WikiLeaks Still Rippling

‘Tis the season of the summer blockbuster and our profession’s closest approximation thereof offers something for everyone.

Sex, violence, intrigue, the ubiquitous cultural icon Lady Gaga – WikiLeaks has it all.

But what does it teach us as diplomatic historians? As concerned citizens?

So far, WikiLeaks raises more questions than it answers.

Last year, news of the most massive leak of classified documents in U.S. history triggered grave predictions about the future of American diplomacy, calls for the imprisonment—even the execution—of Julian Assange, and frenetic tit-for-tat cyber attacks on WikiLeaks and its critics.

The Guardian described WikiLeaks as “the historian’s dream, the diplomat’s nightmare.”

The reality is far more nuanced.

So far, despite the furor attending the release of WikiLeak’s selectively edited and provocatively entitled “Collateral Murder” video of a 2007 incident in which a U.S. Apache helicopter crew killed 16 people, there have not been congressional hearings or legal proceedings like those that followed My Lai or Abu Ghraib

Despite accusing WikiLeaks of endangering people and compromising national security, the Obama administration has not attempted to prevent U.S. newspapers from publishing the documents or created—as far as we know—their own version of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers.”

WikiLeaks undoubtedly embarrassed U.S. officials, but there is little evidence that American diplomacy has been harmed in any significant way.

While the documents provide context and drama, they have not revealed significant disjunctures between the public and private aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

The fact that U.S. officials produce candid, even cutting, assessments of their counterparts abroad has elicited neither surprise nor outrage.

An unnamed foreign minister responded to Hillary Clinton’s apology by declaring, “You should see what we say about you.”

It’s also hardly a secret that governments routinely leak information to serve their own political agendas.

But, if U.S. foreign policy has been relatively immune to WikiLeaks fallout, other nations have been upended by it.

Revelations about the excessive corruption of Tunisia’s president and his family sparked massive demonstrations that toppled his government.

Activists in Egypt, Syria, and Libya subsequently used WikiLeaks to publicize information about their own despotic regimes.

According to Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, there are now eighty-nine newspapers collaborating with WikiLeaks in releasing documents pertaining to their nations.   With only approximately 15,000 of the purlioned State Department cables released so far, it will be years before their full impact registers.  

Ironically, the Pentagon itself developed the technology that made WikiLeaks, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter possible.

Now, it confronts the vastly more uncertain political landscape created by protests inconceivable mere months ago.

While careful not to take full credit for these stunning developments, Julian Assange continues preaching the WikiLeaks gospel of transparency and open information as the best weapons against autocracy.

Brilliant, mercurial, and fiercely suspicious of authority, he inspires views as contradictory as he himself.

To those who believe that WikiLeaks is the only organization in the world trying to show the face of war and atrocities, Assange is a hero.

While rarely defending his troubling personal characteristics, they resent the implication that Assange must be a paragon of morality (the Rosa Parks of transparency, if you will) if his message on our collective moral responsibility to expose governmental and corporate wrongdoing is to have any authority.

His admirers argue that any deed committed by Assange individually, however heinous, pales in comparison to the human rights violations being exposed by WikiLeaks.

In this context, it is no wonder that even mild criticism of Assange triggers vociferous defenses and hacking (most recently on the PBS web site after Frontline aired “WikiSecrets”).

One sees in these attacks the same anti-imperialist and anarchistic sentiments fueling many of the anti-globalization protests targeting the WTO, World Bank, and the IMF in recent years.

But even some of Assange’s most stalwart backers, citing his self-promotion and the lack of transparency in the operation of WikiLeaks are now defecting, writing exposés and founding competing sites like OpenLeaks.

Although Assange acknowledges that posting classified information could lead to the deaths of innocent people, he insists that the potential to save lives is far greater.

Yet he casually dismissed criticisms levied by Amnesty International and other human rights groups when they raised concerns about hundreds of names left unredacted in the first batch of Afghan War documents released by WikiLeaks.

When it comes to his own privacy being compromised, Assange is much less blasé.

