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Is WikiLeaks Hypocritical About Secrecy?

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo asks whether WikiLeaks has a double-standard. Julian Assange, the site's founder, has embraced an ideology of radical transparency when it comes to publishing government secrets but is hardly forthcoming about his own operations and takes great pride in protecting the identities of his sources.

This is the paradox of WikiLeaks' methods. Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity? If we don't know who the leaker is, why he's leaking, and how he came upon his information, can we really know the full story the document tells? More importantly, how can we know that the information is authentic? Look deeply into WikiLeaks' efforts at radical transparency and you find complete opacity; WikiLeaks wants to shine a light on the world, but only by keeping itself shrouded in secrecy.


There are a few ways of parsing Manjoo's question. He might be wondering if Julian Assange is personally hypocritical. The answer to that question is surely "no." Sure, Assange keeps some information secret, and even though he claims to not know the identity of the source for the Afghanistan documents, it's not like he would help anyone find out. But this secrecy is all in the interest of furthering a larger project, namely the liberation of any secret primary documents he can get his hands on. WikiLeaks could not exist if Assange didn't guard his sources. He's taking a consequentialist approach to transparency.

But Manjoo is probably interested in a more practical, and less philosophical, question: Shouldn't we be concerned that WikiLeaks is essentially one guy, operating independently, making judgment calls about which classified documents get released, and when? How do we know we're not getting doctored or edited transparency, designed to push opinion in the direction Assange wants?

That's a fair question. Indeed, when Assange talks about the documents showing evidence of "war crimes," or acknowledges that there are 15,000 documents he's redacting information from "as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source," it's reasonable to wonder if he's simply an impartial emancipator of information. This worry is fueled by the fact that we can't evaluate Assange's judgment calls because we don't know what they are.

It doesn't seem likely that Assange is manipulating information for political purposes, though. First, there's just too much information. His initial release of documents, to The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, consisted of 200,000 pages of reports and communications. If he wanted to present a skewed version of events in Afghanistan, why not just pick the 2,000 most damning pages?

The same argument goes for the authenticity concern: Do we really think Assange forged or doctored this many documents? And if he only doctored some, why not release a smaller set so the juicy stuff is easier to find? Finally, the documents don't appear to contain any earth-shaking revelations anyway. The size and the manner of the leak has been more newsworthy than its actual contents thus far.

Let's imagine, though, that Assange's personal views have somehow corrupted the information in this leak. Even in that unlikely case, we're still not any worse off than we were ante-Assange. Our most popular media outlets are rife with slanted information and outright falsehoods—and rarely provide any original documents or research. We may not have any assurance that Assange is completely trustworthy, but we already know that the majority of the cable news landscape isn't.

And it's looking more and more like something lasting and good will come out of this leak. No, not a change in policy in Afghanistan. A loosening of government standards for secrecy.

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