“Goethe” and the WikiLeaks pact

John le Carrés “The Russia House” revolves around documents written by “Goethe”, a Soviet scientist deeply involved in the empire’s nuclear weapons programmes. By having the documents published in the West, “Goethe” aims to tell the truth about the deteriorating Soviet capabilities in the perestroika days of the late 1980s. Truth and transparency will translate into real peace, he thinks. The documents come into the hands of the British authorities, however, and publishing them proves more than difficult.

Today, it is more than likely that a new “Goethe” would submit the documents to WikiLeaks instead of contacting a book publisher or media organization. The recent strange and consequential case involving the arrest of Bradley Manning and his alleged involvement with leaking the Iraq helicopter attack video which was published by WikiLeaks demonstrates the potential of such a global whistleblower site, though we do not know all the details of Manning’s actions yet.

In April, I heard Daniel Schmitt of WikiLeaks present the concept and thinking behind the site at a conference in Berlin. WikiLeaks will factcheck all submitted material thoroughly in a verification process where they can draw on more than 1000 anonymous experts in different fields. If they conclude it is genuine and of public importance, it will be published — and crucially, all the material a source has sent in will be published, not only edited excerpts. This principle sets WikiLeaks apart and constitutes much of its appeal. A new “Goethe” would not have experienced the same as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers — indeed, Ellsberg has said that today, he would have posted them on the internet.

WikiLeaks try to build a structure than can withstand attacks from any government or other powerful institutions, using cryptography and different safety mechanisms to ensure that no document first published can be made to disappear from the internet again. Also, Schmitt and founder Julian Assange claim that WikiLeaks is “lawyer-proof” (the new Icelandic media law might help them here).

WikiLeaks guarantees to always protect its sources and in this subscribes to classic principles of the press. But as I interpret them, WikiLeaks claim that their guarantee is more credible than a similar vow from traditional news media. That is because they are not constrained by the ties of traditional media organizations — ties to national power structures, personal ties connecting elites, the need to protect an established position in society.

Schmitt emphasized the neutral character (again, my interpretation) of WikiLeaks: A true, important document will be published in its entirety. Just the facts, make your own interpretations and judgments. He was asked about the Collateral Murder video, which had been published shortly before and was strongly edited to achieve maximum effect on the viewer. Assange went on a promotion tour in the US to present the video. When does WikiLeaks cross the line to editorial comment? Schmitt claimed that Collateral Murder was distinct from the WikiLeaks project, the result of journalists editing the material, but he acknowledged that the line between the publication of the raw source material and the edited version was not drawn clearly enough in that case.

As we now know from the New Yorker report on how Collateral Murder was created, this was very much an Assange/WikiLeaks production. Assange does not seem to be content with the neutral, facts-only approach, being the world’s whistleblower supporter — he crosses over into activism. But on what basis? Is transparency alone enough as ideology? As Raffi Khatchadourian puts it the New Yorker:

But experimenting with the site’s presentation and its technical operations will not answer a deeper question that WikiLeaks must address: What is it about? The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

News media have often been criticized for being secretive, but WikiLeaks beats them all. It is hard to see how WikiLeaks can become more transparent. In the end, a new “Goethe”, the journalists and audiences of the world will just have to trust them. Is that pact sustainable in the long run?

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2 Responses to ““Goethe” and the WikiLeaks pact”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Olav A. Øvrebø, Erik Hansen. Erik Hansen said: RT @oovrebo: New blog post: “Goethe” and the WikiLeaks pact http://bit.ly/cfTgzl […]

  2. I think the publishing practices of WikiLeaks is problematic. By publishing all material a source has sent, WikiLeaks may publish data that may be very dangerous. This danger is evident in the July 25th publication of the full text of more than 92000 leaked confidential documents from the Afghanistan war. These documents disclosed the full names of many Afghans who have assisted the international military coalition in Afghanistan. By disclosing the names of these individuals, WikiLeaks puts them in peril. It will not be hard for the Taliban and other groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people to be killed as revenge.

    WikiLeaks is a media. As such, it is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility and media ethics as any other media. But WikiLeaks seems disinterested in publishing responsibility and media ethics. It is not willing to consider the human lives it puts in peril by not redacting senstive information such as names before publishing. I find that practice both distrurbing and problematic.