Saturday, November 20, 2010


I hadn't followed the WikiLeaks story much as it was going on, so this was a good opportunity for me to catch up. Ultimately, I have conflicting feelings on the release of these documents. I'm given to skepticism of our militaristic endeavors, and as such, I don't put much stock into our government's official explanation of their motivations, description of conditions on the ground or their metrics for judging success or failure. I also believe that for much of the last decade the American news media has been asleep at the wheel when it has come to providing critical and insightful coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've discussed some of the reasons for the lack of in depth news coverage in the media (i.e. focus on ratings, declines in revenue, cuts in staff, especially expensive foreign correspondents, etc.) Unfortunately, the American media has often shown itself to be overly deferential to our government's explanations of things, especially when it comes to matters of war and national security (WMD's anyone?). The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been rife with stories, such as, prisoner abuse or torture; the abuses of private contractors; under reporting of civilian deaths; the scope of the war in Afghanistan and how it has bled over (unofficially) into Pakistan, that exemplify the tension between our right to know what our government is doing in our names vs. the government's claim of the need to protect this information in the name of safety and security. Justice Louis Brandeis has a well known maxim, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Our current military entanglements in the Middle East are in dire need of some sunlight. In this respect, WikiLeaks has been able to play a role that our traditional news media has been reluctant to play, and I am thankful for that.

On the other hand, I do have concerns about the consequences of leaking secret documents and what this may mean for the safety of the informants that are providing or have provided our military with intelligence. In his interview with Amy Goodman, Assange pointed out that WikiLeaks has held back 15,000 pages of documents with this sort of concern in mind. However, in the ProPublica article "How WikiLeaks Could Change the Way Reporters Deal with Secrets" it is noted that the New York Times has identified dozens of cases where the identity of an informant has been put in jeopardy in the 75,000 pages of documents that have been released. These people, as a result, are in grave danger, if they have not come to harm already.

With that said, it doesn't help our government's case that they have often abused their ability to cite national security concerns in order to protect information as secret or classified. All to frequently, these national security concerns have been an attempt to dissuade the news media from reporting stories that have little to do with national security, but may be damaging to our national reputation, having uncovered uncomfortable facts about our military involvements or possible unlawful conduct. The governmental response is often to blame the leaker or the reporter, insinuating that there may be grave consequences to the disclosure of secret information (think Abu Ghraib), but the ultimate responsibility does not lie with the individuals who brought abuses to light, but with those who allowed the abuses to happen in the first place.

As others have remarked, trying to glean much from the Afghan War logs is difficult. They are often cryptic and lacking context. It was hard for me to make much of the few documents I viewed. This accentuates a point that is often missed as we have discussions regarding information and access to it, while we all regard access to information as a good thing, essential even, information still requires an interpreter. Raw information does us little good if we or some other trustworthy source are lacking in the ability to determine the raw information's "aboutness."


  1. David, your last point is a critical takeaway from our interrogation of the WikiLeaks issue; namely, what good is raw information, anyway, without intervention. Put another way, is it good enough, from a Mill perspective, for example, for people to have access to information without analysis? From the perspective of mandates regarding librarianship? Ethically? Practically?

  2. I think Wikileaks is an interesting phenomenon. While I agree that many of the “top secret information” should remain top secret (troop movements and such), there seems to have been an abuse of labeling many documents “top secret’” in an attempt to cover up controversy. This is bad, and should not have happened…and the administration which allowed such actions, I believe, should be held accountable.

    However, I do not like (it scares me) how many ultra free information activists use this as an argument for eliminating the “top secret” stamp completely. I think doing this would be a bold, and unwise move. I would love to learn about Roswell or the Kennedy assassination, but, I don’t want to know the information if there is a cost of international (aka, my) safety. If American “top secret” information will be released to the public in large volumes, then I feel that it should be reviewed by a committee. Perhaps a committee of non-government American’s should review said information, since it is top secret information. Perhaps appointments made by the ALA?