The dichotomy of Wikileaks

Does Julian Assange understand the significance of what he is doing? Perhaps not.

The Australian editor in chief of Wikileaks has published some extraordinary material in the past, but the release of the Afghan war logs is a big deal. The 91,000 classified documents – only 75,000 have been publically uploaded so far – cover six years of the War in Afghanistan.

The meaning of it all isn’t yet clear.

At Slate, Fred Kaplan has written “Just because some documents are classified doesn’t mean that they’re news or even necessarily interesting.” But if nothing else the documents provide a portrait of a war which hasn’t been going well. There may not be any smoking guns of conspiracy here. But there is a lot of murkiness.

This isn’t the way Assange sees it. On Thursday’s Lateline, Assange said the documents revealed “negligence that’s on a massive scale”. He told Der Spiegel the material “shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of [the Afghan] war”. It will “change public opinion”.

With Wikileaks Assange is trying to pursue two missions at once. And they clash.

The first mission is to provide a repository of data and documents. Wikileaks is where whistle-blowers can dump raw material – everything interesting and uninteresting.

But Assange is obviously trying to match that with political activism. In this case, activism against the war in Afghanistan.

He’s welcome to walk and chew gum if he can. But the editorialising necessary for his activism undermines Wikileaks’ integrity, and ultimately weakens the site’s power.

Nothing illustrates the perils of this two sided approach as well as the Baghdad air strike footage. Released in April, three months before the Afghan War Logs, the footage depicts a 2007 American attack against insurgents and what appears to be unarmed individuals, including two journalists.

Wikileaks released two versions of the footage.

The original, unedited version was 39 minutes long. The other version was an 18 minute highlight reel. Opening with a George Orwell quote – “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind” – the film, titled “Collateral Murder”, broadcast Assange’s opinion proudly. (The video’s provisional title, “Permission to Engage”, was discarded.) The audio was edited carefully to avoid viewers making an emotional bond with the American soldiers.

As they say: don’t telegraph your punches. Let the material speak for itself.

Instead, by editing it he made the video into a political football. Supporters of the war were able to dismiss the leaked video as nothing more than anti-war hype – they focused on what was edited out, not what was left in.

Wikileaks risks being dismissed as just another partisan media outlet.

It’s a shame because the site couldn’t be more important.

The biggest barrier to the scrutiny of government is their monopoly over information. Governments like secrecy a lot. It’s a precautionary thing. From a political perspective it’s far safer to claim something is confidential, or of too great importance to national security to be shared with the public. You never know how information, once released into the public domain, could create political problems.

So it’s easier not to release information at all, if you can avoid it.

Last month, the Australian Attorney General’s Department gave a very clear example of how pervasive this risk-averse, secrecy-first attitude is.

A freedom of information request focused on the federal government’s plans to have internet service providers monitor the surfing habits of consumers. The request was successful. But the document which was released by the Attorney-General’s Department had been almost entirely censored – 90 per cent of what was released had been blacked out.

In a supporting letter, the department claimed censorship was necessary because releasing more information “may lead to premature unnecessary debate”.

Obviously the government thinks it better to encourage uninformed speculation.

The South Australian government recently kept an embarrassing list of defective bridges secret, claiming that the information could be used by al-Qaeda.

Wikileaks has the potential to disrupt this habitual secrecy once and for all; an institutional counterweight to the government’s monopoly over its information.

Yet it seems that for Assange, Wikileaks is instead a new media venture, and comes complete with an editorial stance. Those 91,000 documents are the supporting material for Wikileaks’ investigative work.

Talking to The New Yorker, he described this practice as “scientific journalism”, comparing Wikileaks to academic scholarship: “If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required … to submit the data that has informed your research – the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it.”

But some commentators have pointed out Assange had to pitch his story to The Guardian, The New Yorker and Der Spiegel to get publicity, rather than rely entirely on his site.

Assange should take that as a compliment, not a criticism.

Wikileaks has done some amazing things since it was founded four years ago.

But its success so far shows how much the world needs an unedited, unfiltered, and above all studiously neutral, depot for data and documents, much more than it needs another new media editor with a political campaign.