The complicated Wikileaks web (and why they must survive)

In typically idiosyncratic style, David Carr writes in the New York Timeshardly a paper with much respect for Wikileaks for most of this year – outlines the myriad of issues faced by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Regardless, we must defend transparency in government and challenge the inherent secrecy of “democracies”:

Let’s concede that WikiLeaks, whatever its excesses, represented a genuinely new paradigm for transparency and accountability. It became a fundamentally different and powerful whistle, one that could be blown anonymously — or not, as it turned out — to very remarkable effect. Whistle-blowers in possession of valuable and perhaps incriminating corporate and government information now had a global dead drop on the Web. Traditional news organizations watched, first out of curiosity and then with competitive avidity, as WikiLeaks began to reveal classified government information that in some instances brought the lie to the official story.

But while WikiLeaks reduced the friction in leaking secret documents, it did not reduce the peril to those who might choose to do so. Part of the promise of WikiLeaks was that it would eliminate digital fingerprints. While those efforts seemed to work, military prosecutors were nonetheless able to tag Pfc. Bradley E. Manning as a suspect using traditional investigative measures.…  Private Manning, who is accused of leaking many of the more important WikiLeaks documents, is being held in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., accused of “aiding the enemy.” His presence there is a stark reminder that despite campaign promises about openness and transparency in governing, the Obama administration has a very hard-line approach when it comes to state secrets, one that has not only affirmed the Bush administration’s approach, but has done so with renewed focus. Just 17 months into his administration, President Obama had already prosecuted more alleged leakers than any of his predecessors.

All of this is a reminder that when it comes to leaking, it is not whistles that are in short supply, but whistleblowers. WikiLeaks represented a major technological advance in the art and mechanism of the leak, and it eliminated the need to spend many secret hours at the copy machine, as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers. But easing the modality of transmission does not obviate the legal and social strictures against making the private public.

After WikiLeaks began revealing confidential documents, news organizations including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal set up their own versions of digital dead drops, but no significant stories have emerged from those efforts. The technological muscle required to maintain a robust site, as evidenced by WikiLeaks’s on-and-off again operational status, is significant and hard to come by.

And Mr. Assange, who came on the global stage in spectral fashion, seeming to ride on a digital carpet above the laws of various jurisdictions, has proved extremely vulnerable. He became the face of a new kind of asymmetric informational warfare, and his high profile, along with what may have been some poor personal choices, have brought him back to earth with a thud.