WikiLeaks: public enemy number one

AFP Photo / Carl Court
What began as a seemingly formidable journalistic tool in the fight against injustice appears to be turning into an out-of-control machine that simply wants to wreak havoc everywhere.

Perhaps no other new Internet medium has fallen so hard and so fast as WikiLeaks, together with its eccentric and now very reclusive founder-editor-spokesman, 39-year-old Australian-born “hacktivist” Julian Assange.

As early as June 2009, WikiLeaks made a name for itself, and for Assange, when it won Amnesty International's UK Media Award (in the category "New Media") for the 2008 release of "Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Extra-Judicial Killings and Disappearances," which documented police abuses in the African country.

The momentum continued in April 2010, when WikiLeaks exploded on the scene with the release of a highly disturbing video clip from the war in Iraq.

On July 12, 2007, a team of two US Army Apache helicopters in Baghdad opened cannon fire at a group of around ten men allegedly suspected of being Iraqi insurgents. Two of the victims, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, whose bulky video cameras were supposedly mistaken for weapons, turned out to be from the Reuters news agency. Nine people were killed in the deplorable attack.

In the desperate rescue attempts that followed, two children inside an emergency van on the scene were wounded, and three more men were killed (including Chmagh).

A third helicopter strike that day killed an undisclosed number of civilians in a nearby building, including women and children living in the complex, as well as a passerby.

Reuters made an unsuccessful bid to gain access to the military footage (recorded from the gun sight of one of the attacking helicopters) under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007. The effort failed, but WikiLeaks reportedly received the tapes from intelligence officer Bradley Manning and released an edited version on April 5, 2010 under the name Collateral Murder.

Bradley Manning, incidentally, who is now in US custody over the issue, is also the individual responsible for leaking some 260,000 diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world. More on that a bit later.

The United States slammed the release of the video, of course, as a threat to its soldiers and ongoing war efforts. Much of the journalistic community, however, hailed the publication of the incriminating videos as a major breakthrough in news reporting.

Opening the Afghan War Diary

On July 25, 2010, WikiLeaks released its so-called Afghan War Diary, which consisted of secret military documentation from the period between January 2004 and December 2009. At this point, WikiLeaks seemed to be practicing some sort of self-restraint, releasing only 75,000 of some 95,000 documents as "part of a harm minimization process demanded by [the] source."

The leaked documents, which represented the biggest security breach in US military history – that is, until the Iraq War documents a few months later – were published by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

The Guardian called the batch of documents "a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and NATO commanders fear neighboring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency."

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel said that "the editors in chief of Spiegel, The New York Times and the Guardian were 'unanimous in their belief that there is a justified public interest in the material.’”

Assange himself defended the release of the secret documents, saying "This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war."

Iraq War documents

The Iraq War documents are the mother of all whistle-blowing revelations, as WikiLeaks dumped some 390,000 US Army field reports into the public domain.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation from this mountain of secret documents is that many more Iraqi civilians have been killed in the course of the seven-year war than previously recorded. Out of some 110,000 deaths reported in Iraq, some 66,000 of those victims have turned out to be civilians.

The Guardian stated that the logs show "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers." The coalition, according to the British publication, has "a formal policy of ignoring such allegations" unless the allegations involve coalition forces.

Whatever the long-term effects of the Iraqi War documents are remains to be seen, but they have succeeded in attracting the interest of even America’s most loyal allies.

NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the release could cause "a very unfortunate situation", and that "such leaks … may have a very negative security impact for people involved."

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay said that "the US and Iraq should investigate claims of abuse contained in files published on the WikiLeaks website."

Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Envoy on Torture, called "for a wider inquiry to include alleged US abuses."

WikiLeaks “goes nuts” with cable release

Up to this point, it might have been possible to justify the actions taken by WikiLeaks in response to the hundreds of thousands of documents it received, courtesy of one young, idealistic intelligence officer in the US Army who will probably be eating prison food for the rest of his life.

After all, the reasons given by the United States for going to war against Iraq, for example, have been riddled with glaring holes from the very start. Meanwhile, the events surrounding 9/11, the watershed event that got the United States entrenched in the Middle East to begin with, is itself a matter of speculation for many individuals.

