Wikileaks, the War and Accountability

Wikileaks' release of 76,000 government documents about the Afghanistan war is already provoking a firestorm of debate -- Will it help or hurt the war effort in Afghanistan? What will be the diplomatic and political fallout?

All of these issues are worthy of debate, of course, but the more enduring issue is what the documents reveal about democratic accountability in the United States, or the lack thereof. Once again, the American people are the last ones to know the truth -- while presidents, the military, Congress and the press each plays its own role in sanitizing or suppressing the truth to advance its interests.

It takes a whistleblower to save democracy — or at least remind us what a functioning democracy might look like.

A democracy is founded on freedom of information, open government deliberation and debate, and a watchdog press. Yet most of the press has gone native, identifying more with their powerful government contacts than with the people. And the U.S. Government, for its part, disdains the structures ordained by the U.S. Constitution. It has instead established a shadowy, sprawling, quasi-privatized national security apparatus that is barely understood by the Pentagon, CIA and White House, let alone capable of being managed or held accountable. This, according to the major series of articles by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. (See “A Hidden World, Beyond Control.")

So how are out-of-control institutions held to account these days? Since legitimate channels have been so corrupted or captured, we look to the whistleblower and the viral power of the Web. It is only because of Wikileaks that the American people can now learn about many of the apparent war crimes, heinous cruelties and official deceptions perpetrated by the U.S. Government over the past six years in Afghanistan.

The on-the-ground military dispatches released by Wikileaks are pieces of a large mosaic, and the meaning and reliability of any single piece is limited. No bombshells like a My Lai massacre have emerged from the reams of paper; rather the documents apparently show a large series of civilian casualties that might be legally regarded as prosecutable war crimes. The documents also suggest that, contrary to official proclamations of progress in fighting the Taliban, the on-the-ground realities were depressingly chaotic and getting worse.

This prompted Stephen Colbert to quip: "Innocent people have died, Pakistan is not the most trustworthy partner, and Afghanistan is a tough place to wage a war. This information and more is also available on my new website, ‘ObviLeaks.’” True. Yet the real significance of the documents is not the revelation of some omigosh scandal; it is the confirmation that the President and Government routinely misstated and denied the on-the-ground realities.

Notably, the mainstream press played only a supporting role in the release of the documents. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange shared the leaked documents with the New York Times, The Guardian in the U.K. and Der Spiegel in Germany. This move allowed Wikileaks to maximize the political impact of the leaks and to enhance Wikileaks' own visibility.

But the New York Times, for one, seemed a bit put out about playing second fiddle to a website in breaking the biggest scoop since Daniel Ellsburg leaked the Pentagon Papers. The Times petulantly declined even to link to the Wikileaks website, presumably because it might validate Wikileaks or Assange in some way. But it was happy, nonetheless, to get an exclusive story.

Interestingly, Assange declined to share the leaked documents with the Washington Post. This, too, is revealing. As Assange told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

" is standard Washington Post practice, whenever [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest is to reveal a new story showing significant allegations of abuse, say, by the CIA, to call up the press office the night before to give them the heads-up, as a courtesy move. That doesn't seem like independent journalism to us. It seems to us that a journalist's relationship should be with the public, on the one hand, and with their sources, on the other hand, who are providing them with information to give to the public. It seems that the Post is engaging in a sort of an unclear cooperation with the very organizations that it's meant to be policing. So we're a little bit hesitant about dealing with them.

Assange's account of the "professional ethics" of Post journalists helps explain the public's legitimate distrust of the mainstream news media. They're in the tank! Yes, the established press has all sorts of resources and professional rules that mere bloggers may not have; indeed, that's one reason that Assange shared the leaked documents with the Times et al. -- to enable some independent research and reporting that his website could not perform.

But large corporate news media also have a lot more to lose from pissing off people in power than bloggers do -- which is precisely why the media's credibility has suffered so much in recent years. Alternative sources such as Wikileaks show how the ecosystem of public knowledge is often rigged. We can now see more clearly that it is not just government that practices deception and censorship to advance its political interests; the commercial press is complicit in its own way, for its own reasons.

So while newspapers like to crow about their importance to democracy while denigrating bloggers as slackers in their pajamas, let's be frank: most newspapers don't have the courage or commitment to hold government accountable and tell the truth when it really matters. If they had, the Iraq War might never have happened. How revealing that the anonymous leaker of the Afghanistan War documents did not choose to go to the Times or Post directly, but instead went to Wikileaks. Whom would you trust?

Here's what I find exciting: massive Web collaboration in making sense of this large body of primary documents. Just as Wikipedia and Linux have enlisted tens of thousands of people to collaborate on their massive projects, so Wikileaks is inviting the public to pore over the leaked documents in order to establish a more complete, complex picture of the Afghanistan War. Assange told Amy Goodman:

We really need the public, other journalists and especially former soldiers to go through this material and say, “Look, this connects to that,” or “I was there. Let me tell you what really happened. Let me tell you the rest of the detail.” And over the next few days, we'll be putting up easier- and easier-to-use search interfaces, the same ones that our journalistic teams use to extract this data. Already if you go to war diaries -- -- you'll see several different ways of browsing through this. You can look through some 200 different categories that the US military applied to these reports. As an example, there's 2,200 escalation of force events self-described by the US military.

Wiki politics is a way for people to reclaim the truth from its own government.

The Wikileaks episode provides a vivid glimpse into the future of politics. The future will be all about who controls the flows of information and has the most credible depictions of the truth. The Pentagon and Special Ops forces may seem like impregnable, tightly controlled institutions, and they may believe that they can orchestrate public sentiment through misleading accounts of reality — i.e., propaganda. But if they are not trusted? Poof. Legitimacy goes out the window, and competitors have a greater shot at amassing their own political credibility.

In direct proportion to the unaccountability and shameful practices of large institutions, Wikileaks earns its own credibility as leakers seek it out. Not all whistleblowers are pure; many have their own agendas. Yet large institutions tend to have far greater incentives to warp the truth or lie than renegade dissenters. Like shrapnel buried in a wound, the truth has a way of working its way to the surface, and especially in this age of the Internet and Wikileaks.

It's unlikely that the shadow government that feeds on the U.S. Government (which itself has sabotaged most forms of transparency and citizen accountability) will concede that a new information ecosystem has arrived. It will fight, and fight hard to deny or co-opt this truth. It is revealing, for example, that the military is more concerned with identifying and punishing the leaker than in investigating the multiple criminal outrages that the leaked documents describe.

Consider also that Julian Assange now fears for his safety and is disinclined to enter the United States. Journalist Seymour Hersh has reportedly tipped him off that, according to his own intelligence sources, Assange should watch his back. What does this tell us about the possibility of honest, factual, open dialogue about the war, national security and government trustworthiness?

Still, if you care about democracy -- that is, a democracy that means anything, a system of governance that is truly accountable to the citizenry -- then the ascendance of Wikileaks is a welcome development indeed. It's a needed reminder that government must always answer to the people, even if — like the Founding Fathers -- they must sometimes remain anonymous, so great is the ferocity of those in power.

You can read the entire interview of Julian Assange with Amy Goodman here.