September 02, 2010

WikiLeaks expands the Pentagon Papers model

WikiLeaks follows the basic idea of the admirable Pentagon Papers model of releasing official internal documents to the public, and thus undermining the corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism. But the internet has enabled WikiLeaks to add two important new wrinkles.

The first is that they do not need to find a news organization to agree to publish their material. They can put it on their own servers for the world to see.

The other new and extremely important wrinkle with WikiLeaks is that it is a loosely linked transnational organization made up of volunteers the world over that is not tied to any national interest and thus has much greater freedom to operate. The major media in any country is under pressure to show loyalty to their country, which means being subservient to their governments. WikiLeaks does not have any such constraints.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has dismissed the idea that he has an obligation to protect the interests of the US or any other state. He makes no secret of his own antiwar motivations, saying he "loved crushing bastards" and likes "stopping people who have created victims from creating any more."

"It is not our role to play sides for states. States have national security concerns, we do not have national security concerns," he said.

"You often hear ... that something may be a threat to U.S. national security," he went on.
"This must be shot down whenever this statement is made. A threat to U.S. national security? Is anyone serious? The security of the entire nation of the United States? It is ridiculous!"

He said he wasn't interested in the safety of states, only the safety of individual human beings.

"If we are talking a threat to individual soldiers ... or citizens of the United States, then that is potentially a genuine concern," he said.

He also scorns the mainstream media for pulling their punches, giving the government advance warning of what they intend to publish and withholding important information if the government requests them to do so. Can anyone doubt that the reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have managed to continue for so long at such a great cost in terms of lives and money without public outrage is because the coverage has been sanitized?

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has an excellent piece, with good links to source materials and analyses, on the first release by WikiLeaks of the documents on the war in Afghanistan. He points out that we are witnessing a major shift in news with the arrival of big name 'stateless' news organizations like WikiLeaks that are not beholden to any government and hence cannot be pressured or feel the need to self-censor in order to stay in the government's good graces. He adds that WikiLeaks has a shrewd understanding of how news is valued and used that knowledge to give three newspapers in three different countries exclusive looks at the documents three weeks in advance so that they could study them and prepare stories that were embargoed until Monday. This was done to ensure maximum exposure.

WikiLeaks definitely knows how to get publicity. It gives out what are effectively trailers for forthcoming releases, thus whetting the appetite of the public and the media. It has promised the release 'soon', any day now, of even more explosive documents and this is undoubtedly causing some concern to the government about what those documents contain.

In trying to combat WikiLeaks, the Obama administration has been trying to maintain two contradictory positions. On the one hand, it claims that there is nothing new in the dossier and that 'everyone' (by which they mean 'everyone who matters', i.e., the Villagers) already knew it. On the other hand, it claims that WikiLeaks is threatening national security, and is using that charge to whip up public opposition to the organization and seeking to shut it down.

Daniel Ellsberg has for a long time been appealing to government employees to become whistle blowers and leakers. His own personal regret is that he waited too long to do what he did, and that if he had acted earlier, he might have saved a lot of lives. (I am looking forward to seeing the highly praised documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers which has been nominated for a 2010 Academy Award.) Just recently he listed four documents that he would like to see leaked.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern writes a poignant personal account of how he, in the course of his normal duties, came into possession of secret cables that directly contradicted official US government statements on the strength of the Vietnamese forces. Revealing that secret might have shortened the Vietnam war and saved lives but he kept it secret out of a combination of concern for his career and a misplaced sense of loyalty to the government. He now deeply regrets his inaction and wonders if the equivalent of WikiLeaks had been around then, whether he and other professionals who were sick of hearing their government lying might have been more willing to release documents that told the truth.

The idea of obtaining and revealing official documents so that anyone has access to the raw data and engage in informed analysis is a radical break from current practice where the truth is closely guarded, only selected people are allowed to see and analyze raw information, and we are told to simply trust the analyses put out by the inner circle of establishment journalists who are given access to filtered information in return for favorable coverage. The WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Diary provides a rich trove of raw information for honest and independent analysts, the kind of people who would normally be shut out, and many have seized the opportunity. Phillipe Sands has a good analysis on what the revelations say about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Eric Margolis, who has been trying to expose the lies and propaganda concerning the Afghanistan was since 2001 says that the dossier reveals the alleged duplicitous role that Pakistan is being blasted for in the US is merely the result of acting in its own self-interest. Surely this is information that the public has a right to know?

Next: The effort to counter WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Mitchell and Webb on the greatest invention yet


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I've got to be honest: I've been pretty underwhelmed by Wikileaks for two different reasons.

