Computer programmer and activist Julian Assange created WikiLeaks in 2006, but he did not begin to receive media attention until December 2007, when he posted the US Army manual detailing the preferred treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The next year, WikiLeaks garnered further press coverage when it published Church of Scientology documents, e-mails from Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account and a list of name and addresses of the members of the British National party.
Reaching a whole new level, Assange awoke the wrath of the United States government on April 5, 2010, when the 2007 video of a US Apache helicopter shooting and killing two Reuters’ journalists and nearly a dozen Iraqi citizens streamed on WikiLeaks. This started a chain reaction when the U.S. military detained Pfc. Bradley Manning and accused him of leaking the video and thousands of other classified State Department records. On July 6, official charges were filed against Manning, and over the next year, WikiLeaks released nearly 1,000,000 classified state department documents. These included the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, more information on Guantanamo Bay, and thousands of unredacted U.S. diplomatic and State Department cables.
Here is Julian Assange giving a Ted Talk.
Now almost immediately, WikiLeaks created a quandary for U.S. Media outlets. Both Republicans and Democrats furiously condemned Assange and Manning. Then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (D), specified that these disclosures were an act of terrorism that was “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy.” It was “an attack on the international community.” Representative Peter King (R), the inbound chairperson of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that WikiLeaks presented “a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States,” and it met “the legal criteria” of a terrorist organization. John Kerry (D), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairperson, alleged that WikiLeaks’ “reckless” actions jeopardized “lives by exposing raw, contemporaneous intelligence.” Moreover, Senator Lindsey Graham (R) said he agreed “with the Pentagon’s assessment that the people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands.”
The reaction and coverage of WikiLeaks by the United States media varied tremendously, and support or opposition depended on the presupposed answers to three specific questions. The first was whether or not Assange was a journalist, and if he should be treated as one? The second was whether WikiLeaks’ actions was irresponsible and caused harm to individuals? The third had to do with Assange’s underlying motives behind the actions of WikiLeaks. This article will examine each of these questions in detail.
Is Julian Assange a Journalist?
Those in support of WikiLeaks claimed that that the mainstream media had not been doing its job of challenging the abuses of power. The news was no longer a “loss leader” for networks, and 90% of American media were owned by six mega-corporations in an iron triangle of corruption that formed a key component of a system of political system of inverted totalitarianism. This is why, under the pretext of national security, the U.S. government denounced Assange and attempted to restrain his activities.
Julian Assange contended that WikiLeaks was a journalistic organization and deserved the same protection and respect given to others. Toward that end, the WikiLeaks about us page contains a list of its journalism awards, and in a 2011 60 Minutes interview Assange claimed to be “acting in the spirit of America’s founding fathers.” He operated WikiLeaks “like any other publisher” who exposes government wrongdoing.
Assange claimed he was a traditional journalist of “the fourth estate,” and his aim was to check the power and abuses of the state. He argued that “transparency should be proportional to the power that one has,” and “the more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency.”
Further, WikiLeaks supporters agreed with social theorist Jürgen Habermas who taught that the strength of a democracy was directly related to the strength of the public sphere. In today’s world, this was no longer limited to newspapers and town halls. The Internet was the new public sphere, and it should be utilized to further democracy and to promote open communication. Moreover, traditional media sources were now bought and paid for by the same corporations that controlled politicians with a close connection to the Washington DC bureaucracy. They no longer had the incentive to uncover state secrets and corruption as they did by releasing the Pentagon Papers (1971), or in the coverage of Watergate (1972 – 1976).
Are Comparisons of WikiLeaks to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate Applicable?
Writing for CBS News, David Martin said people often ask him about how WikiLeaks compares to the release of the Pentagon Papers. Therefore, he e-mailed Sanford Ungar, who covered the Pentagon Papers for The Washington Post and asked him to comment. Ungar acknowledged the similarities, but said the primary difference was that WikiLeaks had not produced any actual “news.” The Pentagon Papers “took the blinders off” and revealed the U.S. government had been misleading the American people, WikiLeaks only revealed the day-to-day operations of the war in Afghanistan. It did not “radically alter our understanding of the war.”
Similarly, Steven Aftergood, Director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, implied that WikiLeaks was not reporting anything. It was merely posting data. He added, “the fact that something is written down and even classified does not make it necessarily interesting or true. Documents can mislead as well as inform.”
Correspondingly, both Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post Watergate reporters, both commented on WikiLeaks. Speaking at University of Connecticut School of Law, Woodward alleged that the WikiLeaks information was interesting “but not necessarily earth-shattering.” The information was “important, but it’s not going to go down in the history books.” It is simply, “background music.” Woodward said the real story was that someone with a clearance as low as Manning had access to this abundance of information. Further, Woodward commented that real reporting needs to “peel the onion to get at what happened.”
