It is the contention of this article that the significance of WikiLeaks (henceforth WL) itself, as an organization, has been exaggerated. Conversely, the significance of the documents released by WL has actually often been largely understated.
WL in of itself is not a game-changer – whistleblowers have been around for as long as the media itself (although WL employees themselves are not whistleblowers – they merely provide whistleblowers with a medium of distribution), and newspapers have been publishing their disclosures for as long as a free press has existed. Any of the documents released by WL could have just as easily been given directly to a newspaper. If that newspaper refused, or was prevented by the government from publishing the material, the leaker could simply move on to the next paper, perhaps in a different country. Eventually it would be published, and journalists have a strict code preventing them from disclosing the identity of their sources.
WL simply makes it a little easier to ensure the anonymity of the leaker, and publication of the leaks. WL is a stateless organization, not accountable to any government, with its main Internet servers in a former nuclear bunker embedded in the White Mountains of Sweden, a country with incredibly robust laws for freedom of the press and protection of the identity of journalistic sources. WL also has a system for submitting information that ensures that they themselves cannot discover the identity of the source.
What is significant is how easy it has become to steal and distribute huge volumes of information. This is the natural and inevitable outcome of two technologies which have come to define the modern Information Age – the digitization of information, and a largely unrestricted global medium for the distribution of this information – the Internet. The 251,287 embassy cables took only 1.6 gigabytes of data. Compare this to the Pentagon Papers leak of 1971, which required Daniel Ellsberg to personally photocopy (one page at a time, using 1970 photocopy technology) 7,000 pages of information several times over.
The digitization of data has now resulted in a massive onslaught of information, making the search for credible, relevant information all the more difficult. Confronted with so much information, and so many different opinions on this information, the task of deciding what is worth knowing and what is true becomes daunting.
The role of the journalist is not merely to provide an account of the details of an event, but to analyze, interpret, verify, and provide context to the given facts. With the daily onslaught of information which we are subjected to, often from websites using algorithms to aggregate news stories, this role has become more important than ever. The result of this nebulous hurricane of information and irresponsible reporting is that key facts get completely missed or ignored, and we, as consumers of news, give up and become apathetic and dangerously misinformed.
Sensationalist, yellow journalism, in tandem with the overstimulation, information overload, and escapism which characterizes the current era, has desensitized us to the news. We hear about a secret government leak, and nothing short of the opening of the Roswell files, or the discovery that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks really impresses us. No, this is not a movie, and these releases do not fundamentally change our everyday lives, but do we really want to plead apathy in the face of war crimes and massive governmental duplicity? Have we truly become so jaded? Our attention spans have become so short from poisonous infotainment that we become “tired” of news stories when they last longer than a few days.
Once we sift through the gossipy cables, gossip of the kind that the media has given us a taste for, we see that we are left with a number of very significant pieces of information. Let us now examine some of the more significant revelations. In so doing, we find that a large number of documents released by WL since 2006 have in fact been hugely significant.
The Kroll report, released by WL in 2006, outlined allegations of corruption against a former regime in Kenya, which became a major issue in the 2007 general election there, and resulted in politicians named in the report to be defeated at the polls.
In 2007, the 238-page Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures manual for the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was leaked, which detailed how some prisoners were hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross, something the U.S. military had explicitly and repeatedly denied.
In 2008, a CIA report was leaked, detailing how the agency identified very low European public support for the war in Afghanistan, and how the U.S. government could actively manipulate public opinion in Germany and France. The title of one section was “Public Apathy Enables Leaders to Ignore Voters.” Charming.
In April of 2010, WL finally gained significant media attention with its release of the Collateral Murder video, showing an American Apache attack helicopter killing at least eighteen people in Baghdad. The video shows how two Reuters journalists were killed because their camera looked like an RPG. Then the Apache fires on three unarmed men attempting to rescue one of the survivors, including a man driving his two children to school, killing them all (in what could only possibly be called murder) and wounding the two children sitting in the van. One of the pilots can be heard sheepishly exclaiming, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” As if that weren’t enough, they then fire three hellfire missiles into a structure where six armed men had fled. The only problem was that they fired after two unarmed civilians had entered the building, which they saw, acknowledged, and fired anyways. Again, murder.
On July 25, 2010, the Afghan War Diary was released. This was the first massive leak, with 75,000 documents from 2004 to 2009, showing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, such as French troops strafing a bus full of children, wounding eight, a US patrol machine-gunning a bus, killing four civilians and wounding eleven, and Polish troops mortaring a village, massacring a wedding party which included a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack. The documents showed in no uncertain terms that the war in general was going far worse than any coalition government had previously admitted, that the Taliban is actually stronger now than at any time since 2001, that the level of corruption is significantly higher than even the worst previous estimates, and that many Afghans view the Karzai government as no better than the Taliban.
