The Potshots Pundits Aim at WikiLeaks

In an earlier post (“Enormously Pompous, Infuriatingly Self-Righteous, and Waging a War on America”) on this blog, Mr. Yost remarked that this column (“The WikiLeaks War on America”) was “perhaps the best profile of Julian Assange” he had seen to date.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Foreman, the author of the column, seems to have a poor understanding of what WikiLeaks actually does. For example, he repeats the falsehood that in November WikiLeaks released 250,000 embassy cables (in fact, it is now January and WikiLeaks has released less than 1% of the 250,000 cables). It seems that having a basic understanding of WikiLeaks’s most controversial leak is not a prerequisite for boldly calling WikiLeaks anti-American.

What evidence does Foreman use to support his thesis that WikiLeaks is waging a war on America? (dashes separate Foreman’s evidence from my commentary)

  • Firstly, a portion of a speech Assange gave in Oslo, where he compares the slogan the US has in front of Gitmo (“Honor Bound To Defend Freedom”) to “work brings freedom,” a slogan used by the Nazis. — Amnesty International has called Gitmo a “human rights scandal” and “the gulag of our times.” Is decrying human rights abuses anti-American? The YouTube video of Assange’s speech currently has 398 likes and 2 dislikes. Are virtually all viewers of Assange’s speech also anti-American?
  • The focus WikiLeaks had on leaks relating to the United States in 2010 — Assange has repeatedly said that WikiLeaks is committed to publishing every secret document it obtains of ethical, historical or diplomatic importance (after appropriate harm-minimization procedures).
  • “Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details” — In fact,  WikiLeaks made plenty of redactions to the Afghan War leak. For example, WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 sensitive-looking documents, with Assange saying they’d be reviewed “line by line” to remove the names of “innocent parties who are under reasonable threat.” It is true that apparently WikiLeaks failed to redact some innocent names. But this error was caused by limited resources. In more recent leaks WikiLeaks has been more careful: the recent release of embassy cables has been a slow trickle.
  • The “departure of key WikiLeaks team members in September of 2010″ — Foreman uses this as evidence that Assange “looks like someone who might engage in dissimulation in order to mask a secret agenda.” To me, it looks like Assange’s management style did not appeal to a few members of the organization. There’s no need to construct an elaborate conspiracy theory.
  • The 2008 publication of a report on US countermeasures against IEDs – To his credit, Foreman qualifies this point: “WikiLeaks’s defenders asserted that by the time the report was released, technology had moved on, and U.S. forces in the field were largely using newer jamming devices. Still, even the anti-censorship campaigner Steven Aftergood [...] lambasted Assange for publishing a secret that could get people killed. In response, Assange told a journalist at Wired.com that he had been justified in doing so because ‘U.S. soldiers are not happy that literally billions have gone on these jammers, with apparently little thought going into how soldiers are going to communicate after they have been turned on.’” I think it’s important to keep in mind that this was a very small leak relative to other leaks WikiLeaks has released.

I hit most of Foreman’s main points there. Now, here is Foreman’s conclusion:

Assange seems to suffer from a more extreme version of a phenomenon common in anti-war circles in Britain and America: the absolute unquestioned certainty that American forces have been and are continuing to be guilty of terrible crimes because of their very nature. It is a form of knowledge that requires no evidence or certainly no confirmation by a court of law. And in Assange’s case, it apparently means that the Americans are now and always have been the bad guys. [...] [Assange has] paranoid fears of ruthless, hyper-powerful Western states capable of wiping out all truth and justice unless their actions are exposed by people like him

I suppose American hubris combined with attribution bias (psychologists have found that people unconsciously tend to attribute problems to the personality of others; this classic observation has been used by many scholars to explain irrational foreign policy) makes Foreman jump to the conclusion that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are anti-American. This is what I hypothesize because in his long column Foreman certainly does not provide sound evidence for his conclusion.

WikiLeaks’s mission (as described in its About page) is to publish information that “leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies” around the world. Assange has complimented the US Constitution:

United States has an enviable Constitution on which to base its decisions. And that Constitution comes out of a revolutionary movement and has a Bill of Rights appraised by James Madison and others that includes a nuanced understanding for the balancing of power of [the] states in relation to the government.

Here is how Assange describes his view of the United States:

The U.S. is, I don’t think by world standards, an exception, rather it is a very interesting case both for its abuses and for some of its founding principles.

Finally, Assange has said that he is not in general anti-war. The correct conclusion is simple. Does Assange think America is a bad guy? Nope. Does Assange think America has some bad guys? Yes.

Two more points

First,  it’s odd how the falsehood about WikiLeaks releasing 250,000 cables has been in so  many news reports and columns about WikiLeaks since late November. Why has it persisted, when the Wikipedia page on Cablegate and the WikiLeaks website have long highlighted that it’s not true? I think it says a lot about standards of reporting. My pet theory is that since both the Democratic Obama administration and most Republican leaders oppose WikiLeaks, there has been little incentive for the falsehood to get corrected.

