“In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.”
Wikileaks.org: Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010
New York Times: The War Logs
The Guardian: The Afghanistan War Logs
From my internal notebook and Twitter feed, a few notes on this development:
1. Ask yourself: Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.
“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
2. The initial response from the White House was extremely unimpressive:
- This leak will harm national security. (As if those words still had some kind of magical power, after all the abuse they have been party to.)
- There’s nothing new here. (Then how could the release harm national security?)
- Wikileaks is irresponsible; they didn’t even try to contact us! (Hold on: you’re hunting the guy down and you’re outraged that he didn’t contact you?)
- Wikileaks is against the war in Afghanistan; they’re not an objective news source. (So does that mean the documents they published are fake?)
- “The period of time covered in these documents… is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” (Okay, so now we too know the basis for the President’s decision: and that’s a bad thing?)
3. If you don’t know much about Wikileaks or why it exists, the best way to catch up is this New Yorker profile of Julien Assange.
He is the operation’s prime mover, and it is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from around the world help maintain the Web site’s complicated infrastructure; many participate in small ways, and between three and five people dedicate themselves to it full time. Key members are known only by initials—M, for instance—even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services. The secretiveness stems from the belief that a populist intelligence operation with virtually no resources, designed to publicize information that powerful institutions do not want public, will have serious adversaries.
And for even more depth, listen to this: NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter formerly at the New York Times, about Wikileaks and what it does. (35 min with Q & A.)
4. If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, “They didn’t even contact us!”
Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.
5. And just as government doesn’t know what to make of Wikileaks (“we’re gonna hunt you down/hey, you didn’t contact us!”) the traditional press isn’t used to this, either. As Glenn Thrush noted on Politico.com:
The WikiLeaks report presented a unique dilemma to the three papers given advance copies of the 92,000 reports included in the Afghan war logs — the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian.The editors couldn’t verify the source of the reports — as they would have done if their own staffers had obtained them — and they couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from posting it, whether they wrote about it or not.
So they were basically left with proving veracity through official sources and picking through the pile for the bits that seemed to be the most truthful.
Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.
6. From an editor’s note: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.
7. If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and that may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online…. or Wikileaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real? (And they’re expert in encryption, too.)
Also, can we agree that a news organization with a paywall wouldn’t even be in contention?
8. I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.
Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.
The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?
I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem. But the comment bar is open, so help me out.
9. Few people realize how important leaking has been to the rise of the political press since the mid-18th century. Leaks were actually “present at the creation” of political reporting. I’m moving quickly this morning, so I only have time for a capsule version. Those with a richer knowledge of the British Parliament’s history can confirm or correct this outline. Once upon a time, Parliament’s debates were off limits to newspapers. But eventually, through a long period of contestation, the right to report on what was said in Parliament was securely won (though not constitutionally guaranteed.) John Wilkes is the pivotal figure and 1770 the date when the practice became institutionalized.
A factor in that struggle was the practice of leaking. The way it worked then is essentially the same as it works today. There’s a bitter dispute in Parliament and people line up on one side or the other. Unable or unwilling to accept defeat, the losing faction decides to widen the battlefield by leaking confidential information, thus bringing the force of public opinion into play. It’s a risky maneuver, of course, but the calculation is that fighting it out in public may alter the balance of forces and lead to a re-decision.
Each time the cycle is repeated, the press becomes a bigger factor in politics. And internal struggles for power remain to this day a major trigger for leaks. Conscience, of course, is a different trigger. Whistleblowers can be of either type: calculating advantage-seekers, or men and women with a troubled conscience. We don’t know which type provided the logs to Wikileaks. What we do know is that a centuries-old dynamic is now empowering new media, just as it once empowered the ink-on-paper press.
Update Dec. 9: A new PressThink post on Wkileaks. From Judith Miller to Julian Assange: “Our press somehow got itself on the wrong side of secrecy after September 11th.”
Update Dec. 2. Here’s my 14-minute video explaining how I think about Wikileaks. “The watchdog press died; we have this instead.”
Update Oct. 23, 2010: Wikileaks returns to the news with another release of war logs, this time from Iraq. Many more partners this time around, including (from what I have been able to verify) The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, plus the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (UK), Iraq Body Count (international), information.dk in Denmark, owni.fr in France, SVT television in Sweden. On Twitter, Wikileaks posted the following: “See TBIJ, IBC, Guardian, Spiegel, NYT, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Chan4, SVT, CNN, BBC and more in the next few hours. We maximise impact.” According to James Ball of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera got their advance information via the Bureau.