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Shadow Elite: WikiLeaks: Irresponsible or Indispensable?

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[WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange] argued that, when a regime's lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare. - The New Yorker, June 6, 2010

This argument from Julian Assange, the force behind WikiLeaks and this week's massive Afghan war document leak, goes to the heart of one of the key findings of Janine's book Shadow Elite: that a new breed of power broker whose cachet is in their exclusive access to and control of official information (or information that once would have been official) has come to influence. These players use privatized information to advance their own agendas and those of their allies and networks, even while ostensibly working in the public interest.

WikiLeaks is a declared combatant in this information warfare: high-tech, good-government vigilantes. The group acts as the consummate outsider, a crucial role in the shadow elite era, willing to push the envelope because it stands squarely outside the established power structure. But just as this shadow elite upends traditional process and flouts institutions as it exerts influence, WikiLeaks has upended the old-fashioned venues of investigative journalism and watchdog organizations. While it is surely good that WikiLeaks has emerged as a counterweight -- a tool for making the powerful squirm -- WikiLeaks has enormous power itself, the kind of unaccountable power that its founder decries.

WikiLeaks takes some of its tactics (secrecy, a willingness to bend the rules, ambiguity) from that new breed of power broker it may well seek to take down. There is nothing new in this. A spy network can be best challenged by a counter-network. Janine also saw this kind of mirroring of tactics in Poland under communism where the Opposition thrived on close-knit trust-based networks of secrecy and enforcement of loyalties, just as Communist Party operatives demanded of those in their circles.

What is new, of course, is the advent of ever more complex digital technologies. As Janine writes in Shadow Elite, these technologies lend themselves to new forms of power and influence that are neither bureaucratic nor centralized in traditional ways, nor are they generally responsive to traditional means of accountability. Bureaucracy gets pushed aside by so-called "adhocracy," executive power/one-man shows flourish, with institutional checks and balances flouted. These are some of the signature developments of the shadow elite era, and WikiLeaks is clearly a creature of that era.

It calls itself an "an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking," using cutting-edge technology to give insiders a quick, more secure way to make public huge amounts of data. NYU media critic Jay Rosen describes it as "the world's first stateless news organization...":

In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does WikiLeaks.

While that suggests a diffuse structure, it still appears driven by the passion and drive of one man: hacker Julian Assange, who said to Der Spiegel, "I enjoy crushing bastards." In a more temperate moment, Assange said he hoped WikiLeaks would usher in an "age of whistleblowing," at a time when the powerful few have monopolized vast amounts of should-be public information, and when traditional investigative journalism has been gutted by news budget cuts.

But for a group that prides itself on transparency, there's a certain irony in the fact that the group itself is hard to pin down and therefore defies some of the standards of accountability. Though Assange says they have a rigorous authentification process, he said Tuesday WikiLeaks does not know the source of the leaked documents, adding, "we never know the source of the leak." He said security for individuals is a concern, but national security is not: "it is not our role to play sides for states. States have national security concerns, we do not have national security concerns."

Some press watchdogs are troubled by all this. Bob Steele, the director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said to the Wall Street Journal that WikiLeaks should be more open and transparent about their methods. Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists has described WikiLeaks as "information vandals" who "must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals." Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which fights for journalists' rights to obtain and publish secret information, told USA Today, " I get concerned about this...who are these people?"

Of course, the fact that it is hard to answer that question is part of what makes WikiLeaks the novel and uniquely powerful force that it is: the secrecy, diffuse structure, encryption technology, and the willingness to make public what others may not. Insiders are surely more willing to leak if they think they will leave few if any electronic fingerprints, anonymous even to WikiLeaks itself. WikiLeaks' amorphous, "stateless" set up provides legal cover: Yale University law professor Jack Balkin told the Journal that the Justice Department might find it hard to gain jurisdiction against WikiLeaks, and even if it succeeded in winning a judgment against it, it could be hard to enforce. All this makes the WikiLeaks model promising to democracy, but also inherently resistant to transparency and accountability.

This appears to be the phenomenon of the resistance having adapted the technique of the dominant group. Assange seems to believe that the evasive, elusive M-O is a necessary weapon against an enemy - those in power, including the shadow elite - who use their own obfuscatory tactics to hide their tracks as they press personal agendas and hoard information.

According to the New Yorker, Assange thinks that "illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial--the product of functionaries in 'collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.'" WikiLeaks counters that with its own collaborative secrecy, and herein lies the conundrum of the opaque organization championing transparency. From the New Yorker:

Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most--power without accountability--is encoded in the site's DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

Some, including WikiLeaks critic Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, think WikiLeaks has taken a step forward in that evolution, showing restraint this time by withholding some documents because of possible threats to individuals. And WikiLeaks also agreed to include traditional news organizations in its latest endeavor, though forcing them to act on the data fast. Former New York Times investigative reporter Philip Shenon made the point on PBS NewsHour that his old employer might have sat on the Afghan war documents "months, years" in order to properly vet the material, had WikiLeaks not required that they put them out in a matter of weeks.

Some call this irresponsible, but supporters would argue that the real problem is with the "real institutions," too embedded in the power structure and too deferential. In an age when power brokers have seized information and the public literally doesn't know what it's missing, Assange believes the world needs an equally aggressive, agile and resilient opponent, an "intelligence service of the people," one that seeks to agitate those misusing power wherever they can be found. In the eyes of the law, WikiLeaks might be, conveniently, "nowhere,"out of reach. But as NYU's Rosen , the location listed on Wikileaks' Twitter profile is: everywhere.

 
 
 

Follow Janine R. Wedel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/profjanine