Blowback Threatens Wikileaks

By D.H. Kerby

Imagine an online repository for information which big, often violent, organizations would rather keep secret. Imagine, too, that this repository had the capability to protect the identities of those who gave it that information. Finally, imagine that this entity had specialists who could analyze the information so as not to be duped or manipulated into endorsing false information. This is the reputation which the website Wikileaks wants to have, and it is the reputation which powerful forces may be very eager to deny it.

The spectacular and horrifying video depicting the killing in Western Baghdad of up to 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, by the crew of an Apache helicopter, received wide publicity in April. In June, US soldier Bradley Manning was arrested for leaking the video to Wikileaks and is suspected also of leaking video of an airstrike in Garani, Afghanistan, which is expected to be released soon and which is expected further to erode public support for the war.

According to the Guardian of Britain, “The Afghan government said about 140 civilians were killed in Garani, including 92 children. The US military initially said that up to 95 people died, of which about 65 were insurgents.”

At stake is the Pentagon’s ability to manage public perceptions of its wars. Videos originally intended exclusively for internal military use are shocking to civilian eyes, in large part because the public is used to seeing war through the lens of a mainstream press which has cultivated relationships in powerful hierarchies which would sanitize war. Wikileaks holds itself out as something new and different on the journalistic scene, and has provoked considerable debate.

Wikileaks has employed sophisticated technical means to protect its sources and itself. It is hosted by a Swedish company with experience in withstanding legal challenges. Wikileaks also maintains its own servers at undisclosed locations and uses military-grade encryption to protect confidential information. After the arrest of Manning, famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg went on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show to say that Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief, Australian born Julian Assange, is likely to be in physical danger.

Assange lowered his profile dramatically after Manning’s arrest, cancelling two public appearances in the US on advice of legal counsel. After a period of a few weeks’ absence from public view he turned up at a Freedom of Expression Conference in Brussels, Belgium, amid reports that he opened up a line of communication with the US government, presumably regarding the arrest of Manning, who is being held in Kuwait after being arrested in Iraq.

Prior to his arrest, Manning allegedly said in an internet conversation that he had also leaked 260,000 secret diplomatic cables to the website, cables the site says it doesn’t think it has. The State Department said it was doing a damage assessment and implied that it was concerned to protect its “sources and methods.”

There is an essential difference between leaking classified information to the public via the news media or a site like Wikileaks on the one hand and committing the crime of espionage on behalf of an adversary state on the other, the US military’s treatment of Manning and other recent whistleblowers notwithstanding.

Ellsberg leaked the top-secret study of the Vietnam War which became known as the Pentagon Papers and is credited with shortening that war by revealing to the American people that the US military’s own assessment of the war was at wide variance with the Nixon administration’s public pronouncements about the conflict. He would like to see others emulate his conduct, and is supportive both of Bradley Manning and of Julian Assange.

Ellsberg said in his interview with Ratigan that, “I didn’t understand that we don’t have an official secrets act in this country, criminalizing the disclosure of certain information, with certain narrow forms of information, which is not involved in the Pentagon Papers or in this. The nuclear weapons data, the identities of covert agents, those things are subject to law. The classification system as a whole is an administrative system that doesn’t have legal force in this country. We’re almost alone among countries in that. I didn’t know that at the time. I assumed I must be breaking some law, that we had some equivalent, and so I didn’t know to start with. I was the first person ever prosecuted for a leak, the first person to have the Espionage Act provisions used not for espionage, but for revealing information to the American public. There have only been a couple of people who have been indicted since then.”

D.H. Kerby is a writer in Philadelphia. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010

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