Going one step further, Carl Bernstein commented that “real reporting” was difficult. It is “about the best attainable version of the truth.” Respectable journalism is possible, but “it’s about talking to a lot of people,” and “getting sources.” The problem today is that too few news organizations are willing to spend the money necessary to do it. On top of that, “too many people are not interested in the best attainable version of the truth. They’re really interested in information that will buttress what they already believe. Ammunition for their political beliefs that they already hold.” He said that WikiLeaks had “done some very useful things,” but it was also “reckless at times by putting information out without trying to protect individuals who work in intelligence.”
Has WikiLeaks Caused Death or Harm to Any Individuals?
According to the Pentagon’s review of Bradly Manning’s leaked material, “no instances were ever found of any individual killed by enemy forces as a result of having been named in the releases.” However, in an open letter to Julian Assange, Reporters Without Borders claimed that the WikiLeaks article “Afghan War Diary 2004 – 2010” disclosed “the names of Afghans who have provided information to the international military coalition that has been in Afghanistan since 2001.”This jeopardized these people’s lives. Additionally, they alleged that there was “a real problem” with the “methodology” and “credibility” of WikiLeaks, and it should be “subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.”
Additional charges of harm stemmed from the outrage caused by the release of the so-called “Erdogan Emails.” These 294,548 emails were searchable and contained the home addresses and phone numbers of politically active Turkish women voters. According to University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci, this info dump was a “potential danger to millions of ordinary, innocent people, especially millions of women in Turkey.”
Ironically, it appeared that Assange fueled a fire of backlash against the freedom of information. Pro-government forces used WikiLeaks’ actions to argue for a less open Internet. This alone causes several to question the actual motives behind Assange’s actions.
What Are the Motives Behind Julian Assange’s Actions?
CNN’s Kaj Larsen points out that Assange has not written a “definitive manifesto,” and there is no doubt that WikiLeaks is a “shifting organization” that is “inextricably linked” to its “enigmatic leader.” Larsen says that Assange uses information as a “tactical weapon,” and his “strategic objective” is to redistribute power. WikiLeaks has already received credit for political changes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and one has to wonder who may be his next targets?
In an interview with Spiegel, Michael Sontheimer asked Assange if transparency was enough to obtain his goal of justice? Assange responded that he did not like the word transparency. “Cold dead glass is transparent,” and he preferred “education or understanding, which are more human.” Sontheimer remarked that it appeared the work of WikiLeaks had changed. Previously it only published private documents, but now it attempted to provide context for them. Assange argued that nothing had changed.
Former WikiLeaks employee, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who is writing a “tell-all” book about Assange, says that WikiLeaks is becoming more and more autocratic, and Assange’s distrust of his colleagues has threatened the organization’s mission. He says that Assange is “not living up to his own standards.” This causes one to ponder whether so much power should be in the hands of one man? Since WikiLeaks relies on anonymous submissions, should someone vet these sources? Should a team be in place to determine if certain documents are untruthful or forgeries?
The Federalist’s Tom Nichols claims that Assange is “not a freedom fighter.” Instead, he is a “Russian Front-Man.” The dissemination of secret documents has “nothing to do with democracy and transparency, and everything to do with the sordid underworld of international espionage.” Nichols says WikiLeaks has become “a functional subsidiary of Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services.” However, according to the New York Times, there are no “direct ties” with WikiLeaks to the Kremlin, but their agendas sometimes dovetail.
Nevertheless, exacerbating the speculation of Russia’s involvement with WikiLeaks, recent reports claim that the Russian government hacked the computer system of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Indicating political espionage, these hackers apparently only targeted the “internal communications and opposition research” of the DNC and not the “personal and financial information on donors.”
All of this caused Wired to claim that “WikiLeaks has officially lost the moral high ground.” The fact that the DNC documents appeared on WikiLeaks strongly suggest collusion with the Russian government and its own military-industrial complex. The article’s author, Emma Grey Ellis, wrote that it seems apparent that “a foreign government is trying to influence the US presidential election.” Ellis quotes University of Florida’s Levin College of Law’s Mark Fenster, as saying “WikiLeaks’ initial self-presentation was as merely a conduit, simply neutral, like any technology.” However, “the ideal of WikiLeaks as an information conduit that is stateless and can serve as a neutral technology isn’t working. States fight back.” To keep the “moral high ground,” WikiLeaks has to be “an honest conduit” of information, and right now its reputation is damaged.
Now, Assange promises that WikiLeaks has a lot more material that will come out soon and that it would “add further controversy” to the 2016 Presidential election. Assange refuses to confirm or deny whether Russia was the source of WikiLeaks’ information. Instead, he claims that the Clinton campaign is attempting to sway “the public’s attention on the ‘Russian trail’ as a means to avoid addressing” their plot “against Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.” Nonetheless, “the FBI suspects that Russian government hackers breached the networks” of the DNC “to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.”
Finally, regardless of Trump’s continued praise of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia did not hack the DNC and that this accusation is “absurd.” Nevertheless, fueling this possible conspiracy, Roger Stone, the provocative political consultant of the Trump campaign, says that he has been in communication with Assange and that WikiLeaks’ “October surprise” for the Clinton campaign could be one of any number of things. Perhaps the contents of these revelations will shed more light upon Assange’s actual journalistic ambitions.