WikiLeaks: Secrets and lies
By harnessing the internet to expose the hidden mechanics of war, WikiLeaks puts governments on notice --- obsessive secrecy cannot be sustained. Emily Butselaar reports
25 Oct 10

By harnessing the internet to expose the hidden mechanics of war, WikiLeaks puts governments on notice — obsessive secrecy cannot be sustained. Emily Butselaar reports

The most interesting element of WikiLeak’s publication of almost 400,000 leaked secret Iraq war files has been the lack of criticism. This time, military claims that the leaks threaten security and will put the lives of coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in danger have been widely ignored.

There is clearly a public interest in the conduct of wars by our armies and governments and the files reveal that the US did — despite earlier denials — record civilian casualties. They also confirmed the existence of the now infamous Frago 242, the 2004 US army order that directed coalition troops not to investigate allegations of abuse unless US forces were involved. Some of the documents detail thousands of incidents of often stomach-turning torture, abuse and molestation.  And others demonstrate governments’ excessive reliance on secrecy.

The anodyne nature of many of the documents demonstrates the over-classification of sensitive material.  Secrecy rather than transparency is the norm — national security the justification even where that argument has no validity. If governments are to seek some secrets, they must cultivate a greater culture of transparency as the convention. The US Department of Defence has admitted that July’s unauthorised release of the so called war logs — 91,731 classified US military records from the war in Afghanistan  — has not resulted in the disclosure of sensitive intelligence sources.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder and spokesman, and his band of hacker activists set up the whistleblower site in 2006. With its simple “keep the bastards honest” ethos, Wikileaks was carefully designed to be an “uncensorable system for untraceable mass leaking”. It aimed to discourage unethical behaviour by airing governments’ and corporations’ dirty laundry in public, putting their secrets out there in the public realm.

But with its success — and its many exposés — has come criticism. Earlier this year it released a shocking video of a 2007 US attack in Iraq.  Alongside the unedited footage it released an edited 17-minute version that critics claimed was misleading. The release and the title they gave it, “Collateral Murder”, marked WikiLeaks’ move from reporting to advocacy: it was actively protesting the war in Afghanistan.

Handwringing began over the site’s move from objectivity. No longer would it be just a repository of raw source documents. Assange expressed surprise that the site had ever been cast as a bastion of impartiality, describing the concept as idiocy. But a politically active stance made it easier for outsiders to attack the site’s integrity. It could no longer be seen as an objective, neutral spokesman, a change of image that may have long-term ramifications.

The site was also damaged by failures in WikiLeaks “harm minimisation” system, the system by which they redact information. When Reporters Without Borders accused Julian Assange of “incredible irresponsibility” after the release of the Afghan War logs, he cited a lack of resources, an argument it is difficult to find sympathy with when the safety of individuals is involved.

For an organisation on a mission for total transparency the organisation is notoriously secretive about its own activity. It maintains its cloak and dagger antics are necessary to protect its sources, but the very questions that WikiLeaks was set up to address, power without accountability or transparency, can be applied to its own operations.

Today’s Independent focuses on internal rows that have been long-rumoured within WikiLeaks amidst claims that the focus on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has subsumed the rest of the organisation’s activities.

It’s easy to forget just how many stories WikiLeaks has broken. Its tremendous success has meant the site has often struggled under the volume of users. It has faced down corrupt governments, investment banks and the famously litigious Church of Scientology, made public top-secret internet censorship lists and broken injunctions — as in the case of the press gag granted to UK solicitors Carter Ruck in the interests of their client, Trafigura.

It’s possible the site will eventually force governments world wide to re-examine concepts of privacy, transparency and secrecy. WikiLeaks is just the vehicle, in the internet age leaks will continue. All governments can do is strive towards a greater culture of transparency if they want to keep their legitimate secrets under wraps.

Emily Butselaar is online editor of Index on Censorship