Blowing the Whistle on WikiLeaks

One of America's most respected campaigners against excessive government secrecy has launched a broadside against the Web site WikiLeaks, suggesting that the enterprise is self-indulgent, irresponsibly invades the privacy of groups that are not involved in public policy, and on occasion has engaged in behavior that is "overtly unethical."

In a commentary titled "Wikileaks Fails 'Due Diligence' Review" posted on Secrecy News, a Web site maintained by the Federation of American Scientists, writer Steven Aftergood questions whether WikiLeaks merits its self-promotional billing as an " ‘open government group’, ‘anti-corruption group’, ‘transparency group’ or ‘whistleblower’s site’.”

"Calling WikiLeaks a whistleblower site does not accurately reflect the character of the project," Aftergood writes. "It also does not explain why others who are engaged in open government, anti-corruption and whistleblower protection activities are wary of WikiLeaks or disdainful of it. And it does not provide any clue why the Knight Foundation, the preeminent foundation funder of innovative First Amendment and free press initiatives, might have rejected WikiLeaks' request for financial support, as it recently did."

Aftergood goes on to offer a detailed critique of WikiLeaks, a Web site that has been much in the news recently for posting secret video of a deadly American military action in Iraq, for threatening to release other classified American combat videos, and for supposedly receiving an alleged cache of 260,000 secret State Department documents. (The elusive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has reportedly denied that such an archive was sent to his group.)

"WikiLeaks says that it is dedicated to fighting censorship, so a casual observer might assume that it is more or less a conventional liberal enterprise committed to enlightened democratic policies," Aftergood writes. "But on closer inspection that is not quite the case. In fact, WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals. Last year, for example, WikiLeaks published the ‘secret ritual’ of a college women's sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau.  Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities ‘exposed’ by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has. Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group's confidential ritual just because it could."

"This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism," Aftergood says. "It is a kind of information vandalism."

Aftergood goes on to accuse Wikileaks of trampling "routinely...on the privacy of non-governmental, non-corporate groups for no valid public policy reason. It has published private rites of Masons, Mormons and other groups that cultivate confidential relations among their members.  Most or all of these groups are defenseless against WikiLeaks' intrusions.  The only weapon they have is public contempt for WikiLeaks' ruthless violation of their freedom of association, and even that has mostly been swept away in a wave of uncritical and even adulatory reporting about the brave ‘open government,’ ‘whistleblower’ site."

Moreover, Aftergood says, "On occasion, WikiLeaks has engaged in overtly unethical behavior.  Last year, without permission, it published the full text of the highly regarded 2009 book about corruption in Kenya called “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by investigative reporter Michela Wrong (as first reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian on April 9).  By posting a pirated version of the book and making it freely available, WikiLeaks almost certainly disrupted sales of the book and made it harder for Ms. Wrong and other anti-corruption reporters to perform their important work and to get it published. Repeated protests and pleas from the author were required before WikiLeaks (to its credit) finally took the book offline.”

Aftergood says that WikiLeaks might be forgiven for its self-indulgence and headline seeking "if it were true that its activities were succeeding in transforming government information policy in favor of increased openness and accountability—as opposed to merely generating reams of publicity for itself.  WikiLeaks supporter Glenn Greenwald of wrote that when it comes to combating government secrecy, "nobody is doing that as effectively as WikiLeaks." But he neglected to spell out exactly what effect WikiLeaks has had.  Which U.S. government programs have been canceled as a result of Wikileaks' activities?  Which government policies have been revised?  How has public discourse shifted?  (And, by the way, who has been injured by its work?)"

WikiLeaks did not immediately respond to Declassified’s request for comment on Aftergood's criticisms.

UPDATE: On Monday evening, several hours after we had posted this story (and hours more after we had e-mailed WikiLeaks requesting comment on Aftergood’s critique), Declassified received the following comment from WikiLeaks’ allegedly elusive founder, Julian Assange. He writes: “The allegations [by Aftergood] are false and misleading. Readers should consult the primary sources where listed, and where not, exercise skepticism. WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law. WikiLeaks has never lost a court action in any country and just this month one of our legislative interests, the Islanic Modern Media Initiative, unanimously passed the Icelandic Parliament. I spoke about its implications for Europe to European Parliamentarians at a Parliamentary seminar on censorship last week. And last year we inspired a pending US Senate bill by McCain and Lieberman to liberate thousands of Congressional Research Service reports. What WikiLeaks does not do, is back down to the abuse of the law by plutocrats or by cashed up special interests. We always fight and, to date, we always win."

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