WikiLeaking credibility

Alexander Konrad

If you’ve figured out the true intentions of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, please let me know. In the meantime, I’m starting to feel troubled, even defensive, about the group’s mass releases of U.S. government confidential documents.

Yesterday, WikiLeaks announced it was under cyber attack. The Distributed Denial-of-Service has been popular in recent months; most notably, government websites in the United States and South Korea came under this type of attack in the summer of 2009. U.S. cyber experts learned from that DDoS assault, and they may have put it to their own use yesterday (debating the ethics of such an attack is a worthwhile endeavor for another time). It would certainly not be surprising, as the nation seems uniquely under pressure from Assange and his team.

Adding information to the public domain on important issues — this is a journalistic duty few would deny. Major publications will certainly be excited to see what WikiLeaks publishes this time, as they have in the past. The New York Times has added a whole feature, “The War Logs,” to analyze WikiLeaks’ postings on the Iraq war. Yet this latest batch of documents concerns U.S. diplomatic affairs around the world, from confidential assessments by ambassadors about foreign leaders to the private communiqués from Washington to individual embassies. This latest broadside from WikiLeaks makes the journalistic position more troubling.

In a blog post, Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy asked if WikiLeaks has gone too far. Hounshell admitted to being eager to see the documents but expressed doubt about undermining the ability of diplomats to do their jobs and WikiLeaks’ dismissive stance on its role. The group argues that the world should have as many classified documents as possible — any nation, any time.

That’s not really how it’s working out. It’s now increasingly hard to ignore an anti-American vendetta in Assange’s efforts. Documents about U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may have informed the public in meaningful ways — even if they apparently had nothing new for those living in the region. With the State Department’s files, however, there will certainly be revelations, and many seem preliminarily more likely to embarrass and damage U.S. foreign policy than do anything else. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been leading efforts to mitigate the upcoming onslaught by reaching out to world leaders before ambassadors’ private observations of them come to light. Initiatives such as START — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia — could be jeopardized.

One might argue that Assange has no vendetta against the United States and that he only publishes these U.S.-focused documents because they are what is available to his group. Consider Assange’s own words, however: “The material that we are about to release covers essentially every major issue in every country in the world.” So, ignoring the Assange arrogance factor, we have confidential U.S. government documents on every major issue in the world. Am I the only person who doesn’t believe that no matter what misdeeds the United States would want covered up, those issues also include important ones in which U.S. secrecy is beneficial to the public good?

The State Department has taken the position that these documents were obtained illegally and will risk the lives of various individuals. Assange responded by offering to negotiate on individual redactions, a possible compromise with which the U.S. government refused to participate. Even assuming that this offer of partial redactions meets the concern of individuals’ immediate safety, it does not address the broader possibility of ambassadors’ efforts being undermined in worthwhile efforts, such as helping to ensure the protection of aid organizations in those nations.

The WikiLeaks’ founder seems to believe that any secrecy or confidentiality by a government, or at least the U.S. government, is inherently suspect. Yet secrecy is not always sinister. The unfortunate by-product of this release is that, as WikiLeaks publishes by massive salvo, not by individual scoop, the United States will suffer politically in areas we cannot yet predict.

Like the rest of the journalistic field, I am usually excited by the prospect of breaking news that holds governments and large corporations accountable for their actions. As an American, however, I cannot help but feel uneasy at WikiLeaks’ actions. Whether by circumstance or by design, Assange seems to be harming my country’s ability to operate. Because I reject the notion that all American operations are wrongful, I cannot view this release of documents as simply a journalist’s bonanza.

We can hope that the release of these documents encourages government accountability and contributes to the public discourse. Then Assange’s latest efforts will have yielded a positive contribution for the global community. I’m now increasingly suspicious that this will not be the case.

Alexander Konrad is a columnist for the Harvard Crimson at Harvard University.