At the start of this month I suggested that Rolling Stone’s McChrystal expose was the story of the year. I was wrong. Whistleblowing website Wikileaks’s release of more than 75,000 classified military documents — collectively referred to as the Afghanistan war logs — is now the story everyone is talking about, and it is unlikely this will change anytime soon.
A security breach/freeing of information (as you like) such as this is pretty much unprecedented, although many are comparing it to the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers (including DanielEllsberg, the man behind that leak).
Just as with the Pentagon Papers, the leak and the subsequent publication of previously classified information are just part of a complex knot of stories. Who leaked this? What do we make of what we read? What next for Afghanistan, for the US military and indeed for ISAF as a whole? — these are only the immediate questions.
Last night I attended the Frontline Club’s sell-out Q and A with Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. I wanted to get closer to the story and explore a few of my own questions, specifically — How does a leak like this affect the life cycle of a story and the role of the press? What next for news and investigative journalism if Wikileaks steps in as the official sourcer of unofficial facts? Further, what are the ethics around what Wikileaks is doing — both Assange as an individual and the organisation as a whole?
I don’t believe in censorship and I do believe in freedom of information, but no matter how I look at this, none of it is black and white.
Data versus facts
Each of the 75,000 documents released on Sunday (a further 15,000 will be released in the future) is the — often very brief — report of an incident in the Afghan war. These are snapshots without context. It’s just… data.
Wikileaks made the data available to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel close to a month ago, and each worked independently to verify information, extract stories and put those stories into the context of a larger narrative. The papers published all this in a coordinated move on Monday.
The release of this data has had international aftershocks. Assange mentioned at least one case of previously-reported information now being questioned: in 2006, four Canadian soldiers were killed, reportedly by the Taliban. The data released Sunday tells a different story: that their deaths were a result of friendly fire.
The Canadian military has rejected the leaked report, but as Michel Drapeau, a former colonel with the Canadian Forces, pointed out,
There’s a wide discrepancy [between reports], and we need to know. One of the reports has to be accurate.
But does it? It’s very easy to take what Wikileaks has released and call it fact — it’s not. It’s information that’s as likely to be erroneous and inconsistent as that from any other source. What’s more, whilst all 15 megabytes of the raw CSV data are available for free download, the organisation has — necessarily? — stepped into the breach and interpreted much of this data in order to tell a story the public can understand. Few of us have the patience, time, knowledge of military jargon or computing power to interpret it ourselves.
John D McHugh, a war photographer who has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan, was present in the audience last night and offered a few counterpoints to the Assange’s interpretation of the data. For me, this was welcome: I kept hearing Assange use the phrase “which probably means” and felt very cautious about taking whatever followed as gospel. At one point, McHugh asked how much expertise Assange had in analyzing the data:
There are mistakes.
Please don’t feed the journalists
I asked Assange whether he saw the press’s role transforming to one of interpreting and commenting on information rather than sourcing that information themselves and then providing insight and commentary. I referred to a tweet by John Owen, a journalist and a member of the Frontline, where he commended the journalists at the three papers for the job they had done interpreting this information — “finding” the stories in the data and “contextualising” them. I’m not surprised a journalist such as Owen made such a fine distinction, but I wonder whether the public would, or could.
The answer to my question was ‘yes’ — and this both pleases and troubles me. Pleases, because more information — provided that information is fact-checked and provides a legitimate perspective — is always a good thing for the press and the public. But to get to a point where one organisation, however neutral or benevolent or hands-off, provides the press with their source material, well, that makes me uncomfortable.
“We are not about popularising particular material, we are a publisher of last resort. We occupy a vacuum left by the rest of the press.”
Assange’s case for this function is economic: it isn’t that the public no longer wants to read investigative journalism, but that the per-word cost of investigative journalism is too high. Fair enough, Wikileaks brings down that cost by providing information for free and in wholesale quantities. But this marks a break in the food chain of news, which normally starts with journalistic research. The information provided by Wikileaks has a different weight to that which a journalist sources him- or herself.
