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The Media Gets It Wrong on WikiLeaks: It's About Broken Trust, Not Broken Condoms

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I attend a lot of conferences on media and technology -- indeed, they might actually be the biggest growth sector of the media -- but the one I attended this past weekend was one of the most fascinating I've been to in quite a while. Entitled "A Symposium on WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom," the one-day event was sponsored by the Personal Democracy Forum and was moderated by the group's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.

The WikiLeaks story is an ever-shifting one -- witness the latest twists of the Air Force blocking its personnel from accessing more than 25 news sites that have posted material released by WikiLeaks, and the shocking treatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of being the source of the leaks.

One of the problems with the WikiLeaks story is that there has been way too much conflating going on, as Katrin Verclas pointed out at the symposium. So some serious unconflating (disconflating?) is in order.

I see four main aspects to the story. The first important aspect of the revelations is... the revelations.

Too much of the coverage has been meta -- focusing on questions about whether the leaks were justified, while too little has dealt with the details of what has actually been revealed and what those revelations say about the wisdom of our ongoing effort in Afghanistan. There's a reason why the administration is so upset about these leaks.

True, there hasn't been one smoking-gun, bombshell revelation -- but that's certainly not to say the cables haven't been revealing. What there has been instead is more of the consistent drip, drip, drip of damning details we keep getting about the war. Details that belie the upbeat talk the administration wants us to believe. The effect is cumulative -- not unlike mercury poisoning.

It's notable that the latest leaks came out the same week President Obama went to Afghanistan for his surprise visit to the troops -- and made a speech about how we are "succeeding" and "making important progress" and bound to "prevail."

The WikiLeaks cables present quite a different picture. What emerges is one reality (the real one) colliding with another (the official one). We see smart, good-faith diplomats and foreign service personnel trying to make the truth on the ground match up to the one the administration has proclaimed to the public. The cables show the widening disconnect. It's like a foreign policy Ponzi scheme -- this one fueled not by the public's money, but the public's acquiescence.

The cables show that the administration has been cooking the books. And what's scandalous is not the actions of the diplomats doing their best to minimize the damage from our policies, but the policies themselves. Of course, we've known about them, but the cables provide another opportunity to see the truth behind the spin -- so it's no wonder the administration has reacted so hysterically to them.

The second aspect of the story -- the one that was the focus of the symposium -- is the changing relationship to government that technology has made possible.

Back in the year 2007, B.W. (Before WikiLeaks), Barack Obama waxed lyrical about government and the internet: "We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interest and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight."

At that moment he was, of course, busy building an internet framework that would play an important part in his becoming the head of the next administration. Not long after the election, in announcing his "Transparency and Open Government" policy, the president proclaimed: "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset."

Cut to a few years later. Now that he's defending a reality that doesn't match up to, well, reality, he's suddenly not so keen on the people having a chance to access this "national asset."

Even more wikironic are the statements by his Secretary of State who, less than a year ago, was lecturing other nations about the value of an unfettered and free internet. Given her description of the WikiLeaks as "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" that have put in danger "innocent people," her comments take on a whole different light. Some highlights:

In authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable... technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights... As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.

Now "making government accountable" is, as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, a "reckless and dangerous action."

And the government isn't stopping at shameless demagoguery, hypocrisy, and fear-mongering -- it's putting its words into action. According to The Hill, this week the House Judiciary Committee will open hearings into whether WikiLeaks has somehow violated the Espionage Act of 1917.

What's more, ABC News reports that Assange's lawyers are hearing that U.S. indictments could be forthcoming: "The American people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe, arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful in any way," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "We have a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature. I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable... as they should be."

For the Obama administration, it appears that accountability is a one-way street. When he had the chance to bring the principle of accountability to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and investigate how we got into them, the president passed. As John Perry Barlow tweeted, "We have reached a point in our history where lies are protected speech and the truth is criminal."

Any process of real accountability, would, of course, also include the key role the press played in bringing us the war in Iraq. Jay Rosen, one of the participants in the symposium, wrote a brilliant essay entitled "From Judith Miller to Julian Assange." He writes:

For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday, September 8, 2002.

That was when the New York Times published Judith Miller and Michael Gordon's breathless, spoon-fed -- and ultimately inaccurate -- account of Iraqi attempts to buy aluminum tubes to produce fuel for a nuclear bomb.

