Musings on WikiLeaks

I’m not sure how WikiLeaks (March 18, 2008) obtained WikiLeaks.org: An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups? (Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch, Army Counterintelligence Center, and National Ground Intelligence Center, 2008), but it is a compelling document for a number of reasons. Page by page, the following percolated through to me as someone who is interested in language, (necessary) secrecy, and citizen journalism:

  • p. 1: the document doesn’t appear to be declassified; it still carries the classification of SECRET/NOFORN.

SECRET is defined as:
National security information or material that requires a substantial degree of protection and the unauthorized disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. Examples of “serious damage” include disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security; significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security; revelation of significant military plans or intelligence operations; and compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security.

NOFORN = Not releasable to foreign nationals.

Does the WikiLeaks doc merit this level of protection under the aforementioned criteria? Perhaps; there are many philosophical reasons for secrecy, not all nefarious (concern for national security and deliberative privilege for example).*

  • p. 2: “The possibility that a current employee or mole within DoD or elsewhere in the US government is providing sensitive information or classified information to WikiLeaks.org cannot be ruled out.”

Two things spring to mind; first, Stephen Hess’ original work in leak typology in The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and their Offices, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1984, p.77-79). Hess identifies several types of leaks, including the Whistleblower Leak defined as “usually used by career personnel; going to the press may be the last resort of frustrated civil servants who feel they cannot resolve their dispute through administrative channels.”  The 1956 Coolidge Committee also characterized various categories of leaks. It’s useful to revisit these discussions in order to differentiate that not all leaks are similar in terms of motive, influence, and fallout.

Hess BTW is careful to point out that whistleblowing is not synonymous with leaking. (Note WikiLeaks’ emphasis on whistleblowing).

Secondly, the report’s tone reminds me of a newish term coined by Secrecy News called “leak anxiety.” There’s not a solid definition, but it appears to be a case of preemptive agency concern for unauthorized disclosure of classified information.  Focused research that includes interaction with gov agencies needs to be conducted into this bureaucratic phenomenon.

  • p. 4, “Key Judgments,” states “The WikiLeaks.org Web site could be used to post fabricated information, misinformation, disinformation, or propaganda and could be used in perception management and influence operations to convey a positive or negative message to specific target audiences that view or retrieve information from the Web site.”

Thinking out loud here using Jacques Ellul’s observation “information and propaganda are indistinguishable in a technological society,” couldn’t a case be made that most, if not all,  info on the Net is problematic in some way? A quick scan of docs obtained by WikiLeaks indicates posted docs are internal, often classified government reports.  Unless extraordinarily savvy or an insider, one might be potentially hard-pressed to verify contents of these classified reports with open source info; hence the elaborate methodology in place by WikiLeaks. Commentary made by WikiLeaks, however, could potentially be verified in contrast with documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, a visit to the archives, the MSM,** alongside  alternative media sources, including SourceWatch and  Project Censored, for example. Fact checking using multiple, often diverse sources is critical to Web info consumption. See next entry…

  • p. 18, “WikiLeaks.org allows anonymous publication of information and records without oversight or accountability; anyone can post information to the Web site, and there is no editorial review, fact checking, or oversight of the posted information. Persons accessing the Web site are encouraged to form their own opinions…”

Current research by Pew is helpful in modeling newsgathering; research indicates individuals use multiple sources and “platforms” to gather daily news. According to Pew (p. 29) “serendipitous news discovery, according to some scholars, is essential to forming public opinion.”  From my perspective, shouldn’t additional research be undertaken to bear out the ACIC’s unease?

But ACIC’s subtext related to information literacy is not lost on me.  The Web demands a critical grasp of history, geography, public policy, and current events from info seekers; collaborative projects such as wikis not only deconstruct the “authority” of traditional news sources and accepted knowledge, but places info seekers in a potentially tenuous situation where a number of skills are necessary to make peace with the info presented.

I call on researchers to further examine knowledge construction and info seeking on the Net, including how the elements of long-term trust in government, historical aspects of information restriction, and quality of info (redaction for example) impact acceptance of information and “truthiness.”  What makes some facts, data, (government) information, or knowledge trustworthy, and not others? (I don’t want to go down a slippery slope with definitions here – but these categories are philosophically different).

  • p. 18, “The construction of a SQL database, the merging of leaked documents, and use of publicly available tools to glean information from the Web sites of various DoD and private organizations such as globalsecurity.org and then make the information available in a searchable format, allowing access to and manipulation of the data and information for research purposes by users of WikiLeaks.org, demonstrate a high level of technical capability and resourcefulness.”

Isn’t this mosaic building? Compilation theory? Competitive intelligence? Fact checking?

  • p. 19, “Diverse views exist within the United States and other countries regarding the stated goals of WikiLeaks.org. Some believe that the leaking and posting of information is constitutionally protected free speech and supports freedom of the press, open-society initiatives, and government accountability, and that leaking the information serves the greater good versus any illegal acts that arise from the posting of sensitive or classified government or business information.”

Leaks are not a recent national security issue as I reported in my intro to the 1956 Coolidge Committee report.  That said, perhaps it is time to reconvene a Coolidge-like committee to address those seemingly intractable  intellectual freedom and national security concerns (esp. those legitimate questions posed on p.21-22 of the report) surrounding unauthorized disclosure of  classified information?

Thinking out loud, should the U.S. entertain a D-Notice type system such as in the UK? Reconstitute the WWII Office of Censorship? (I’m only posing the question). To my mind, the very existence of leaks raises issues directly related to the problem of continuing government secrecy, overclassification, and reclassification. In an imperfect system that relies on among other features, need-to-know, compartmentalization, delayed history, and lack of sunshine, in an abstract way it is easy to understand the utility of the leak. Nevertheless, these are heavy policy issues that require public debate about the definitions and parameters of national security, what constitutes a secret (or doesn’t), and the time boundaries of keeping secrets.

  • p.19, “Questions and concerns have been raised by media consultants, ethics experts, and other journalists regarding the status of WikiLeaks.org as a news organization and of its staff writers as journalists. The contention by some is that WikiLeaks.org does not qualify as a news organization and thus its staff writers are not journalists.”

The differences between professional journalism and “public reporting” as an element of citizenship and as a social movement enabled by technological advances are of deep interest to the academic community across disciplines. I’m currently reading Web Journalism: A New Form of Citizenship? by Sean Tunney and Garrett Monagha, eds., (Sussex, 2010), which investigates what constitutes “real” journalism. No answers here, but to say participatory media and citizen journalism are powerful forces that bring to light often neglected perspectives missing from the MSM. There is a DIY to WikiLeaks that bypass filters to present the raw stuff. I’m not defending WikiLeaks here, but rather posing ideas and questions.

Note: Many of the terms used in this essay are included  in my On Their Own Terms: A Lexicon with an Emphasis on Information-Related Terms Produced by the U.S. Federal Government, 4th edition, December, http://www.fas.org/sgp/library/maret.pdf

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* See President Kennedy’s April, 1961 speech on national security, the media, and secrecy in President and the Press.

** In conjunction with Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model; see Jeffery Klaehn, ed.,  Filtering the News: Essays on Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model,  especially “Behind the Invisible Curtain of Scholarly Criticism: Revisiting the Propaganda Model,” 223-238, Black Rose Books:2005).

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