Second, why does Foreman, like many others including Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart,  jump on the fact that WikiLeaks is not transparent? The justification for transparency is that it’s necessary to prevent powerful institutions (such as government bureaucracies, which use the public’s tax dollars, write laws and can act extra-judicially) from abusing their great power. On the other side of the spectrum, the justification for privacy is that it’s necessary in order to prevent citizens from arbitrary government (or perhaps corporate) harassment. Privacy and transparency both derive their justifications from the fact that power corrupts.

WikiLeaks is a small non-profit organization (as of January 2010 they had five full time employees). After government leaders decided to declare that they were involved in illegal activity, WikiLeaks had no choice but to see corporations like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon shut them down. Clearly, WikiLeaks deserves privacy, not transparency. Yet Foreman says:

Apparently Assange is not so keen about transparency when it comes to his own organization. There it seems that secrecy is necessary for the greater good [... T]he irony of this escapes him

Foreman is plain mistaken.

Related Articles

Wikipedia’s Information published by WikiLeaks

Debunked: “Wikileaks is Anti-American”

The Guardian‘s article on “Collateral Murder”

EFF‘s The Best of Cablegate: Instances Where Public Discourse Benefited from the Leaks

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5 Responses to The Potshots Pundits Aim at WikiLeaks

  1. Keith Yost says:

    WikiLeaks HAS released 250,000 cables. Just ask The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, or Der Spiegel. Perhaps Jon Foreman is a little better informed than you.

    You say you “hit” most of Foreman’s main points, but that is a very generous use of the word and a rather limited view of Foreman’s points. As to Foreman’s charge that Assange drawing an equivalence between Gitmo and Auschwitz is absurd, you… point out that Assange’s YouTube video has 400 likes? How does that make a center for genocide equal to a military detention facility? You claim WikiLeaks is redacting information in its new releases… yet it has already released all of its cables, and it is clear the delay in sending the rest is not due to the need for redaction, but instead Assange’s desire for maximal media impact. And as for the departure of team members and the release of hundreds of damaging documents with little journalistic value, of which the Iraq _RDD_ (get your facts straight) report is just one, you wave your hand and say these are minor things, or trot out some nonsense, like perhaps, U.S. soldiers WANTED WikiLeaks to publish the details of its RDD countermeasures.

    You then, after “debunking” Foreman, go on to assert that Assange is not anti-American. And what is your evidence? You assume Foreman must be suffering from multiple cognitive biases you’ve just made up, and find some quotes from Assange saying he likes the U.S. _constitution_. Please, Mr. Molina, we all know you are not some Tea Partier who believes the U.S. constitution and America are the same thing.

    And lastly, you scoff at the hypocrisy of WikiLeaks in fiercely maintaining its own privacy shield while trying to strip it from others. You claim that the U.S. government must play by different rules; they are the big boys, and privacy is for me, not thee. Fair enough. But do human rights campaigners deserve privacy? Do opposition leaders, like Morgan Tsvangirai deserve privacy? Do critical facilities, and loose nuclear materials deserve privacy? In stripping the U.S. diplomatic service of its privacy, you are stripping away far more than you presume.

    You should read the mainstream media more often, instead of fringe groups like those you link to at the end of your rant. There is a rich discussion on Assange there, certainly richer than the little bubble you are in that continues to let you believe Assange has not already handed out all 250,000 of his cables.

  2. Nils Molina says:

    On your first point (that WikiLeaks has released 250,000 cables), sharing the 250,000 cables with a limited set of media partners (like The Guardian and Der Spiegel) hardly constitutes a release. NPR even issued a correction to clarify this matter:

    “In recent weeks, NPR hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Although the website has vowed to publish ’251,287 leaked United States embassy cables,’ as of Dec. 28, 2010, only 1,942 of the cables had been released.” http://www.npr.org/2010/12/28/132416904/how-many-documents-has-wikileaks-published

    On your second point (that Assange’s equating of Gitmo and Nazi murder camps was absurd), I disagree that Assange equated Gitmo and Nazi murder camps. Instead, Assange compared the slogans used by those respective entities. Saying that Assange thinks Gitmo is as bad as the Nazi murder camps is too uncharitable an interpretation. Here is what Assange said: “The defense of freedom as a value is on the front of Guantanamo Bay. And I say, as a perversion of the truth, that that slogan is worse than ‘work brings freedom.’”