He was livid when The Guardian published Swedish police records detailing sex assault charges levied against him by two women who accused him of refusing to wear a condom, an act construed as rape under Sweden’s strict laws on nonconsensual sexual behavior.

While awaiting a July 12th appeals hearing on his possible extradition, Assange remains under house arrest at an English estate.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who may or may have had direct contact with Assange while giving WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified documents, was indicted in March on twenty-two charges including the capital offense of aiding the enemy.

Manning was only recently transferred to the medium-security Ft. Leavenworth after months as a “maximum custody detainee” under “prevention of injury” assignment at Quantico.

Challenging WikiLeaks’ characterization of itself as “whistleblower,” critics like Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News have taken issue with the site’s exposure of secret rituals of the Mormons, the Masons, the Church of Scientology, and the college sorority Alpha Tau Omega.

They argue that these organizations do not merit the same level of scrutiny and exposure that WikiLeaks is applying to national and corporate actors engaged in atrocities, corruption, and other crimes.

But these efforts to defend privacy and freedom of association have been resoundingly flamed by Assange’s defenders.

Assange seems to have become a lightning rod for anxieties about the increasing concentration of power and wealth—either from the vantage point of those who find it threatening or those hellbent on protecting it.

Wherever one lands on that spectrum, diplomatic historians should decry the climate of overclassification and excessive secrecy in which WikiLeaks arose. 

Bradley Manning’s actions also reveal stunning lapses in the systems designed to protect sensitive material.

Over 500,000 people had access to the classified network (SIPRNet) housing the war logs that he burned to a rewritable disc disguised as a Lady Gaga album.

Even at a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility), there was no software in place to prevent Manning from downloading material beyond his clearance or to monitor unusual downloading activity.

I faced bigger obstacles installing the Netflix Instant Viewing plug-in in my classroom at OSU.

Recent declassifications of the Pentagon Papers and the recipe for invisible ink used in World War I reflect larger challenges scholars face in gaining access to government documents, some of which are far past the federal government’s mandated 30-year declassification line.

While initiatives like the National Declassification Center are attempting to remedy the situation, archivists and other experts warn us of the coming explosion of emails, social media, video, and printed records that will soon overwhelm even the most rigorous declassification efforts.

Given these obstacles, it is easy to understand why some might cheer the methods used by WikiLeaks, but as diplomatic historians, we are remiss if we don’t also acknowledge the perils.

While WikiLeaks is expediting the process of getting materials into the public domain, the process of getting materials officially declassified remains glacial.

We will have to closely monitor the lawsuit just filed by the ACLU demanding that the State Department honor its FOIA request for 23 memos already released by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks offers scholars of U.S. foreign relations a priceless opportunity to demonstrate the desperate need for improved public understanding of international relations and those who conduct them.

I am struck, for example, by the comment of a British journalist on the team working with WikiLeaks in preparing the 251,000 diplomatic cables for release.

Evincing surprise at the wit, eloquence, and insight of the dispatches, he declared, “Who knew that diplomats could write?”

Any diplomatic historian, that’s who.

How many consumers of the raw material found on WikiLeaks will have the expertise to situate it into a larger history of a nation’s foreign policy, domestic politics, and culture?

The journalistic team preparing the WikiLeaks materials discovered that the massive diplomatic trove allegedly downloaded by Bradley Manning did not contain the highest levels of diplomatic correspondence—and that it included several cables signed by an ambassador or the secretary of state that might not have been actually written by that particular individual.

I would posit that any serious user of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volumes would have immediately recognized these deficiencies and would argue that as valuable as some of the WikiLeaks releases may prove to be, they will never replace the context, analysis, and cohesion provided by FRUS.

The necessity of quality in addition to quantity will become only more imperative as the amount of information on even the most limited topic in U.S. foreign relations surpasses the ability of even the most diligent historians to access and process.

It remains to be seen whether WikiLeaks will resume operations and realize its potential as an impartial conduit of vitally important information—or become the journalistic equivalent of MySpace,

But whatever happens to the site, Assange, and Manning, WikiLeaks will undoubtedly keep us floating in food for thought for the foreseeable future.