Last fall when the news broke that WikiLeaks was in possession of a quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables, I wrote that the putative pro-transparency organization was in fact a detriment to a serious movement aimed at more openness in government. Mine was among the few voices on the left at the time to take this position, but I believed in my bones that WikiLeaks founder and leader Julian Assange was more interested in fame and power (and money, as it later turned out) than he was in a true democratization of government secrets and data. Further, I came to believe that the flamboyant and outspoken Assange was WikiLeaks - that his voice, his decisions, his direction, his personal politics, and his personality were fused permanently to the organization.
Finally, I asserted that openness by force in a democratic society without the consent or participation of the governed isn't really openness at all. "Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace, " I wrote last December. "And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic."
The events of the last few days prove that my 2010 assertions were entirely correct, but there's not much joy in the realization. You see, WikiLeaks could have been a contender.
Releasing the full database of unredacted cables has exposed scores of U.S. information sources to the world (and to the intelligence services of regimes that would do them harm). WikiLeaks' original media partners in the carefully redacted and researched initial tranche of limited releases - The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel - excoriated the organization in an extraordinary joint statement today:
We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data – indeed, we are united in condemning it. The decision to publish by Julian Assange was his, and his alone.
My friend Micah Sifry, author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency and one the most important voices for more open government data, correctly sketched the epitaph for WikiLeaks in his TechPresident post today.
WikiLeaks has now indiscriminately dumped the whole cable set into the public arena, and in doing so it has tossed away whatever claim it might have had to the moral high ground. The argument that others were doing it already, or that bad actors were already getting access to the leaked master file and thus this was a mitigating step to reduce coming harms, or that it's somehow The Guardian's fault for publishing what it thought was a defunct password, doesn't absolve WikiLeaks of its large share of responsibility for this dump.
People are human; to err is human. But refusing to admit error, that is hubris. Assange, like Icarus, thought he could fly to the sun.
And in doing so, Assange may well have set the cause of more open public sector data on a backward path. Do we need an independent international organization to safely traffic in verified secrets, and responsibly see that those documents are distributed to journalists and the public, while at the same time protecting whistleblowers who often risk all to tell vital stories?
Yeah. We do. WikiLeaks promised all of that - and delivered none of it. And in failing so spectacularly, WikiLeaks almost assuredly discouraged those who would come to trust others with secret information.
Tonight, the Guardian's James Ball finally told the inside story of his three months as a WikiLeaks staffer during those tumultuous months after the cable leak was first made public. It's bravely told; Ball understands that he will come in for a tidal wave of opprobrium from the cohort of hard-core Assange fans who prowl Twitter and other forums. But even for this WikiLeaks completist (I continue to find the entire story fascinating) Ball's tale is pretty shocking:
I joined WikiLeaks last November as a staffer for a three-month stint. Culture shock came just a few days in, when Julian Assange gathered core staff and supporters at Ellingham Hall, a manor house owned by the Frontline Club founder and WikiLeaks supporter Vaughan Smith.
Around the dining table the team sketched out a plan for the coming months, to release the leaked US diplomatic cables selectively for maximum impact. Phase one would involve publishing selected – and carefully redacted – high-profile cables through the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. Phase two would spread this out to more media organisations.
But clearly a large volume of cables would remain, of little interest to any media organisation. Several at the meeting – myself included – stressed these documents, which would probably number hundreds of thousands, could not be published without similar careful redaction. Others vehemently disagreed.
Johannes Wahlström, Swedish journalist and son of antisemitic WikiLeaks activist Israel Shamir, shouted: "You do realise the idea of not putting ALL of these cables up is totally unacceptable to people around this table, don't you?"
Julian took Wahlström's their side. One way or another, he said, all the cables must eventually be made public.
Ball goes on to detail financial misdealing, psychological pressure, an atmosphere of total personal domination by Assange, allegations of providing assistance to the interior ministry of the repressive Belarus regime, and "a growing cultlike ethos at the centre of the group." Finally, he recounts conversations with activists and aid workers fearful that their cooperation with U.S. diplomats or other actors would come to light and endanger their work, and their lives.
Before the first publication of carefully redacted cables, human rights activists, NGOs, and organisations working with victims of horrific crimes contacted WikiLeaks begging us to take steps not to publish any names. To be able to assure them details would be protected was an immeasurable relief.
These cables contain details of activists, opposition politicians, bloggers in autocratic regimes and their real identities, victims of crime and political coercion, and others driven by conscience to speak to the US government. They should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation.
Indeed. This is the end of WikiLeaks. The story of Julian Assange and the downfall of his organization remains a fascinating one - but it is not a story of transparency, of openness, or of an informed and empowered society.