Scientific journalism un-redax

I’ve been a bit remiss on my “WikiLeaks beat” duties, as like much of the rest of the world I have only recently discovered the revelation of the entire unredacted cache of American diplomatic cables. In trying to figure out the situation — first and foremost ethically — I basically follow the version of events by Nigel Parry, who asserts that he was among the first people outside of the Guardian-WikiLeaks agreement to crack the cache, as well as the views of his more astute readers in the comments section. It’s clear that the snaffu emerges from a critical oversight on the part of Assange, an outright blunder on the part of Leigh (which was what made Assange’s oversight critical), and Lord only knows what game some ex-WikiLeakers and online snoopers are playing.

Immediately, my first instinct is that this has been a terrible development, as it runs the risk of putting careers and lives in danger, from the many State Department in-country human intelligence assets to the well-intentioned and often empathetic embassy employees whose inner worlds were revealed by the cables. Now, I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of the “blood on hands” debate/dispute, but I do not agree with most of the argumentation either way. My own experience as a journalist working in Central Asia, an informationally unfriendly region to put it nicely, teaches me some very fundamental, if complex facts: informants’ motivations are vastly varied, which means that there will always be someone around willing to talk, but also that authorities’ motivations are equally varied, which means that talking always carries with it an inherent scale of danger depending on the Who and What factors.

In other words, Assange et al cannot shirk responsibility for any one who will be hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ actions — but then again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear this responsibility — nor can the State Department hide from the light under the veil of security and safety — because again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear certain culpabilities. WikiLeaks can be responsible if authorities track down informants using the leaks and the State Department knows full well that in most cases it can re-generate lost intelligence assets. These two parties are facilitating certain processes and realities, wanting to reap the positives but heap the negatives onto the other (at least in terms of their public relations; privately, I suspect they are more regretful, for the State Department is not so “imperial” nor Assange so “cavalier” as their mutual detractors would have us all believe).

By the same token, a debate that’s been missing has been the one regarding the moral culpability of the informants themselves. That’s because for every informant who is motivated by high ideals and the desire to improve his or her society, there is another who is seeking narrow personal gain. What I find striking is that, although discussing the motivations of informants and the morality of working with them is routine for journalists, diplomatic officers, and intelligence officers, the public discourse about these cables, almost from the get-go, seems to have presumed the innocence of the informants as a whole. If my assessment here is correct, then this is a huge lacunae in the ethical analysis of WikiLeaks — much less the State Department, who is working directly with these informants — about which simple rationalizations like “they’re traitors who deserve what they get” or “sometimes the good guys have to work with bad guys” I feel are unsatisfactory.

As for the third parties in this dance, namely, the journalists (particularly at the Guardian) and the ex-WikiLeakers (about whom I simply don’t know enough, so they’re difficult for me to assess, although instinctively I don’t approve of what they’re doing), I’m even more troubled. I don’t want to stand on a pedastool and denounce everyone, particularly since I’m not standing in their shoes. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the third parties don’t really understand the dynamic between WikiLeaks and the State Department, and at the moment they seem to be actually making things worse, not better, which is precisely what Assange and Clinton had hoped they wouldn’t do. If there’s any game-playing with lives going on, I feel it’s with the third parties: WikiLeaks and the State Department have some grave sense of what’s at stake, but these third parties seem to be treating this whole affair as some kind of Jack Ryan adventure film.

In particular, I cannot fathom what Leigh was thinking. I understand the desire to use the password for literary or dramatic effect in his book, but he should have sought positive confirmation from Assange first. If he was determined to go forward with it anyway, he could have simply left out the word “diplomatic”, because it’s obvious even to the encryption neophyte why Assange didn’t write it down — seriously, I’m not a coder or a spy, but all it took me was two minutes of consideration to understand why one would want a written and verbal part of a password. (In general, it’s also shocking to read the giddy lack of seriousness on the part of the Guardian team. Maybe it’s the fact that I work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who exist at the crossroads of United States foreign policy and its effects upon the world, which immediately instilled in me a sense of gravity about WikiLeaks, when I first covered them a year ago. Somehow I doubt my colleagues in Prague would have been so childish had they been in the same situation as Leigh et al.)

Again, once Leigh’s exposure went public, the ethics of what should have been done are not easy to discern. For example, the State Department has rightly pointed out that screw-ups like Leigh’s was the underlying risk that WikiLeaks had been running, but then again, I think the State Department themselves run a similar risk just by talking with informants. Yes, the sheer scale of WikiLeaks’ cache adds a whole lot more, let’s call it moral weight to this risk, but fundamentally it’s no different than if a State Department official accidently slipped information critical to the identity of an informant to someone they thought they could trust but actually shouldn’t have

Another example is whether WikiLeaks should have published the unredacted cache in turn, and with a search engine no less. Once, as the proverbial saying goes, the cat was out of the bag, WikiLeaks could have taken a principled stance, but then that would have done little to limit the damage. I would like to say that had I been in Assange’s position that I wouldn’t have done it, but I don’t really know. In the least, though, WikiLeaks should have been prepared for this contingency, not necessarily the specifics of how it came about — which are rather arcane — but in general that the unredacted cache could be exposed (although I should note that a contact of mine who is close to Assange believes he had actually been aware of the problem but may have decided to keep it quiet in the attempt to buy the State Department time to plug the hole, which, if true, although not a very good solution, was nevertheless something). With regards to the search engine, I suspect the pro and con here are the same: providing control to readers makes the cables more intelligible and therefore more usable (the unredacted version that had been seeping around the Internet would really have only been of use to those who would have already known how to explore it). The real issue, then, is that we cannot control the uses to which this control shall be put.

But there is one element that I feel has been consistently overlooked by everyone when trying to figure out the ethics of WikiLeaks, and that is the longview of history. Let’s face it: eventually WikiLeaks would have eventually released the unredacted cables anyway, just not right now — probably in 40-50 years from now, when most people couldn’t be hurt (although a big caveat is in order here: as is well known, WikiLeaks has also used the threat of releasing its unredacted archives as leverage against the State Department. Tactically, that of course makes sense, but in my view such a threat has never been ethical). That this was the game plan has been the impression made upon me by those who’ve known the organization fairly well over the years, and it’s also consistent with a key element of their ideology: WikiLeaks is not only a journalistic or advocacy organization, but also an academic one, interested in adding information to the historical record for future knowledge — “academic” here understood in the least neutral sense possible, namely, the critical intellectual. If you’ll forgive my employment of that overwrought adjective, WikiLeaks is a Foucaultian operation.

Again, like the search engine, they leave the uses of this future knowledge open, e.g., whether for diplomatic historians trying to understand Obama-era foreign policy, conspiracy theorists trying to understand a certain phase of the “new world order”, activists trying to understand the historical structure of their own conditions, etc. This openness, which can be extremely dangerous (but then again, what knowledge isn’t?), is fundamentally what’s at stake in Assange’s notion of “scientific journalism”. How everyone keeps missing this fact and instead focuses on the immediate short-term effects baffles me and indicates the remarkable lack of our era’s attention-span. In the end, we simply cannot understand WikiLeaks’ agenda without understanding its core principles. Without that understanding, we cannot see that for Assange et al, it’s not by the present that they measure their actions, but how they believe history may ultimately evaluate them.

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