Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

December 9, 2010 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Assange Frontline Club July 2010 large Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.

4 Responses to “Wikileaks: from the personal to the political”

  1. David. A remarkable analysis. Thank you.

    Do you believe this is a wake up call to all about how data exists in an information age? It seems governments, corporations and citizens alike need to face up to realities that have existed for a long time; the internet is a wealth of information, data cannot be redacted or controlled once published and the only things prohibiting the outing of fact is the time and energy of committed individuals. The Wikileaks Cables have dragged us forward to a realisation that information in the digital age is attainable, powerful and precious.

    I hope that governments in the future will open up their (publicly funded data and policy). Campaign financing has made attempts to make transparent its data, city buses have GPS to track the progress of buses, minutes of civic meetings are made available. People in a democracy should expect – demand – public officers to share the information at hand. This is a culture change that would require respect from both sides (the state and the populace) but over time, with a shift in expectations, immediate access to information in real time could yield more trusting, meaningful relationships; something we could equate to true democracy.

    It seems governments have two choices – to entrench with all powers they can muster within existing practices or to leverage information to build significant and progressive relationships with citizenry.

    I might just be a Utopian hoping for an unlikely sea-change, but if we accept information cannot be controlled as it once was, then we must dare to imagine how it can be used to unite (all peoples globally) and how it can takes its place in a strong society based upon humility, courage and admirable vulnerability.

    Of course, this view doesn’t account for the information wielded by corporations, but perhaps if governments and people led, then Multi-nationals would have no choice but to follow?

    Best, Pete

  2. Pete – I think you have identified perhaps the most important, latent theme in this case. Once information is digitized, once data is made available as bits and bytes, then it is easily replicated and distributed. The ease, scale and scope of its circulation are now far greater than ever before. This is perhaps the essence of the digital revolution, and the most basic element of the Internet’s disruptive power.

    The Wikileaks case demonstrates this through a stark contrast to the Pentagon Papers story. Daniel Ellsberg opens his memoir Secrets with this:

    On the evening of October 1, 1969, I walked out past the guard’s desk at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, carrying a briefcase filled with top secret documents, which I planned to photocopy that night. The documents were part of a 7,000-page top secret study of U.S decision making in Vietnam, later known as the Pentagon Papers. The rest of the study was in a safe in my office.

    In the 1960s documents were material artefacts rather than digital files. To leak them, Ellsberg had to have physical access to them, which meant being in a particular place at a particular time. He then had to remove them from one location to another and make facsimiles of them.

    In the case of the US Embassy Cables, the leaker only had to be one of three million individuals with access to SIPRN, and she or he could be anywhere on that network. This means, even though they might have been in Baghdad or Kabul, they could gain access to information from any of the global contributors to the network – they didn’t have to have a privileged position in the RAND corporation or some other specific part of the American national security bureaucracy.

    Note also the dimension of time here – it was two years between Ellsberg’s copying of the documents and their eventual publication in The New York Times, beginning in June 1971. Ellsberg tried to get various US officials and politicians interested in the story before he handed them over to the journalist Neil Sheehan in early 1971. Now, the ease of publishing on the web means time becomes compressed and we find out about things much more quickly. And if someone is not interested in a case, the ease of publishing on the web means his or her reticence is quickly bypassed and someone who is engaged is almost instantly found.

    These are issues for any form of information is digitized, which is why this case casts light on themes relevant to the production of images, music and the like. It is also why I think we should pay increasing attention to the work of Lawrence Lessig, with his creative rethinking of copyright. In his book Remix, Lessig begins by posing a question that anyone working in an information industry needs to contemplate: “What should we do if we know that the future is one where perfect control over the distribution of ‘copies’ simply will not exist?”

    I think, therefore, that your “utopian” view of the benefits of embracing the ease of information flows should in large part be embraced. I agree that if public authorities recognised that perfect control is abandoned the moment information becomes a series of bits, then we could have far greater transparency, and with greater transparency comes enhanced trust, and perhaps, through community engagement, better decisions and policy too. In principle I think corporations are in the same position and stand to reap similar benefits from openness and transparency if the embrace the inevitability of digitization.

    Perhaps there are some realms and some times that require secrecy. If that is the case, then people are going to have to design new systems that involve far fewer individuals handling information that cannot be easily copied. I wonder if, given the scale of modern bureaucracies and governmental structures, that remains practicable.

  3. David

    Thanks for the response. It’s a comfort that we are on the same page and we share the same hopes for the Cablgate/Wikileaks ramifications.

    Tonight I came across Aaron Brady’s writing. He offers a cogent and umbrella analysis of Wikileaks import:

    http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-%E2%80%9Cto-destroy-this-invisible-government%E2%80%9D/

    Brady, previously a (relatively) small circulated blogger made a big impression.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/the-unknown-blogger-who-changed-wikileaks-coverage/67936/

    On a personal level, Brady’s quality of writing is invigorating, and in the larger context it shows the vast reach of thoughtful (blog) writing. Here’s my take.

    http://prisonphotography.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/the-blogger-who-beat-the-media-in-contextualising-wikileaks/

    The inquiries continue …

    Best, Pete

  1. [...] and Brady’s distillation of –  the structure of secret diplomatic communications compliments David Campbell’s analysis of a networked world. It also precedes my comment to Campbell, the belief that the praxis of [...]

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