The first is that unlike the Pentagon Papers, neither Collateral Murder nor The Afghan War Diaries have really taught anyone anything new. When I read the online version of the Pentagon Papers, it was this totally top-down account that basically contradicted the entire public perception of the war. When I read a few hundred random cables from the Afghan War Diaries, I was struck by the mundanity. Yes, there were 90,000 cables leaked so I read only a miniscule percentage of them, but the overwhelming majority of the ones that I read had nothing of really any use to anyone in them. I even read one that just mention that a patrol saw a dead cow lying near the road. (While I did come across one mentioned an informant by name, I'll also say good luck finding that needle in the haystack of cables, Taliban. You'll need it.) Even the professional analysis from the Guardian and the Times was only able to point out themes that had been reported on by the MSM before, like that the war was stagnating or that Pakistan was not trustworthy.

The second thing that disappointed me was how there was a complete absence on the site of any interesting dirt coming out of countries other than the USA. Surely there would have to be something interesting from countries like Israel, China, or Iran, but no. The only documents that came up for any non-USA countries were things like mentions of them from think tank reports, rather than anything internal.

Posted by jpmeyer on September 2, 2010 09:29 AM

Great post and excellent comment JP. I agree with you, that there was nothing incredible noteworthy or sensational out of the Wiki leaks. The thing that made it newsworthy was the way in which it was leaked, and not the content of the leak. This is the biggest and boldest leak on the internet and this is why it has received so much attention. Other than that, I don't see why there is such a big fuss over it. Well said.

Posted by Debt Collection on September 2, 2010 03:33 PM

I would disagree with the previous comments. I think it is a big deal for the reasons pointed out in the article. The internet drastically changes the ability of the news organizations, as well as political players, to control the news. The ability to put the raw data into the public hands is huge. Remember the tobacco litigation a few years back when someone took all those secret documents that had been carefully guarded for decades by the tobacco companies right onto the internet? The impact of that went far beyond the tobacco litigation itself.

If you view the media as another means by which the people in control exercise control, then you have to see the development of wildcat publishers as one of the great contributions of the internet.

Posted by Ken Gibert on September 3, 2010 12:47 AM

Sorry to hog comment space, but I wanted to recall to you "Godel, Escher, Bach," by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is perhaps predominantly concerned with Artificial Intelligence, but he makes a great point about the separate existence of organizations. Separate from the individuals making them up, that is. I happen to think that the United States has some valuable role to play in the world apart from the lives of its citizens. Therefore I think one should not simply scorn any concern about the viability of the collective.

I also think that the viability of the U.S. would be enhanced if the press would spend a little less time bedded down with the government. I look forward to your article analyzing the administration's attempts to neutralize Wiki.

Posted by Ken Gibert on September 3, 2010 12:58 AM


I loved the Hofstadter book when I read it many years ago (actually I had to read it several times because although it is well written and fun to read, the material is difficult) but did not recall the connection you made, since my focus was on learning about AI and Godel's theorem.

I agree that the US can play an enormous and positive role in the world mainly because of its greatest contribution, the constitution. Flawed as it was, it was way ahead of its time. This is why it pains me to see the country's leaders trash its greatest heritage, and its people passively standing by as it happens.

Posted by Mano on September 3, 2010 07:52 AM


Briefly, Hofstadter's theory was that intelligence arises out of the interconnection of neurons (or circuits in AI), and ants/ant colonies were used as a metaphor. As was the way of the whole book, some of the characters were introduced to an ant colony (named Martha, as I recall) and then sorry to learn of Martha's tragic demise--without a single ant having perished.

Posted by Ken Gibert on September 6, 2010 06:38 PM


Now, I remember. That ant colony metaphor was fascinating. It kind of ties in with something that I have musing on for some time now and that is that all our body's cells get replaced over time so that there is not a single part of me now that was there a decade or so ago. And yet, "I" am the same, or think I am. That always struck me as weird.

Posted by Mano on September 7, 2010 08:35 AM

Now that I've refreshed your recollection of GEB, I have a question for you. I stumbled onto your discussion of the "new Atheism," which you wrote in 2007 I think. Would you say that Stephen Hawking's latest pronouncements are a confirmation of the trend you observed? But here's my real question, and it comes from the Kurt Godel part of GEB. You'll recall that Godel's claim to fame was his theory of incompleteness: no theory can be both complete and consistent. Or, put differently, no system can be self-justifying (that's my translation).

In my view that theory established for all time that science cannot answer the "religious" question, and it puts all the scientists attacking religion on untenable ground. Do you think the scientists who argue that religion must posit and prove a universe that is different because of god run afoul of the theory of incompleteness and have veered themselves into an area of faith?

Posted by Ken Gibert on September 7, 2010 01:28 PM