The Real Significance of WikiLeaks

BY DAVID LEIGH AND LUKE HARDING, PublicAffairs, 339 pages, $15.99

Grove Press, 523 pages, $16.95

BY MICAH L. SIFRY, OR Books, 211 pages, $17.00

Although WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 and released hundreds of thousands of classified documents in the next three years, it only seized the world's full attention in 2010. The Year of WikiLeaks began in April with the release of a 2007 helicopter gun-camera video from the Iraq War showing two Reuters employees killed and two children injured during an attack on a group of armed men by an audibly trigger-happy American crew. In July and October, WikiLeaks made public two large troves of documents from Iraq and Afghanistan that initially led Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to say that WikiLeaks "might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family." And in November, WikiLeaks released several hundred cables from U.S. embassies, published in cooperation with established media organizations in Europe and the United States.

Mullen's reaction to the July document release was typical of the snap judgments that many officials made. Only later would Defense Secretary Robert Gates testify to the Senate that "the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure." At the time of the November release, two-thirds of the reports in major U.S. newspapers incorrectly stated that WikiLeaks had "dumped" over 250,000 classified cables onto the Internet. In fact, WikiLeaks made the cables available to five major news organizations -- The New York Times, the Guardian (Britain), Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais -- which sifted through the documents and selected a few to publish, often in redacted form. WikiLeaks then published the cables the journalists selected, redacted according to their specifications.

In short, by the end of 2010, WikiLeaks was releasing classified documents in a more cautious way than most of its critics acknowledged. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decried the release of the diplomatic cables as an "attack on the international community," and Vice President Joe Biden called WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange "a high-tech terrorist." On the right, Rep. Pete King demanded that WikiLeaks be designated a foreign terrorist organization, and, not to be outdone, Sarah Palin said the United States should treat Assange the same way it treats al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders -- in other words, he should be assassinated. These responses were, as Secretary Gates put it with admirable understatement, "overwrought."

Practical efforts to disrupt WikiLeaks complemented that overheated rhetoric. Unknown individuals subjected the site to massive cyberattacks, and companies that own critical infrastructure tried to shut it down. EveryDNS, the domain name service provider, stopped pointing at WikiLeaks' server, so that users who typed "" into their browser could not reach it. Amazon, which hosted WikiLeaks data on its cloud-computing platform, removed the data from its servers. Apple removed an app for reading the cables from its App Store, and MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal stopped transferring payments to WikiLeaks. These actions responded to direct appeals from Sen. Joe Lieberman and had tacit support from the Obama administration, and they likely reflected the companies' own skittishness in the face of public controversy.

One striking feature of this episode was that while WikiLeaks came under attack, the traditional media that published exactly the same cables were spared. To the political establishment, the threat lay not in the content of the published cables but in the new organizational and technical model that WikiLeaks represents: a networked fourth estate, distributed across the world instead of being housed in traditional media enterprises. That is what provoked the panic response, and it is precisely that response that makes the 2010 WikiLeaks releases this generation's version of the Pentagon Papers.

The best overview of the story as it stood in early 2011 is WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, two of the Guardian's journalists who were involved in reviewing and writing about the diplomatic cables. An instant history cum memoir, the book offers the perspective of the traditional media partner that initiated this collaboration. While giving Assange substantial credit, Leigh and Harding reveal just how difficult -- and important -- it was for these established journalists to enter into a partnership with WikiLeaks. The book includes chapters on Assange and Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker who is said to have provided WikiLeaks with the war logs and embassy cables. Mostly this is a gripping, spy-novel-paced recounting of how WikiLeaks, the Guardian, and the other major organizations managed a first-of-its-kind global news-breaking collaboration.

The New York Times' version of the events, Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War, and American Diplomacy, mainly collects stories that the paper published in connection with the WikiLeaks documents and includes a revealing introduction and memoir by Executive Editor Bill Keller. This is a more useful resource than the Guardian's book for anyone interested in revisiting the main stories about the WikiLeaks release, at least from the perspective of America's leading newspaper. The international character of the media involvement in releasing and reporting on the WikiLeaks documents allows readers to compare the Times' treatment with the interpretation of the same material by newspapers in other countries. In its initial story about the Iraq documents, for example, the Times wrote that they "provide no earthshaking revelations" but offer "insight, texture and context." Der Spiegel, in contrast, called the same documents "A Protocol of Barbarity" because of their revelations about the scale of civilian casualties and the use of torture by Iraqi government forces. The Times' book, of course, presents only the first perspective.

