Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Wikileaks Is At The Top

Wikileaks Is At The Top

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What secrets are worth keeping?

Is there a secret file that Wikileaks would not release? The latest tranche of documents from the net activist collective, the Iraqi War logs, appears on first glance to have been released with a little more sensitivity to unintended consequences than the Afghan War logs they dumped into the open couple of months ago.
Thousands of Afghans were named as cooperating, or if you prefer ‘collaborating’ with coalition military forces, exposing them to reprisal by the Taliban. Reprisal killing is not just a concept in Afghanistan. It is an everyday banality. Schoolteachers are beheaded for giving lessons. Doctors are shot for treating the wrong people. Women are set on fire for… well, being women actually.

The initial outrage of the US administration and Pentagon, echoed here by the usual suspects, that the Afghan leaks would endanger military personnel wasn't credible and was found not to be credible by the Pentagon's own investigations. However, Afghan citizens living outside heavily protected Western military bases remain exposed to torture and murder simply because their names appear somewhere in the tens of thousands of documents that Julian Assange and his supporters published without first removing the identifying details.

Early reports of the Iraq War release seems to indicate that they have taken the time to redact this latest batch of documents, although there's been no admission from the organisation that having done so this time implies they made a horrible mistake last time.

It's a fraught business criticising Wikileaks. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by the sort of barking mad pinheads who hold down anchor positions on Fox News. This is a species of loon happy to speculate openly about unleashing special forces operators on Assange and, presumably by extension on anyone who criticises any aspect of US (or Australian) military operations. On the other hand, the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have become such toxic tragedies in many people's minds that they cannot disentangle their contempt for the misadventures from any consideration they might otherwise make of Wikileaks' strengths or weaknesses. Since Assange declares himself opposed to the war, anything he does as regards the conflict must by definition be beyond reproach.

But plenty of people with no time for the military industrial complex or the vast right-wing media conspiracy supporting it (OK, I really just mean Fox News again) remain troubled by the tactics and philosophy of Wikileaks. You would think that journalists would love the idea of a website where they can pick up thousands of secret government documents, and for the most part they do. But Wikileaks is not a journalistic endeavour. It adheres to no standard of ethics and, being a relatively young institution, it seems to be evolving whatever standards it does have on the fly.

The question remains then, is there a document Wikileaks would not release? If for instance the group had existed in 1999 and had gained access to Australian plans to attack Indonesian military facilities in the event of an escalating confrontation in East Timor getting out of hand, would they have released them? It's a purely hypothetical question, but one worth pondering because it illuminates the potential dangers of information release without regard to unintended consequences. To Julian Assange the release of war plans might seem to be a guaranteed way of avoiding conflict. But in the real world that sort of information hits the public realm with massive kinetic effect and could well tip two contending nations into war rather than away from it.

Picking another area, were Avian Flu to mutate again and become a much deadlier and more communicable disease, would Wikileaks release government plans to deal with a lethal pandemic, knowing that the release would cripple the ability of a government to put the plan into effect? Were they to get hold of the Australian Taxation Office files of every PAYG earner in the country, would they release those? If you are a scrupulously honest tax payer you might be interested to know whether your fellow citizens are dudding you on their claims. But are you scrupulously honest? The government holds any number of dossiers on you; your tax history, your medicare records, every instance of every dealing you've ever had with every level of government in fact. Do you believe that because a file is held by a public institution it should automatically be released into the public sphere?

While Assange and Co. are doing nothing more than vexing the likes of Stephen Conroy or bugging the freaks at Scientology, it's all good fun and jolly hockeysticks. But there are classes of information that should never be released into the public domain. Weaponized botulism recipes, anyone? Likewise there are huge fields of data which might well serve some public interest by being released, but not as a massive info dump without context or explanation. Neither of which Wikileaks do. They tried something like that with the release of the "Collateral Murder" video, but wound up looking like foolish amateurs.

There is doubtless a place in the world for Wikileaks. Some of their previous releases have been undeniably of benefit to public discourse. There is even without doubt a place for the release of documents such as those we've seen coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Historians will be forever grateful to Assange for providing them with such a vast trove of raw material they might otherwise have had to wait decades to access. But with power comes responsibility. It remains to be seen whether a protean, cell structured, largely anarchic group like this can ever properly internalise that.

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