    Finally, you mention human rights campaigners, Morgan Tsvangirai, critical facilities and loose nuclear materials:

    * Human rights campaigners — Which ones? WikiLeaks has redacted the names of Chinese dissidents in Cablegate, for example.
    * Morgan Tsvangirai — The cable in question revealed that the prime minister of Zimbabwe (Tsvangirai), who is opposed to Mugabe (the president of Zimbabwe), supported sanctions on his country (targeted at the Mugabe administration) while in public claiming he did not support these sanctions. It’s important to remember that The Guardian, not WikiLeaks, decided to publish this cable. While interesting and important to consider, fears that this cable is destabilizing Zimbabwe by weakening Mugabe’s opposition seem overblown: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110105/04094912528/debunking-wikileaks-puts-lives-danger-zimbabwe-myth.shtml
    * Critical facilities — I assume you are referencing the oft-repeated “list of critical sites” cable. I’ve looked at that cable, and can’t see how it’s dangerous (even though some politicians and pundits have shouted that it helps terrorists). Here is how the list begins and ends:

    AFRICA Congo (Kinshasa): Cobalt (Mine and Plant) Gabon: Manganese – Battery grade, natural; battery grade, synthetic; chemical grade; ferro; metallurgical grade Guinea: Bauxite (Mine) [...] Panama Panama Canal Peru: Tin Mine and Plant Trinidad and Tobago: Americas-II undersea cable landing Port of Spain Atlantic LNG: Provides 70% of U.S. natural gas import needs Venezuela: Americas-II undersea cable landing Camuri, Venezuela GlobeNet undersea cable landing, Punta Gorda, Venezuela GlobeNet undersea cable landing Catia La Mar, Venezuela GlobeNet undersea cable landing Manonga, Venezuela [END TEXT OF LIST] http://wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/02/09STATE15113.html

    The cable does not pose a national security threat. It only informs readers by letting them know the role diplomats play (it shows diplomats were instructed to investigate these sites). Frankly, I don’t think most pundits/politicians who say the release of that cable threatened national security have bothered to look at the cable in question.
    * Loose nuclear materials. What loose nuclear materials has WikiLeaks placed in jeopardy?

  3. Keith Yost says:

    I’m not going to split hairs with you on what constitutes a release. I think it’s safe to say that Foreman et al understand just fine what Assange has done, and if you want to call them out on semantics, then hey, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t think you’re making some grand point– you’re quibbling over the meaning of a word.

    If it wasn’t Mr. Assange’s point to equate Auschwitz and Guantanamo, then fine, he didn’t. That just makes him an unintentionally misleading public speaker I suppose.

    As for your article on Morgan Tsvangirai, I read that drivel a while ago. The thesis is that Zimbabwe is already ruined and Mugabe could crush Tsvangirai any time he wants, so why should we care if we give him the bullet? That’s not very convincing, and even if we thought it even somewhat true, we’d still want to give democracy the best possible chance. It’s not like there was any upside to Mr. Assange violating Mr. Tsvangirai’s privacy, and the broader point, which you failed to rebut, is my assertion that Tsvangirai and others like him deserve for their confidences to be kept confided.

    I’ve personally read cables that reveal the identities of at-risk individuals, so don’t give me your redacted fairy tale. You don’t have to name a female bank CEO in Baku for Google to do the rest.

    As for loose nuclear materials, woo boy, you’re a step behind. Pakistan buddy, Pakistan.

  4. Nils Molina says:

    Do diplomats deserve to keep some of their conversations secret? Sure. Although diplomats in their duties don’t deserve privacy in the usual sense because they’re servants of the people, there are legitimate reasons for things to be kept secret. (For the record, Assange has said that he agrees there are legitimate reasons for secrecy.) However, diplomats tend to keep too many things secret, because letting something out with the slightest risk of souring relations endangers a diplomat’s career far more than letting something out which enhances the public debate. (And we all know how much people care about their careers.)

    That last point makes the following quite a different question: Should governments prevent/punish the release of diplomatic (or other government) documents which have already been leaked if there’s no clear and present danger to people’s lives? Is a society where people can talk about what their government bureaucracy is doing better or worse than one with an excessive cloud of secrecy enforced by law? (Yes, I realize the latter question is a bit different and more vague.)

    Another question to consider: Has Cablegate, WikiLeaks’s most controversial leak, been good or bad? Some of the cables have clearly helped the public debate while not posing a threat (there’s a sampling in the EFF page I linked earlier). However the release of a few cables (the Zimbabwe one most prominently) may have put people in danger.

    Or how about this: Has WikiLeaks’s policy of releasing everything they feel they can (after harm-minimization procedures) been good or bad? In its publication history most of its releases have been IMO helpful (the revelations of Kenyan corruption, Icelandic banking fraud and vulgar US troops shooting down reporters & Iraqi civilians stand out in my mind; there’s another sampling at sowhyiswikileaksagoodthingagain.com, but that’s just a sampling — not even the long, informative Wikipedia article is complete.)

    Asking whether diplomats should be allowed to keep their conversations away from the public doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The questions I think we should be asking boil down to examining what WikiLeaks actually has released. And saying that WikiLeaks has released 250,000 cables doesn’t help. It’s misleading. Semantics (the meaning of words) is important.

    • Nils Molina says:

      [ Typo: in the first paragraph I should've written "letting something out with the slightest risk of souring relations endangers a diplomat’s career far more than not letting something out which enhances the public debate"]

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