Keller's introductory essay says more about The New York Times and its editor's view of the future of journalism than about the U.S. government. Where Leigh and Harding of the Guardian celebrate the fraught partnership with WikiLeaks, Keller seems to be bending over backward to deny any partnership at all. Twice in his essay he emphasizes that WikiLeaks and Assange were "a source, not a partner," a claim that is difficult to square with the facts that Keller himself provides, much less with Leigh and Harding's account.

Keller seems deeply uneasy about working with WikiLeaks and disdainful of its founder. Quoting Eric Schmitt of the Times, Keller describes Assange as looking "like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light colored sports coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days." Where Leigh and Harding portray Assange as "a most interesting and unusual pioneer in using digital technologies to challenge corrupt and authoritarian states," Keller is dismissive of him as an "office geek" and highlights the role of the Times' "best computer minds" and the professional acumen of its journalists in selecting materials. Clearly, Assange and others involved in WikiLeaks did a massive amount of work to make available a vast amount of data, with no slippages damaging to U.S. forces or human-rights workers. But Keller will give him no credit.

More than a story about WikiLeaks and Assange, Keller's introduction is a testament to an identity crisis and deep insecurity at the heart of the traditional American news industry. Professional journalists see themselves as mortally threatened by increased competition and the free availability of news online. Many in the field have believed, however, that investigative journalism was one thing that "the echo chamber of the blogosphere," as Keller derisively calls it, could not supply -- and yet WikiLeaks supplied it. The traditional media pursued investigative leads from the materials that WikiLeaks made available, but WikiLeaks itself was clearly more than a passive conduit. It seems particularly unjust to demonize WikiLeaks and idealize the traditional press when so many in the established media made irresponsible claims about WikiLeaks and incessantly focused on titillating aspects of the disclosures at the expense of the important. In his treatment of WikiLeaks and Assange as shifty and unprofessional, Keller seems to be trying to ward off the specter of a new way of doing journalism that has arrived whether the traditional media like it or not.

It is this new moment in the development of journalism that Micah Sifry writes about in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. While the volumes from the Guardian and the Times give the perspective of traditional journalists, Sifry's book reflects his long experience as an activist for freedom of information and as a champion of the use of collaborative technologies in making government more transparent and accountable. His story travels from the exhilaration of the Howard Dean campaign in 2003 to the rise of participatory blog culture and the development of Web 2.0 tools for analyzing and visualizing data. Drawing on the experiences of activists around the world from Croatia to Kenya, Sifry provides a plausible account of how a combination of legal, technical, and social innovations can strengthen citizen participation in governance.

In the last third of his book, Sifry turns to the significance of WikiLeaks in this larger movement. He argues that as a stateless, decentralized, irrepressible site for disclosure, WikiLeaks represents a model that is fundamentally a change for the good. Here Sifry distinguishes between transparency and privacy. After all, some will say, "Would you want all your meetings and conversations out in the public?" The answer to that challenge is a theory of asymmetric power, and on that point, Sifry quotes Assange: "Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency. Conversely, the weaker one is, the more danger there is in being transparent." Sifry concludes that "if information is power, then what the transparency movement is trying to do is correct an asymmetric power relationship."

The core of the argument is that privacy is at risk when there are powerful observers and vulnerable subjects. Transparency, by contrast, involves disclosure of information about powerful parties that weaker parties can use to check that power or its abuse. When we say that an act of information disclosure "threatens privacy" or "promises transparency," we are making a judgment about who has power and who is susceptible to it and how that power ought to be limited. The demise of privacy is already built into the structure of the commercially owned and operated Net. We have already made that "choice," at least in the sense of being socially and politically passive at crucial moments in the 1990s and early 2000s when key decisions were made. The technologies and practices epitomized by WikiLeaks serve as a compensating overlay on that privacy-denying platform.

The WikiLeaks disclosures of 2010 gave us the 21st-century equivalent of Upton Sinclair's muckraking in The Jungle and The New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers. Like those iconic markers in the history of American journalism, WikiLeaks is emblematic of a new era. Sinclair's expose of the meatpacking industry came to symbolize the role of the investigative journalist as the standard-bearer of the fourth estate. The Pentagon Papers marked the moment at which the American constitutional order formally embraced the risks inherent in a free press in exchange for the public accountability and democratic oversight that it secures. WikiLeaks looks as though it will come to mark the emergence of a new decentralized, global, and networked model of the watchdog function.

The complicated collaboration between the older and newer players was critical to the effectiveness of the disclosures in 2010, but the stories these books tell make it eminently clear that the transition to this new model will be anything but smooth. The persistent attacks on WikiLeaks underscore the capacity of private infrastructure companies to restrict speech without being bound by constitutional constraints. That capacity also gives the government an extralegal pathway to suppress information that it would have no authority to censor directly. As a result, even in democracies, resilient publication may depend as much on global social, cultural, and technical networks as on a nation's constitutional order.