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The Unfortunate Necessity of Wikileaks

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No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The whistleblower site WikiLeaks has been on the periphery of the news lately because of the arrest of Bradley Manning. Manning was the source for April's video of a US military attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, and he was arrested after allegedly leaking thousands of State Department cables as well. WikiLeaks does not rely on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or cooperation from governments generally; anyone can anonymously submit documents and if the editors find them newsworthy they will publish them. Glenn Greenwald has written several posts on the site and its founder Julian Assange, and offered the following defense of its mission:

The need for independent leaks and whistle-blowing exposures is particularly acute now because, at exactly the same time that investigative journalism has collapsed, public and private efforts to manipulate public opinion have proliferated....Aside from the handful of organizations (the ACLU, the NYT) with the resources and will to engage in protracted FOIA litigations against the government, one of the last avenues to uncover government and other elite secrets are whistle blowers and organizations that enable them.

Even among that handful organizations there is sometimes a deep reluctance to use those resources. WikiLeaks alleged that the Washington Post had the Baghdad video for a year and never published it; the New York Times knew of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program but did not publish it until after the 2004 election. On big stories the most respected outlets have a troubling tendency to play along with the powerful even at the expense of deceiving the audience.

The links above are several years old because debunking lies and misinformation is a long, tedious process. Here, though, is an example from this week of largely uncritically passed along talking points from the government that I expect will be slowly dismantled. One of the problems in taking apart such claims is this: A planted story is used to serve some immediate purpose, in this case propping up support for an unpopular war. If it does so for the next few months it will have served its purpose, and its fate beyond that point is of no concern to those peddling it.

If a stinging rebuke from some future inspector general comes out, or a Congressional investigation reveals some kind of unsavory collusion, no matter. In fact, the Pentagon military analyst program showed that the government can plainly break the law without consequences. There is a culture of impunity in Washington; since the wheels of justice have ground to a halt there are no long term risks, only short term ones.

Even those are under withering attack, though. The Obama administration has taken an exceptionally hard line towards whistleblowers generally, and Nick Baumann outlined (via) a whole laundry list of its civil and human rights failures. In the face of all of that it is not hard to understand why WikiLeaks is so unpopular inside the Beltway, and also why it is so important: It bypasses a sclerotic legal system radically oriented towards the powerful. Again, the value of a FOIA is greatly diminished when requests cannot be disposed of in a timely manner. If they can be dragged through the courts year after year then they lose their news value. They still will have historical value, but attempting to use them for any contemporary purpose is almost Quixotic.

Keep in mind also that government claims of sensitivity have not held up well. The Baghdad video was classified, but after its publication no one claimed any vital national security interest was compromised. That is because none was. The state secrets privilege itself came into being as the result of a Supreme Court decision where we found out, decades later and entirely by accident, the secret in question was merely embarrassing to the government. In short the privilege was founded on a lie.

Under these circumstances, the importance of a site like WikiLeaks seems almost self-evident. If we cannot trust the government to refrain from trying to brainwash its citizens, cannot trust the mechanisms designed to keep it in check, and cannot trust the institutions that are supposed to keep it honest, then broadly speaking we have two choices: We can resign ourselves to having to trust our public officials to do the right thing and own up to it when they don't, or we can welcome unauthorized and unorthodox alternatives as they pop up.

WikiLeaks may be supported here.

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