But now, with the slow-drip release of tens of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world, it seems that Assange and Wikileaks have finally gone one revelation too far.

First, let’s consider the target of his recent whistle-blowing attack: the diplomatic community. Yes, that’s right, Assange has gone on the offensive against the very individuals who report to work everyday around the world with the purpose of ironing out differences between their government and others (We should add that, judging by the content of the diplomatic cables, not every diplomat was using carefully worded diplomatic language. But this does little to change the matter).

The fact that Assange is now actually searching for political amnesty from whatever country that will have him proves how little he thought out his activities. After all, it will the diplomatic community that is forced to sort through his passport and paperwork, which by this point must be very confused.

When WikiLeaks’ wicked freak was taking aim at the Iraqi helicopter incident, for example, this seemed to be a truly worthwhile endeavor. After all, innocent civilians, not to mention journalists were killed in that terrible tragedy.

With the recent dumping of sensitive embassy cables, however, Assange seems to have shown his true colors, which seem to be as black as the black of an anarchist; a total disrespect for any sort of authority and tradition regardless of the country.

As opposed to an individual truly interested in promoting a cause (anti-war, for example), Assange now comes across as an annoying pest whose only purpose is to wreak havoc however and wherever he can. There is no comparison between potential war criminals, for example and embassy diplomats speaking their mind on various topics.

The 250,000-cable haul recently dumped by WikiLeaks is not just simply an embarrassment for the United States. It plays havoc with relations between countries that nobody – not even the mighty Julian Assange – who certainly could not have perused all 250,000 documents even if he had wanted to, can foresee.

For example, one of the alleged leaks talks about China and its relationship with North Korea, which has recently bombed a South Korean island and remains on edge. The cable suggested that China “did not like” their northern neighbor, and that their influence over the pariah communist state were “frequently overestimated.”

The Guardian published a hyperbolic headline that read China “was prepared to abandon North Korea.” Now, with Pyongyang already threatening another attack, such “information” could be the straw that breaks the back of a shaky peace.

And by the way, North Korea has nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, in an interview with the American talk show host Larry King on Wednesday, suggested that the whistle-blowing site could be used to advance some future political agenda.

“Some experts believe that somebody is deceiving the colleagues, their reputation being undermined for their own political purposes later,” he said.

Meanwhile, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said yesterday that the content of the documents remains "at the gutter-press level and verges on madness." 

"If we assume that these telegrams were written by real diplomats of some country," Peskov continued, "then we wish this country had more professional and thoughtful diplomats."

Is dirty laundry really newsworthy?

Meanwhile, the information (which is oftentimes nothing more than gossip mongering) contained in the cables give the impression that this is the official stance of the United States government.  It is not.

According to a diplomat with a US embassy in Eastern Europe, who spoke on condition of anonymity, such cables may be “sent by individuals who are in no special position to make professional judgments about the subjects they are discussing, but are simply repeating what they may have picked up in the media back home.”

She added that many embassy workers were “simply too far down the diplomatic totem pole to be able to make penetrating analysis.”

It is one thing to pick and choose one or two potentially incriminating pieces of material and make them available for public consumption. It is mere child’s play, however – and a reckless child at that – to stuff 250,000 documents into the public pipeline just to see what happens. Assange is doing what he is doing just to prove he is capable of doing it. In other words, he is no better than the people he is supposedly ratting on.

Finally, Assange doesn’t seem overly concerned about sorting out fact from fiction. As a former physics student, he is a figures kind of guy. In his concocted world of virtual espionage-journalism, more is automatically assumed to be better.

Indeed, he has gone on the record as saying that WikiLeaks has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined: "That's not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are – rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media.”

He then forwarded the question: “How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful."

Whatever the condition of the world press may be, it is still a less dangerous alternative to the mass dumping technique that Julian Assange wants us all to subscribe to.

Dumping in the public square is not journalism, it is merely dumping and hoping that something pretty grows on the spot.

Note: as of Thursday was shut down after its US domain host terminated service for the site. The expulsion forced WikiLeaks to relocate its domain name with a Switzerland-based domain name host.

Robert Bridge, RT