Working the WikiLeaks beat [updated]

The old round-up of my WikiLeaks coverage was starting to get unruly, so here’s a new, chronological index, which I will update regularly. I must say, it’s kind of weird being a “WikiLeaks observer,” because not only is this an incredibly fast-moving story, but the learning curve is quite steep, as it entwines simultaneously the most theoretical and most lived parts of biography, ethics, history, international diplomacy, war, journalism, and cryptography. It’s very exciting and meaningful material, and in all due seriousness, I thank God and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for the opportunity to cover it in such an in-depth manner.

The attentive reader will notice a few things. First, a faultering attempt to be as neutral and objective about WikiLeaks as possible; very often, I come across as wavering between being pro- and anti-WikiLeaks. What shifts over time is my sense of the “big picture”, which is what makes me shift from the former to the latter. Second, the bulk of my early (and relatively pro-WikiLeaks) coverage was with RFE/RL (who themselves eventually took a generally anti-WikiLeaks editorial line), and then gradually shifts to NewEurasia Citizen Media and eventually just this personal blog. That shift represents my evolution from intern to stringer with RFE/RL, until the relationship petered out circa 2012. I’m still on very good informal terms with RFE/RL; the formal relationship ended simply because they didn’t have anymore work for me (budget cuts). Third, my coverage of WikiLeaks in general tapers off also circa 2012. That was due to the demands of balancing my studies at Leuven with my leadership responsibilities at NewEurasia (and again, everybody’s favorite: budget cuts).

Fourth and finally, I used to be in direct contact with elements of WikiLeaks, in fact one degree from Assange — and briefly even with the man himself. We debated religion: I believed (and still do) that religious faith has a place in journalism, to which he bluntly replied, “It’s hard to believe in God in this business”. Starting circa 2014, nearly all those connections I either severed or made to whither and die. Although I found then and still find today WikiLeaks philosophically provocative, I also found then and find all the more so today that the majority of the personalities that Assange draws to himself (and Assange himself) to be distasteful, disconcerting and, to put it mildly, very ethically questionable. I suppose today I could be compared to a scholar or journalist who works closely on extremist groups: as with most such individuals, the interest started from sympathy but became one of concern and vigilance.

[The list here is in order of oldest to newest, with “Totemism and Panopticon” the presentation at the end. This post was updated on 30 August, 2018, including several links that either changed or expired since the original publication]

27 July, 2010: Interview with Julian Assange, which I conducted with one of RFE/RL’s senior war correspondents (and Prague Dead Souls bass guitarist) Ron Synovitz. Assange didn’t have much time to speak with us, so we were brief. I eventually talked with him again later.

27 July, 2010: WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Reports Stirs Debate on Journalism, Law by Ron with contributions from moi. It’s a sprawling piece of radio journalism (which Ron wrote hurriedly beside me) and touches upon many of the issues that I have since taken up as my “WikiLeaks beat”.

27 July, 2010: Talking with Julian Assange, a brief post that includes a poll of my personal blog readers about WikiLeaks’ trustworthiness: “If you were an informant, would you give your docs to WikiLeaks?” The poll remains open as of 30 August 2018: of a whopping (*cough) total of 35 votes,  34.29 percent (12 votes) have said yes because they “agree with [WikiLeaks’] viewpoint and/or agenda”, and 20 percent (seven votes) have said yes because they “trust WikiLeaks’ credibility”.

28 July, 2010: The power of information — to hurt or to help?, my first editorial about WikiLeaks for NewEurasia, in which I’m worried about the Afghan War Logs and WikiLeaks’ consequentialism.

30 July, 2010: Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: truth, trust, and tech, for NewEurasia and Transitions Online, which was among the few editorials on the internet to really examine the global aspirations of WikiLeaks and responses to it from around the world — a theme to which I later returned in a blog post for RFE/RL (see: below).

By the way, readers who are curious about non-Western views on WikiLeaks should check out “Turkmenistan Needs WikiLeaks”, written by NewEurasia’s chief Turkmen blogger, Annasoltan (pseudonym; with whom I co-authored, “Hack the Turkmenet!“) and “Is WikiLeaks a Tool of Influence on Central Asian Governments?” by Uzbekistan’s Mirza Abu’l-Fadl (also a pseudonym).

