Okay, to begin with, this is a long and complicated story. I am going to do my best to make it as simple as possible, but I encourage you to take advantage of the space below and ask questions if you have them.
On November 28th, 2010 Wikileaks started publishing on their website 251,287 leaked cables from the United States Embassy, which date from 1966 to this year February. The decision was made to stagger the releases so that nothing would be lost amidst the gigantic deluge of information… although I think that perhaps prolonging their position in the news cycle might have something to do with it as well. As of this writing, 1,095 documents have been released.
Of the 251,287 cables, 133,887 are unclassified, (viewable by anyone) 101,748 are confidential, (would cause damage or prejudice to national security) and 15,652 are secret. (Would cause grave damage to national security.) It apparently skips right over restricted and there are no top secret documents.
The actual content of the leak is likely to be embarrassing for the U.S., and may well cause foreign dignitaries to become a bit more circumspect, but at the moment the indications are that the long-term effects are likely to be minimal. In fact, one of the most frequent questions that is beginning to be heard is “Why was most of this stuff classified at all?”
Since the release Wikileaks has faced a variety of challenges designed to put them out of business. Curiously, these moves have seeming turned Wikileaks into an unstoppable juggernaut.
There have been denial of service attacks, termination of hosting services, including Amazon’s cloud service, and the shunning of Visa Europe, PayPal, and Mastercard. (All companies have claimed violations of service agreements, although an unnamed source at Mastercard has reportedly said it was at the behest of the U.S. government.) The result has been somewhat akin to trying to remove a blot of oil on a tablecloth with a hammer. Wikileaks has spread out around the world, finding willing host sites in Austria, Switzerland, and the Cocos islands, among others. Currently there are 14 servers on 11 networks and well over a thousand mirror sites providing Wikileaks content. Web experts feel that further attempts to crush the site will likely result in even further diversification and fortification. Almost all of this has occurred in just a few days.
Mastercard was the first to feel retribution, as 4chan led a massive denial of service attack that turned the credit card company offline. It is doubtful that they will be the only ones.
The biggest difficulty seems to be what exactly to do about this. The U.S. government seems to have no current law capable of dealing with an event of this nature. Wikileaks itself is protected by the First Amendment, so the government has been looking for ways to indict Julian Assange, who is the reporter who obtained the leaked documents from Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. Now while Manning is clearly toast, Assange may not technically have broken any laws. The Espionage Act has proved useful for convicting government officials who have leaked information, but the Act is a very specific tool that has never been successful at capturing someone a leak has been passed to. The documents were copied and never removed from where they belonged, so there was no theft. This means that the “theft” would be handled under intellectual property law, which specifically does not include any type of government document.
And then there’s the extradition problem.
Assange is Australian with no permanent home. The Australian Foreign Minister thinks the U.S. should stop bugging Assange and instead nail Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to the wall. No help there. Britain picked Assange up on rape charges (yay!) which seemed like good news, except that the charges are actually in Sweden, which is notoriously difficult about allowing the extradition of anyone. (boo!) Further complicating matters is the fact that one of the two women who had what appeared at the time to be consensual sex with Assange has been linked with pro-democracy Cuban dissidents… who are provided funding by the U.S. government… AND who were recently outed by Wikileaks. There have been suggestions that the rape allegations may have been fabricated. I’m not sayin’ one way or another, but no one has claimed he used a gun or tied anyone up, only that he he banged two chicks at once against their will. The logistics of this seem… complicated.
So. Assange may or may not be a criminal, and Wikileaks may or may not be the greatest threat to humanity since the gays took over prime time television. But a question that ought to be asked is this: Was it wrong? Not was it illegal, even if it wasn’t before you can bet it soon will be. But is Wikileaks wrong in what they’re doing?
Yes. And no.
Wikileaks has in the past exposed innocent people and their families to danger and perhaps death, and this was wrong. But Wikileaks has a larger goal of promoting (I’ll go ahead and say “forcing”) a more open and transparent society, and this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I personally think that Wikileaks gets a little caught up in their idealism, and fails to see that not everyone in the world needs to know who aided someone in escaping from Iran, and that maybe this is not quite the same as shining a light on corrupt officials.
The argument against is of course one of national security, and there are plenty of very valid points to be made there. However, think about a world where it becomes impossible for governments to keep any secrets of any kind. It’s a completely level playing field, and duplicity is problematic at the very best, when it’s not outright impossible. Maybe I haven’t thought this all the way through, but it looks as though the biggest casualty would be an excuse to go to war.
And that ain’t wrong.