This isn’t quite a case of the tail wagging the dog, but there’s something about it that makes me very cautious indeed.
Keeping secrets isn’t easy
If you don’t collect the secret in the first place, you don’t have to keep it.
Assange acknowledged that keeping secrets is difficult — even harder when you’re keeping them from powerful people or the modern intelligence state. How to proceed?
Well, Wikileaks has all sorts of systems in place — both human systems and digital systems — to ensure sources’ identities are not known, even to the people inside the organisation. He and his colleagues don’t know who is behind the leaks:
We never know the source of the leak… our whole system is designed so we don’t have to keep that secret.
This takes the weight off the individuals involved in outing the information, and of course the fewer that know, the lower the risk. But the risk is still there and it is still significant. Bradley Manning is still in custody in Kuwait (apparently done in by a garrulous mother-in-law). Mess with the authorities in Canada or Britain and your wrists will be slapped, soundly so. But mess with them in a variety of other places and your human rights may not be upheld as you would like.
And what from the other side of the table — how does Wikileaks know who to believe, and who to simply ignore? In a slightly contradictory statement (after all, I thought they didn’t know who leaked what?), Assange suggested that the decision to take a source seriously is usually nudged one way or the other by the source’s identity: “it’s the reports by informers that you cannot take at face value”. He suggested that the most reliable information comes from people with less to gain by lying.
There is a certain logic to this: people are unlikely to go through a great deal of effort simply to lie. Wikileaks’ track record defending the veracity of leaked information demonstrates that the organisation has a remarkable sixth sense for these things. But will it last? Can it? Assange seems driven — or pulled — by an external sense of what is, for him, right:
“We are immediately accountable to our sources and to the general public, for our actions. If the public does not support, our role disappears.”
The cost of disclosure
Even with all these procedures and mechanisms in place, sometimes sources get found out. Someone asked about Bradley Manning in relation to freedom of information issues, and Assange noted that “his case is important and interesting” because it forces us to look hard at these issues.
The US military claims to take allegations of abuses — like those contained in the Collateral Murder video — seriously, yet Assange pointed out that their first response was to investigate those who uncovered the potential abuses.
In this case — Manning has been charged with being the source of the Collateral Murder video — the individual thought to have leaked the information is being held, while those who fired the shots were given immunity from prosecution. I can see why Assange is so disgusted with this, and it leads me to wonder where, in the context of war, the greater crime is the unlawful act itself or the act of disclosing it.
The first ethical question: Why?
It is not just the leak that is important, it is all the events that overflow from it and the government response to it.
The biggest questions I have are around the ethics associated with all of this — not just with being the leak, but with Wikileaks as an organisation and with Assange as an individual.
I believe people’s actions are directed by their own ethics. Assange is doing what he does because he believes it is right and does good. He is *not* acting out of neutrality, and we should do well to remember that. I’m not taking away from what he or Wikileaks is doing — I believe it is admirable and necessary — but I am concerned that many people take what this organisation reports as a neutral sort of truth: it’s not.
I got into a bit of a debate after the talk with my colleague William, who suggested that the processes in place dehumanise the process of leaking and the information leaked. I disagree: I think the people who make up the organisation do it for moral reasons, and I think the founder is very much entrenched, in an ethical sense, in what he is doing.
So what about what happens next? In many cases, certainly this one, leaked information changes the game. Wars tip on information like this.
Assange asserts that Wikileaks [has] “a harm minimisation policy”. But how does this actually work? In the theatre of war, minimising harm across the board is difficult. Minimising harm on one side is easier, but it tends to increase on the other side.
Assange says that so far, that [harm minimisation policy] has worked — but I wonder whether this is the case. Today the Guardian reported that President Obama had ordered another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. The directive came on the heels of the publication of the Afghanistan war logs and though Obama insists that none of the information contained therein was new to him, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the law of unexpected consequences.
We are concerned with human beings’ lives.
