Wikileaks: an ugly transparency posterchild

Matt Bowman · August 6, 2010 · Short URL:

In the tech blogs, it's hip to dope-slap DC. But hugging Wikileaks is like kissing your executioner.

Lots of drama this week over Wikileaks, the whistle-blower website that continues to publish sensitive classified documents from the War in Afghanistan. The national security versus transparency debate is often mishandled by tech pundits who don’t know how to balance their allegiances.

The recent developments all point to an escalation of the U.S. military’s response to the site: arresting an enlisted man and contributor to the site, calling directly on the site to return sensitive documents, and banning military personnel from accessing it.

The coverage of the Wikileaks saga is itself an interesting story. TechCrunch’s Nicholas Deleon has taken a decidedly snarky poke-fun-at-the-military tone, unreservedly tips his hat to Wikileaks, and champions a way to fund the site. TechEye gleefully defends the private arrested for leaking documents, arguing that, from what he can see, it didn’t endanger Afghans who assisted the U.S., regardless of what military officials say.

Granted, you’d expect tech bloggers to go to bat for open communication. It’s our livelihood and our professional religion. In the national courtroom, tech bloggers are the attorneys hired to defend the free flow of information.

But when they leave the courtroom, lawyers turn back into regular Joes who have to weigh both sides of a  debate to form their personal opinion. And Friday’s a good day to talk like a regular Joe, so here goes:

A simplistic championing of Wikileaks is irresponsible.  The White House puts it about as well as anyone: “We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us."

Leaking classified documents undermines US military efforts; for citizens and enlisted personnel, tracking down and spreading our own military secrets is treason pure and simple. To argue that revealing a given classified document doesn’t appear to me to endanger anyone is the height of hubris. There are always more revealing details in a classified video or document than a layperson can pick up.

On the other hand, the media’s role is to hold its government and other powerful organizations in check. If military leaders act illegally or immorally, journalists need to get in and uncover the corruption. To assume there’s no corruption in the military is the height of presumption—where there’s power, there’s corruption, and there’s a need for snoops.

This all means anyone with access to classified information needs to be extremely conscientious when it comes to deciding whether and what to reveal, and an average journalist does not have the expertise to determine what might compromise national security. When it comes to classified info, it behooves writers to consult the experts. Wikileaks is publishing war logs wholesale, with little regard for the particulars. Its founder, Julian Assange, claims to take out some information to minimize collateral damage, but he has no expertise in identifying what could be sensitive, and the military contends that many lives have been lost as a result. Assange opposes the War in Afghanistan and is taking a by-any-means-necessary approach to imposing his judgment on the world, with reckless disregard for collateral damage. The irony is that so far, his publicized leaks show that the US military in Afghanistan has generally not engaged in the same kind of by-any-means-necessary logic, at least the "juiciest" bits I've read and watched have not been scandalous.

Defending Wikileaks with snarky wit may be one way to reinforce your ‘voice’ as a tech blogger, but there are times when thinking like a regular Joe should take precedence.

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