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The Fall of WikiLeaks: Cablegate2, Assange and Icarus

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, September 2 2011

I'm theoretically on vacation right now and scarcely in a position to do a deep dive into all the news and commentary, but here's one quick comment about WikiLeaks's decision to release the complete and unredacted database of all 251,287 State Department cables in its possession:

Back in January 2011, Julian Assange said in an interview with Paris Match that he believed that,

"Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency. Conversely, the weaker one is, the more danger there is in being transparent."

I quoted this statement approvingly in my book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency.

It is difficult to square Assange's January statement with today's exposure of the names of human rights workers who have shared information in confidence with US Embassy staff, whatever the other important revelations about hidden corruption or suppressed atrocities that may now surface as people around the world pore over the raw files.

What, for example, is the conceivable value of exposing the confidential remarks made by a staffer with the New Israel Fund, an Israeli social justice organization, to an embassy political officer back in February 2010? I stumbled on this cable simply by searching for the word "lobbyist" in the database, and this one was the first result. In all likelihood, revealing this person's passing comment, reported in the cable, that "she believed that in 100 years Israel would be majority Arab and that the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be the tragedy that Israelis fear since it would become more democratic" will do nothing but destroy her career, given Israel's hyper-polarized politics. It won't liberate one Palestinian from occupation, it won't make Israeli Arabs into equal citizens, it won't protect a single resident of Gaza.

WikiLeaks says in its defense of the new dump that "Revolutions and reforms are in danger of being lost as the unpublished cables spread to intelligence contractors and governments before the public." I can hardly see how that is true in this case, and this is just one isolated example that I happened to find with a few seconds of searching. I am sure there are more. As Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia (no connection to WikiLeaks) tweeted a few minutes ago in response to my query, "I think Assange screwed this up bigtime. The security failure is astonishing. Amateurish."

Back in November 2010, WikiLeaks was unfairly accused of indiscriminately dumping the entire cable data-set by numerous observers, and lots of us spoke up to correct that mistake. Yochai Benkler made rebutting that error a central part of his highly useful monograph on "WikiLeaks and the battle over the soul of the networked fourth estate." But now there's no way to deny it. WikiLeaks has now indiscriminately dumped the whole cable set into the public arena, and in doing so it has tossed away whatever claim it might have had to the moral high ground. The argument that others were doing it already, or that bad actors were already getting access to the leaked master file and thus this was a mitigating step to reduce coming harms, or that it's somehow The Guardian's fault for publishing what it thought was a defunct password, doesn't absolve WikiLeaks of its large share of responsibility for this dump.

People are human; to err is human. But refusing to admit error, that is hubris. Assange, like Icarus, thought he could fly to the sun.

UPDATE: A few people whose opinions I respect have written to me to complain that I am being too hard on WikiLeaks here or, more convincing to me, not hard enough on the Guardian for its role in the cables' ultimate disclosure. I agree, in the same way the Guardian admonishes Assange for publishing the full cable database as lacking a "compelling" reason, there was no compelling reason for David Leigh and the Guardian to publish the full password that Assange had given them to initially access those cables. As best as I can tell, the Guardian hasn't admitted that it made a serious mistake in doing so, which is also a shame. In this mess, there is plenty of blame to go around.

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