11 August, 2010: Interview with Jeff Jarvis, a well-known academic from the City University of New York. My readers can follow him on Twitter: @jeffjarvis

11 August, 2010: Interview with Janine Wedel, an academic from George Mason University whose innovative concept of the “shadow elite” is perhaps the best framework for understanding WikiLeaks, not to mention the general problem of accountability today. Essentially, she updates Juvenal’s ancient question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, for the digital-capitalist era. My readers can follow her on Twitter: @janinewedel

23 August, 2010: “It’s time to open the archives”, which surveys how WikiLeaks has been using Twitter against the Pentagon, particularly to cast doubt on the latter’s moral integrity. Might be somewhat interesting for students of public relations, the history of propaganda, and how social media can be used to shape public discourse.

26 August, 2010: Why is WikiLeaks so Focused on the United States? — a rhetorical question actually, precisely because WikiLeaks wasn’t focused solely on the United States, a fact overlooked by American commentators both then and now.

08 September, 2010: Is there a civil war in WikiLeaks? After Icelandic Parliamentarian and important WikiLeaks ally Birgitta Jonsdottir called for Julian Assange to “step aside” from his prominent position in the organization, the internet roared that there’s an insider revolt in the offing. Well, here’s what Jonsdottir and Assange themselves had to say about it at the time.

23 October, 2010: Will They or Won’t They? WikiLeaks and the next data dump is my piece right before the release of the Iraq War Logs (the press conference for which I was invited, but unfortunately I was unable to attend). This post reviews the controversy with Wired magazine’s blogs.

26 November, 2010: WikiLeaks and Its Brave New world concerns the leak of American diplomatic cables, which at the time was imminent. Specifically, I explain what I believe to be WikiLeaks’ strategy, namely, to undress the international system by undressing the United States. This has proven to be one of my most popular posts, with lots of great comments from friends and readers alike. I’m personally proud of its level of articulation, as well (and some of the comments are awesome!) Whether WikiLeaks strategy was or is the correct strategy, either philosophically or ethically, is of course a very big open question (I no longer believe it is either philosophically or ethically sound).

29 November, 2010: Of Bluffs and Secrets concerns the mysterious file, “insurance.aes256”, that’s been spread around by WikiLeaks. Alas, it’s a topic I’m very weak on, namely, cryptography. Nevertheless, I try my best.

01 December, 2010: What You Should Know About the WikiLeaks Cables is my application of some very elementary philosophical epistemology, in particular the principle of charity, to the massive cable leak. I use an interesting cable from Mongolia as my test case. Originally written mostly just for fun, but my argument for “cognitive independence” vis-a-vis WikiLeaks (as well as its naysayers) has quickly proven to be something of a core position of mine.

02 December, 2010: The other diplomatic cables leak, posted here on this blog, about another, albeit smaller but no less interesting, cache of State Department cables that have been published by the pseudonymous historian-blogger “History Punk”.

08 December, 2010: The Latest On The Mysterious insurance.aes256 File, the secret to “Of Bluffs and Secrets,” with a review of the small-scale cyberwar that has broken out between WikiLeaks’ supporters and opponents over the diplomatic cables release. Some of the comments are very heated.

08 December, 2010: How secret are these cables really? Another piece inspired by History Punk, who appears to have discovered one of WikiLeaks’ revealed cables through the more normal and mundane process of filing an FOIA request. (By the way, History Punk has another good post about the American Embassy in the Vatican that reveals what some diplomatic staffers consider to merit the “Secret” designation.)

08 December, 2010: Let’s take a moment to breathe and think about WikiLeaks, essentially the summation of views on WikiLeaks at the time, as well as a plea for calm, posted on neweurasia.

08 February, 2011: My comment on Joshua Foust’s blog post, “True Colors”, regarding a very nasty thing Assange said back in July before the release of the Afghan War Logs (make sure to read the Washington Post story to which Josh links).

