmental business in order to skirt disclosure and archiving requirements, and examined the leak myself. The published disclosure has been handled in a prudent way so far, in my opinion. Still, leaking personal emails should draw a good amount of hesitancy. Personal emails from a Nazi mailing list were also leaked, and contain email addresses of recipients. It stands to reason why a government might want to monitor potentially violent extremist groups (a whole other can of worms), but what right does the general public have to see the members of this list? Where does the line get drawn between the public interest and the privacy rights of individuals, regardless of political beliefs?

This raises another problem: even if WikiLeaks does not have an agenda, its decentralization and nebulous legal liability render it essentially immune to outside pressure. It is an anti-institution in the hinterlands of cyberspace. Like guerrilla factions or even terrorist cells, its effectiveness comes from its mimicry of the just the sort of anarchic mutability and independence that hinder or topple large, traditional organizations. Great for WikiLeaks; it's fully exploiting the playing-field-leveling power of the Internet. But it is certainly no paragon for the democratizing influence of the web. It is true that freedom of information protects democracy by exposing abuses of power and informing the citizenry. But democratic governments (the ones whose authoritarian tendencies WikiLeaks means to check), remember, derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and are accountable for their transgressions when they come to light. Likewise, corporations and businesses -- however unaccountable they may be to the justice and well-being of society, at times -- are subject to the rule of law, as are individuals and nonprofits. WikiLeaks is not. There is no record of who WikiLeaks is, so if it engages in illegal or dangerous activity -- such as endangering the lives of military or intelligence operators in the field -- there is no one or few people who can be brought to justice for it. The same goes for basic public shaming, too.

If WikiLeaks' raison d'etre is simply leaking information, and not building institutional credibility and integrity in the public eye, then it is unaccountable. Leaking has an impact with or without accountability, though. Were leaks to start happening in an "unprincipled" way, i.e. if WikiLeaks simply became a clearinghouse for all leaked material and published everything without consideration or verification, then the organization would quickly lose all institutional credibility. But the leaks themselves would still possess value for someone (why else would the information be withheld?). So the problem: WikiLeaks behaves true to its philosophy of "principled" leaking, and it has an impact. WikiLeaks loses all sense of principle and propriety, and the leaks still have an impact. That to date the leaks have not egregiously violated principles of privacy or safety is irrelevant. Future violations could conceivably occur arbitrarily and with impunity, and that threatens legally-sanctioned institutions (governments, corporations, individual rights and liberties) without regard to guilt or innocence.

The recent leaking of Afghanistan documents shows that either WikiLeaks recognizes its democratic legitimacy problems, or it at least wants fact-checking help. Prior to publishing the secret documents, they were given to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel with an agreement to withhold articles until the documents were published. (For two good accounts of the agreement and verification process, see the Columbia Journalism Review here and here.) All three of these newspapers are highly respected, legitimized institutions. They have built up credibility over decades, and while they are legally liable for gross abuses (for examples, look under "Update" in this Glenn Greenwald post), a number of protections exist so that they may speak truth to power in the public interest. (In the United States, at least two cases come to mind.) Sure, editors at major newspapers must operate under some personal, moral code of conduct when it comes to publishing, just as WikiLeaks must. But they are beholden to readers, reputation, and the law in a way that the unassailable WikiLeaks is not. It or an organization like it could function as long as someone is willing to fund it. Which, given the demand for anonymous sensitive information, will not be difficult.

It admittedly feels strange to be criticizing an organization whose premise of transparency is something I highly value. I think the war in Afghanistan can be best described as the next generation of technocratic Whiz Kids (both civilian and military) ignoring geopolitical reality and arrogantly soldiering on, literally. And here is WikiLeaks dumping thousands of documents showing how poorly that course of action is going. I think Americans are overly gung-ho for militarization, and, outside of military families, have very little sense of the human cost of war. And here is WikiLeaks providing video evidence that War Is Hell when Western media can't or won't. Isn't WikiLeaks filling a gap in our media and information landscape? Aren't they a check on legitimate power behaving illegitimately? Yes. But when I read about Julian Assange defending WikiLeaks' careful scrubbing of safety-sensitive data -- or read news reports about leaked Afghan informants -- I wonder, Who is the check on WikiLeaks? Unless they work exclusively with traditional media organizations (which seems to run counter to their independent ethos), I'm not sure who will hold them accountable if and when they must be.

1 comment:

  1. I think I clicked on this by accident