Initial thoughts on the latest Wikileaks dump

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As you no doubt know, Wikileaks just dumped a whole pile of documents about the war in Iraq [the Guardian has good coverage here]. The big news story seems to be that the US military more-or-less ignored torture of detainees by the Iraqi military. This data dump has been answered by the usual denunciations of Wikileaks as having damaged national security. For instance, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen tweets (yes, tweets!):
Another irresponsible posting of stolen classified documents by Wikileaks puts lives at risk and gives adversaries valuable information.

And of course, here is Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon Press Secretary:

"There are thousands of Iraqi names in these documents that have been compromised. 300 of whom we believe are particularly in danger and we have shared that information with our forces in Iraq for them to take prophylactic measures to protect them," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday.

Assange's defense of the leaks is similarly predictable:

At a packed press conference held in hotel in Central London Saturday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared, "This disclosure is about the truth. We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war, and which has continued on since the war officially concluded." Added the tall, wan, Australian-accented Assange: "There are approximately 15,000 civilians killed by violence in Iraq. That tremendous scale should not make us blind to the small human scale in this material. It is the deaths of one and two people per event that killed the overwhelming number of people in Iraq."

I'm still trying to work out my opinion on this topic, but I do have some incomplete observations:

As far as I know (and I don't think anyone has claimed otherwise) Wikileaks didn't steal this information; they didn't break into the Pentagon and photocopy the data. Rather, someone else made a copy and handed it over to Wikileaks. Wikileaks is simply disseminating it (hence the obligatory references to the Pentagon Papers). So their ethical position is much more like that of the NYT in 1971, than it is to the people who leaked the information.

Additionally, the time period during which a site like Wikileaks is necessary to disseminate this kind of information is coming to a close. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg had to go to a huge operation—the New York Times—in order to get wide dissemination of the Pentagon Papers. Today a handful of people with a bunch of servers can do the same thing as the Times and get the attention of basically every major newspaper worldwide. As technology gets better, distributing this kind of information gets easier and easier. There have been several designs for worldwide anonymous, resilient, distribution systems (e.g., Publius), and it's already possible to do worldwide data distribution with peer-to-peer systems like BitTorrent, so it's already likely that with a bit of technical savvy you could distribute this kind of data beyond the ability of anyone to shut it down, at which point you won't need a middleman like Wikileaks.

While of course there have been claims that Wikileaks is being irresponsible, it appears they did make some attempt to filter the information to remove the most obviously dangerous information:

But Assange said that Wikileaks and the four newspapers that it shared the documents with back in June, including the New York Times, decided to redact all Iraqi names from the war logs.

In an environment where something like Wikileaks doesn't exist and people just self-publish over an uncontrolled service, then even this minimal level of redaction is less likely to happen.

This brings us to the question of whether this sort of leak is in fact a threat to national security. Now, obviously, one could claim that the mere disclosure of bad behavior by the US and/or Iraqi militaries is itself a threat to national security, but I'm not really prepared to sign on to that expansive (and instrumental) a definition of national security. At that point you might as well argue that people who publish information about the now-cancelled Koran Burning are in an ethically problematic position. I'm not sure where to draw the line here, but I think many not most people believe that just because information is embarassing (and potentially will make people think worse of the US) is insufficient reason for it to be secret.

On the other hand, it seems clear that the publication of operational information (e.g., the names of US agents, informants, etc.) has a weaker claim to legitimacy. First, it bears less on the general public interest in knowing what the government is doing and second it presents a more direct harm to national security. As I said above, it's unclear that the particular documents in question actually reveal this information, and since Assange claims otherwise, it seems like the question remains open. Regardless, since Wikileaks says they do some kind of redaction, it seems like they're in a pretty different ethical position from an organization which just passes through any information they get without any filtering.

With that said, the US government has something of a history of claiming national security for information that's more embarassing than anything else. And since it seems clear that the government has at best not been entirely forthcoming, this rather weakens whatever arguments they want to offer about the need for secrecy:

More than 15,000 civilians died in previously unknown incidents. US and UK officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exists but the logs record 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.

This seems like the kind of information that the public has the right to know, but obviously the government didn't think so. I don't know to what extent organizations like Wikileaks are a reaction to a lack of government transparency/openness, but I'm not so sure that Wikileaks is solely responsible for whatever collateral damage results from the publication of this kind of material.

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Note that wikileaks isn't important as a distributor, but as a concentrator. It concentrates attention. Self-published information has to be publicized to get the attention of the intended audience; it needs something to get page views.

Wikileak's reputation helps insure those page views (or at least increases the possibility of them). Its technology isn't important as much as its brand.

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