17 November, 2007


A colleague of mine recently alerted me to a site called "wikileaks" (main page here) which serves as a repository for leaked documents from governments the world over, from the US to China to Yemen. Its goal is to democratize whistle-blowing and create "an uncensorable system for safe mass document leaking and public analysis."

Of course, democratization means that we now have to do the work that the editors of the Times used to do for us; that is, sift through the crap. And there seems to be a lot of crap, or at least randomness. All part of the fun, though, I suppose, and there is some fascinating stuff. Here we find information on an Israeli nuclear technician placed in solitary confinement for eleven years after outing his country's nuclear capabilities to the press. And - surprise! - documents showing the US has apparently violated the convention banning battlefield use of chemical weapons. The most well known document, however, (and the one that prompted a mention from my colleague) is the recently posted manual of Guantanamo's Standard Operating Prodecure from 2003, complete with the unsavory details we crave.

There are tons of issues here. (So much so that there is a blog devoted to discussing them!) First of all, who are these people (they say they are "Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists") and can they be trusted? Since there are no actual names attached to the site, speculation is rampant that it is a "trap" - that some governments, or government agencies, are deliberately soliciting illegal behavior for the purpose of purging disloyalty from their ranks. If this seems far-fetched, at the least it is unclear to what extent the interested government agencies (the Chinese government has been especially assiduous in clamping down on wikileaks) can penetrate the supposed anonymity afforded by the site. The encryption technology sounds good to little ol' me, but who knows how easy it would be for the CIA to do its stuff.

And, of course, there is the issue of accuracy. Are the documents real? Fake? Real but doctored? For instance, here is an absolutely fascinating discussion of the veracity of a secret document and its geopolitical implications. The questions about accuracy snowball into questions of ethics: will wikileaks allow for the politicization of leaking (more than it inherently is) by becoming a tool for political factions to selectively leak documents that are harmful to their opponents but that are not in the public interest? (Another call that we used to trust the newspaper editor to make.) Will fake documents also be used as political weapons? Is that a bad thing if it can contribute to bringing down, say, the Burmese junta? Questions, questions.

But here's the big one: given all of these uncertainties, can wikileaks contribute anything intelligible to the struggle of the citizen against government secrecy, illegality, and incompetence?

1 comment:

Cassady said...

Tons of issues is right! I hardly even know where to begin. I just finished a rather lengthy dive into the UIC article, which then led me for a good hour or more to find other news and documents. The Wikileaks article, quite apart from its interesting subject, was in itself engaging and provocative.

The whole of the article is devoted to questioning the authenticity of the supposedly leaked document. It embarks on a lengthy and pleasingly complete history of the situation in Somalia since 1970 or so, but then leaves the reader with the same questions that linger at the beginning. Most amusing was the “Conclusion” section, found loitering near the end of 45 minutes of reading. If by ‘conclusion,’ they mean, ‘not concluding a damn thing,’ then yes, it was a good conclusion. Concise and to the point. Really, the same questions were still hanging; if the document is real, then it is valuable and worth study; if a forgery, then it is yet another smear attempt, probably by the US, to discredit a potentially stable and reasonably just Islamic state. Which is it? The world may never know. I got a good history lesson, but nothing to help me with the document.

I was pleased to see that the author, presumably a Wikileaks writer, was the one questioning the authenticity. It shows a fairly high degree or responsibility on their part, and a commitment to providing accurate information.

Poking around the Wikileaks mainpage, I tried to find out exactly who was writing for them. Steven Soldz, writing on the Guantanamo SOP documents, is a psychoanalyst specifically involved in researching the effects of psycho-torture. Kudos! A good writer for the topic, and yet the question of authenticity remains so far as the documents themselves are concerned.

It does show hope that some nation’s governments are trying, as you say, to clamp down and Wikileaks. That means that there is at least a slim hope that a percentage of the documents on the site are real…but how to pan for the gold of truth in the river of uncertainty? Most distressing…

While the site itself certainly feels credible, I cannot see any way to ensure the veracity of the documents in question. By their very nature, leaked documents carry a yoke of suspicion that, while bearing on one side great opportunity for study and thought, carry also the seeds of doubt and falsity that could simply muddy up the global-political waters beyond their already complicated state. Easy access to supposedly leaked documents is a noble goal, but I feel it is too much for a global media group.

My sentiment remains that the average person needs truth and trust to be content as a citizen. And as a citizen, they should not back a government that acts with secrecy and claims to represent the general populace. What am I to do after a covert US bombing when I travel abroad? Raise my hands and say “nobody told me about it?” Somehow I think that wouldn’t satisfy the recently homeless denizens of many an Islamic country. Assuming I have my government’s leave to travel anywhere predominantly Muslim in the next few years.