Miller's after-the-facts-proved-wrong response, as quoted in a Michael Massing piece in the New York Review of Books, was: "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

In other words, her job is to tell citizens what their government is saying, not, as Obama called for in his transparency initiative, what their government is doing. As Jay Rosen put it:

Today it is recognized at the Times and in the journalism world that Judy Miller was a bad actor who did a lot of damage and had to go. But it has never been recognized that secrecy was itself a bad actor in the events that led to the collapse, that it did a lot of damage, and parts of it might have to go. Our press has never come to terms with the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the national security state swelled in size after September 11th.

And in the WikiLeaks case, much of media has again found itself on the wrong side of secrecy -- and so much of the reporting about WikiLeaks has served to obscure, to conflate, to mislead.

For instance, how many stories have you heard or read about all the cables being "dumped" in "indiscriminate" ways with no attempt to "vet" and "redact" the stories first. In truth, only just over 1,200 of the 250,000 cables have been released, and WikiLeaks is now publishing only those cables vetted and redacted by their media partners, which includes the New York Times here and the Guardian in England.

The establishment media may be part of the media, but they're also part of the establishment. And they're circling the wagons. One method they're using, as Andrew Rasiej put it after the symposium, is to conflate the secrecy that governments use to operate and the secrecy that is used to hide the truth and allow governments to mislead us.

Nobody, including WikiLeaks, is promoting the idea that government should exist in total transparency, or that, for instance, all government meetings should be live-streamed and cameras placed around the White House like a DC-based spin-off of Big Brother.

Assange himself would not disagree. "Secrecy is important for many things," he told Time's Richard Stengel. "We keep secret the identity of our sources, as an example, take great pains to do it." At the same time, however, secrecy "shouldn't be used to cover up abuses."

But the government's legitimate need for secrecy is very different from the government's desire to get away with hiding the truth. Conflating the two is dangerously unhealthy for a democracy. And this is why it's especially important to look at what WikiLeaks is actually doing, as distinct from what its critics claim it's doing.

And this is why it's also important to look at the fact that even though the cables are being published in mainstream outlets like the Times, the information first went to WikiLeaks. "You've heard of voting with your feet?" Rosen said during the symposium. "The sources are voting with their leaks. If they trusted the newspapers more, they would be going to the newspapers."

Our democracy's need for accountability transcends left and right divisions. Over at American Conservative magazine, Jack Hunter penned "The Conservative Case for WikiLeaks," writing:

Decentralizing government power, limiting it, and challenging it was the Founders' intent and these have always been core conservative principles. Conservatives should prefer an explosion of whistleblower groups like WikiLeaks to a federal government powerful enough to take them down. Government officials who now attack WikiLeaks don't fear national endangerment, they fear personal embarrassment. And while scores of conservatives have long promised to undermine or challenge the current monstrosity in Washington, D.C., it is now an organization not recognizably conservative that best undermines the political establishment and challenges its very foundations.

It is not, as Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian, the job of the media to protect the powerful from embarrassment. As I said at the symposium, its job is to play the role of the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes -- brave enough to point out what nobody else is willing to say.

When the press trades truth for access, it is WikiLeaks that acts like the little boy. "Power," wrote Jenkins, "loathes truth revealed. When the public interest is undermined by the lies and paranoia of power, it is disclosure that takes sanity by the scruff of its neck and sets it back on its feet."

A final aspect of the story is Julian Assange himself. Is he a visionary? Is he an anarchist? Is he a jerk? This is fun speculation, but why does it have an impact on the value of the WikiLeaks revelations?

Of course, it's not terribly surprising that those who are made uncomfortable by the discrepancy between what the leaked cables show and what our government claims would rather make this all about the psychological makeup of Assange. But doing so is a virtual admission that they have nothing tangible with which to counter the reality exposed by WikiLeaks.

Maybe Assange "often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions," writes Slate's Jack Shafer. "But if you want to dismiss him just because he's a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I'd like you to meet."

Whether Assange is a world-class jerk or not, this is bigger than Assange -- and will continue whether or not he continues to be a central player in it. In fact, there is already an offshoot site soon to be launched, called Openleaks, which will be run by veterans of WikiLeaks.

And I doubt this will be the only offshoot. So as interesting as the Assange saga is, and I'm sure there will be books and movies recounting Assange's personal tale, this is not about one man. Nor is it about one site, though the precedent of allowing the government to shut it down is very important.

It is about our future. For our democracy to survive, citizens have to be able to know what our government is really doing. We can't change course if we don't have accurate information about where we really are. Whether this comes from a website or a newspaper or both doesn't matter.

But if our government is successful in its efforts to shut down this new avenue of accountability, it will have done our country far more damage than what it claims is being done by WikiLeaks.