11 April, 2011: The Dark Side of Radical Transparency concerns the emergence of a scary new WikiLeaks spawn, “Porn WikiLeaks”, and how this site represents the perversion of the logic of its namesake and raises troubling questions about the relationship between crowdsourcing and privacy.

11 April, 2011: Wiki-Orwellianism is the companion piece to “Dark Side”, published here on my personal blog. With this one I explore how crowdsourcing could be exploited toward authoritarian aims:

Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

05 May, 2011: “We use Astana as a symbol to show Kazakhstan”, an interview with Kazakhstan’s big Aikyn newspaper. Although the interview began about CyberChaikhana, questions quickly turned to the ethics of WikiLeaks, the future of Kazakhstan (wow) and American Muslims’ online activity. Interview in Kazakh.

03 June, 2011: Social leaking/social-whisteblowing explores another way of conceptualizing digital leaking or whistleblowing as the unintentional releasing of information by the rank-and-file of an organization that at an authority, whether it be cultural, governmental or corporate, would have preferred not to be released.

08 June, 2011: A conversation with an anti-mafia Slavoj Žižek, namely, Vincenzo Fatigati, a philosopher fighting the Camorra of Naples. It was a nice conversation and we talked a lot about Assange et al within some broader contexts.

05 September, 2011: Scientific Journalism Un-Redax was a direct response to the decision by WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted diplomatic cables in response to a bungle on the part of The Guardian. I wrote this while in Kyrgyzstan, where strangely there was little awareness of the crisis. One source close to Assange at the time called it the “best analysis” they have read about the situation.

04 October, 2011: “If they’re collecting all of this information, they’re surely using it, right?” WikiLeaks’ Impact on Post-Soviet Central Asia” is my big academic essay on, as the title indicates, the Central Asian journalistic community’s responses to WikiLeaks, particularly Cablegate, as well as how Assange et al may or may not have affected the media landscape in the region.

At the time of publication, I shared the essay with colleagues via e-mail. Someone passed the e-mail along to Cryptome (arguably the great-granddaddy website of online leak and document publishing), who published it. Here’s my own summary of the essay from that e-mail (in retrospect, I think it was the neglectful and eventually manipulative way that WikiLeaks treated Central Asia which also influenced my negative opinion of them):

“Here’s what I see so far: despite some intriguing remarks about the former Soviet Union circulated internally within the organisation, Julian Assange and company have not been handling Central Asia very well, at least not yet. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as far as I and other journalists can see, the cables have had almost zero effect on either audiences or the media; in Tajikistan, it’s re-ignited old anger toward the Russians and called into question the purported mission of the whistleblowing entity; and in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, it appears to have possibly had one of Assange’s desired effects – frightening the hell out of the secretive ruling elite – but possibly at a subtle, hard-to-measure cost to civil society activists and human rights defenders who must live the hard day-to-day realities under renewed governmental fears of an American digital panopticon. At stake here is whether WikiLeaks has actually contributed to the marginalisation of the region, both internally and globally, or whether it has presented a unique opportunity to counter that process; this essay is an attempt, however brief, to try ascertaining which.”

23 January, 2012: “Totemism and Panopticon” [original version], a (quite long and heavy) essay I wrote for my “Media Ethics” course. The paper explores the mixed and often negative impacts of WikiLeaks’ initial wave of United States-focused mass data publications upon American audiences. This is when my wavering between pro- and anti-WikiLeaks sentiment shifted firmly toward the latter.

15 October, 2014: “The view from Mediastan” was my review of the WikiLeaks-produced film “Mediastan“. Written at the request of, it is a critical review (and more or less captures the moment when I realized WikiLeaks had more or less abandoned its global ambitions and unconsciously maintained quite colonialist attitudes toward the non-Western world, Central Asia in particular).

30 August, 2018: “Totemism and Panopticon” [second version] was a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation I gave at the World Communication Association’s 2017 Biennial International Conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Per its subtitle, the presentation was constituted by a tentative comparative “philosophical ethnography” of journalism and intelligence using Wikileaks as a case study. It is decidedly negative about WikiLeaks from a philosophical and ethical viewpoint.

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