So says Assange when he points out that Wikileaks held back many lines of data it felt might have endangered the lives of those overtly or peripherally involved in the conflict. But I wonder whether that concern stretches as far when those lives are military as it does when they are civilian. Would we all cry more for an innocent Afghan child than we would a thirtysomething US soldier who opted into this life and trained to kill? Maybe. But that’s an individual, ethical issue, and my stance on it or your stance on it isn’t likely to affect a lot of people’s lives. But Assange’s stance is.
The second ethical question: Who decides the the worth of information and human life?
The truth — or as best we can get it, the whole body of facts — is a dangerous thing. As the saying goes, knowledge is powerful. And whose actions — what they choose to do with their knowledge — are not guided by an ethical code of some sort?
Assange makes no pretense at hiding his: he says he likes to crush bastards, but who is to decide who is a bastard and who is just doing his job?
Indeed, there is something of the vigilante about Assange — however impersonal Wikileaks’ channels may be:
The lady justice has a scale in one hand and a sword in the other, that is how it’s done.
Assange is, I believe, guided by his ethics. The same can be said for most of us, and certainly for the US army and the other organisations Wikileaks informs on: we do what we think is best, in accordance with our own constructs of right and wrong. Assange goes on to say that rather than to guarantee it will never do any harm, Wikileaks says it will try to do some good and minimise harm. Why? Well, if you stick to the former way of thinking you are unlikely to act — harm is always possible.
So accepting some means harm as cost for end good seems to be acceptable to Assange and his organisation… but with actions this big, what do the means costs look like, and how high are they?
I got my answer easily enough. Assange referred once to “good police” and repeatedly to “innocents” versus military lives. He also said that when a government claims ‘national security’ as a reason not to release information, he is instantly doubtful. So he will withhold information in the interests of innocents but not in the interests of national security… am I the only one who wonders whether national security might not include a few innocents?
Without doubt, there is a blindness at play here. As much as I admire the man’s guts, intelligence and commitment, I have to wonder at his motivations and whether they have impeded his ability to objectively what-if his way through a situation before it happens.
As an audience member says, for every leak there could be unforseen consequences. What if Wikileaks’s actions speed up ISAF withdrawal, but then warlords fill the vacuum and another civil war occurs. Who benefits? Surely not the innocents!
I challenge anyone to argue that Wikileaks’ actions do not have great consequences. My concern is how we will live with them.
An audience member asked Assange whether he personally believed this leak would cause more or fewer deaths. Assange responded that he thought it would cause less death:
I hope it will lead to redeployment, a peace settlement, fewer kills.
We shall see.
Assange acknowledged the worst of these possible consequences — the threat of us racing towards “a reactionary nihilistic regime” as quite possible. But he contended that for an organisation such as his,
We have a serious role to play that we treat seriously… without the truth we can’t do anything that is sensible.
But here’s my issue: truth is plastic. There is no one answer. Poor Michel Drapeau just isn’t going to get his answer.
Assange refused to equate military lives to human lives, and national security to human security. I found this worrisome. As the keeper of information that could tip the balance of a war, and bring about military and civilian casualties, Assange’s personal ethics have far-reaching consequences. The State’s interests often directly correlate to the interests of the innocents Assange wants to protect, and I was frustrated that he would not acknowledge this. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
My colleague Tim Malbon had one of the best questions of the night. He asked Assange whether the power didn’t just slightly go to his head:
How do you avoid getting drunk on the power, how do you keep your feet on the ground?
And Assange? Well, he’s finding out:
In the end, we don’t leak anything — our sources do, through us. It’s an enormous responsibility.
But Tim wasn’t done:
Do you feel like a hero?
And here’s where I wondered whether I wasn’t just getting a sanitised version of the facts. Assange said it was weird, doing what he does, and a bit boring, and really all about getting the truth out. I’m not sure I believe that.
It’s brave work, and it is important work, and I respect him for doing it, but I can’t help thinking he does it because this is a truth that measures up with him. And then aren’t we just getting another, differently sanitised (read Jon Snow’s post on this) version of events?
Critical thinking has never been so important.