On October 22, 2010, 391,832 Iraq War Logs (field reports), detailing events from 2004 to 2010, were released. These documents showed that the civilian death toll in that country was much higher than previously reported, with over 15,000 civilian deaths added to the toll, which the U.S. government had covered up. This brought the known total to over 150,000 deaths, of which approximately eighty percent are civilians. There were approximately 680 documented cases where U.S. troops killed civilians, including pregnant women in labour rushing to the hospital, for coming too close to checkpoints. The logs showed how the U.S. military has a formal policy of ignoring credible allegations of prisoner torture, murder, and rape by Iraqi government forces if they don’t involve coalition forces. There was also at least one incident of U.S. forces executing insurgents who were trying to surrender. In one day alone 146 people were killed; that very same day, back in America, Dick Cheney went on Rush Limbaugh’s show to say that the situation in Iraq was going “remarkably well.”
Finally, on November 28, 2010, the first 220 dispatches of what was soon referred to as Cablegate, were simultaneously published by WL and five of the world’s leading news publications. Taken cumulatively, these releases represent a major news event of modern times, and many of the individual cables stand alone as significant news items.
The list of revelations is seemingly endless: the U.S., despite explicitly denying military involvement in Yemen, has conducted air strikes on terrorist targets there, including one which killed forty-one civilians (including fourteen women and twenty-one children), which President Saleh lied to his parliament about, telling them that Yemen’s military was the source of the bombs; Israeli officials told American diplomats that the purpose of the Gaza blockade is to keep the Gazan economy, where 1.5 million Palestinians live, on “the brink of collapse,” functioning “at the lowest level possible;” the British trained a Bangladeshi paramilitary force that human rights organizations consider a “government death squad;” the U.S. tried to influence the Spanish courts on two separate occasions to drop cases involving prosecution of Bush administration officials for torture, and U.S. soldiers for killing a Spanish cameraman in Iraq; they did the same thing in Italy to prevent CIA agents from being tried for kidnapping an Egyptian suspect from Milan, and also in Germany to prevent CIA agents from being tried for the kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, and torture of a German citizen; The British Foreign Office misled the public over the plight of thousands of islanders who were expelled from their Indian Ocean homeland in Diego Garcia to make way for a large US military base in the 1960s and 70s; Royal Dutch Shell has employees in all the main ministries of the Nigerian government; the State Department asked their diplomats to spy on officials at the United Nations, including the Secretary General, and to their steal credit card numbers, passwords, and biometric information; Pope Benedict XVI impeded an investigation into alleged child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland; the British government’s “independent” public inquiry about the causes of the Iraq war was fixed to protect American interests; McDonald’s tried to delay the US government’s implementation of a free-trade agreement in order to put pressure on El Salvador to appoint neutral judges in a lawsuit it was fighting there; the U.S., contrary to their explicit denials, has indeed been conducting secret special ops military missions within Pakistan; the President of the European Council said the EU no longer believes in success of the military mission in Afghanistan.
Many would fatalistically say that people die and governments lie during “wartime,” and that this is to be expected. By force of habit we tend to defer to the establishment. The revelation that 680 Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S. troops leaves us mildly disturbed, yet somehow detached. Yet six people are killed in Tucson, Arizona, and we are mortified (and rightly so) for weeks. I would not hazard to postulate that there are racist or islamophobic reasons for such a disproportionate reaction, but there is certainly a disturbing phenomenon of detachment, and a vague feeling that the ends must somehow justify the means, and other such lazy aphorisms.
Numerous commentators have claimed that most of the information released during “Cablegate” has been largely gossip and things which the news-following public already knew. However, some highly experienced diplomats have themselves said that these revelations have shocked them. Carne Ross, former British diplomat who worked for many years in the Middle East, and current head of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic consultancy group, has said that the cables have revealed “extraordinary revelations,” particularly in regards to U.S. activity in Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon.
Additionally, the trivial gossip does not render the important information insignificant, and there is an enormous difference between being “pretty sure” of something, and having solid, first-hand evidence of it. Anecdotal evidence is not the same as direct evidence, and does not hold credibility in a court of law, or a legislative debate. There is a fantastic difference between claiming that “We suspect the U.S. military is involved in Yemen,” and actually having proof of it. You cannot prosecute someone or win an election with “We’re pretty sure.” WL is corroboration. It may simply be the last twenty percent of a story already started, but it is also the bibliography.