I think what is happening with Wikileaks is an event, maybe the first one since 9/11. The organization has been around for about four years, this is far from its first significant release, and further, something that could be called a hacktivist subculture has been in existence for probably twenty years already; but if events are ruptures, they are ruptures of what was already existing anyway. One way or another things snowballed for Wikileaks so I am going to write a couple of posts that offer my potted analysis of how: a Wikileaks crib sheet. I needed a way to organize the pieces for myself, so, if you’ve lost track of all the threads, or don’t have time to read them exhaustively (I didn’t really either, but now it’s done), this is for you. A lot of interesting things have been written about Wikileaks, some of which I’m going to summarize. Rather less interesting and generally less accurate things have been written about the charges brought against Wikileaks’ frontman Julian Assange, international warrants and policing, and since I know relatively more about those things, I want to do an analysis of that as well.
A brief summary of what has happened might seem unnecessary except that I just watched a video in which Lula (the president of Brazil) seemed to be under the impression that the charges against Assange had to do with making public the diplomatic cables rather than sexual misconduct.
There’s a difference between not knowing what the charges are for so assuming that Assange is being held because his organization released secret cables, and knowing that the allegations against him concern sexual misconduct but believing those to be trumped up. I think that there are probably a very large number of people around the world who haven’t paid enough attention to think anything more than the first (and it is what they expect from the US anyway), and so their position doesn’t have anything to do with how seriously they take rape charges. As a point of fact though, it is important to note that it is unclear what a person associated with Wikileaks could be charged with in relation to the release of secret information, and Assange is actually being detained on four allegations of sexual misconduct and a European Arrest Warrant issued in order to question him about those charges. But this is getting ahead of myself.
In 2010, Wikileaks describes itself as a non-profit media organization. I actually like the term “media insurgency” (from this June New Yorker piece, because “rising in active revolt” against the status quo of excessive secrecy and repression of information in both governments and the mainstream media seems apt. I also like the term because it has resonance with the “talibanization” of information in a “flat world” or as Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens more eloquently put it in their Twelve theses on WikiLeaks “Despite being a puny non-state and non-corporate actor, in its fight against the US government WikiLeaks does not believe it is punching above its weight – and is starting to behave accordingly. One might call this the ‘Talibanization’ stage of the postmodern ‘Flat World’ theory, where scales, times and places are declared largely irrelevant”. What Wikileaks is legally defined as is much more important than what I happen to like though, since its status as a media organization (or not) will determine what protections it has and what charges can be brought against it. This exchange at a press briefing by Department of State Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley on 2 December 2010 was meant to lay the ground for the US government position that Wikileaks shouldn’t get first amendment protections:
QUESTION: Some of the governments that have been mentioned in these cables are heavily censoring press in terms of releasing some of this information. How do you feel about that? (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: The official position of the United States Government and the State Department has not changed. We value a vibrant, active, aggressive media. It is important to the development of civil society in this country and around the world. Our views have not changed, even if occasionally there are activities which we think are unhelpful and potentially harmful.
QUESTION: Do you know if the State Department regards WikiLeaks as a media organization?
MR. CROWLEY: No. We do not.
QUESTION: And why not?
MR. CROWLEY: WikiLeaks is not a media organization. That is our view.
Wikileaks traces the principles on which its work is based (on its site, which I can’t reliably link to because it keeps getting shut down), “freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history” not of course to the US constitution and its amendments, but to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular, Article 19.
I think that Wikileaks problematizes both our conceptions of media and information, but more about that later. Since officially launched in 2006 (according to Wikipedia) or 2007 (according to its site), the organization has posted a staggering number of leaked documents. Until recently, everyone’s favorite leak, for which it won the 2009 Amnesty International human rights reporting award (New Media) was the 2008 publication of “Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Extrajudicial Killings and Disappearances”, a report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights about police killings in Kenya. According to the Wikileaks website, the leak “swung the vote by 10%. This led to changes in the constitution and the establishment of a more open government”. Since the beginning of 2010, Wikileaks has made four major releases, possibly all from the same leak, of information from various branches of the US government: on 5 April 2010 a video of US soldiers in an Apache helicopter shooting people in an Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad; on 25 July 2010 the “Afghanistan War logs” and on 22 October 2010 the “Iraq War Logs”, both compilations of documents detailing the war and occupation of those countries by the United States military; and beginning on 28 November 2010, what will eventually be a quarter million diplomatic cables from US Embassies around the world.
Below are some pieces I’ve found useful. Next post, I’ll write about the charges against Julian Assange, the role of Interpol, European Arrest Warrants, and extradition, among other things.
In Julian Assange’s own words
Interview on the Colbert Report
His blog on the wayback machine
Opinion piece posted 8 December 2010 in an Australian paper, before turning himself in the UK Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths