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U.S. Poli-Tech Community Divided on Wikileaks Controversy

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, December 14 2010

Here at PdF, we're obviously paying close attention to the unfolding Wikileaks drama. But what about America's political-technology professionals, the people who, as Nancy put it in her earlier post today on DDOS, "at one point or another in their careers, were responsible for major web presences and web services for some of the biggest political candidates, publications, and advocacy groups in American politics"? What are they thinking about Wikileaks?

About a dozen people shared their thoughts with us (and a few others took a pass, citing the delicacy of the issue). You can read their full comments below, but here are the highlights.

First, on a scale of 0 to 10, there's a wide variation in just how closely people have been following the story. Nicco Mele, the CEO and "resident futurist" at EchoDitto (a Democratic web strategy firm that came out of the Dean campaign) gave it a 9, saying he is following Wikileaks "pretty intensely, several times a day." Cheryl Contee, a partner at Fission Strategy, another progressive firm, put herself at an 8-9. Republican Soren Dayton at New Media Strategies was a 7. Markos Moulitsas a 4. Chuck DeFeo, former e-campaign director for Bush-Cheney '04 was a 2-3. But overall, our group averaged almost a 6.

Asked, "do you support or oppose what Wikileaks is doing with the State Dept cables, and why," no one expressed total support. Mele gave Wikileaks his "qualified support," arguing that "much of the material on Wikileaks is forcing greater openness and accountability," but raising concerns about "the ethics of the Wikileaks organization itself." Moulitsas said he didn't support or oppose what Wikileaks is doing, and said he was "more interested in the government and media reaction to it." He added, "If press freedoms are eroded because Wikileaks makes some people uncomfortable, then suddenly I'm feeling a lot less secure myself." That said, he concluded, "I believe strongly that it has a right to do what it is doing." Contee agreed with that sentiment, but stated that she "would have preferred a more focused delivery to the public that shed light on any government misconduct or mis-information particularly around the management of wars." She added, "I don't agree with publishing information that feeds gossip or damages U.S. relationships without purpose and I don't believe in publishing data that might have endangered people's lives including undercover agents."

Several of our respondents were strongly opposed to Wikileaks' actions. Most were, not surprisingly, from the right side of the aisle. Soren Dayton declared, "It is pretty clear that Assange's target is, broadly, American power. So I strongly oppose that as both an American and as someone who is convinced that US power is one of the most pre-freedom, pro-liberal (in the European sense) forces in the world." Chuck DeFeo concurred, saying, "I believe in government transparency but value the need for national security.  It is not in our nation's best interest for Assange to decide what our government should release to the world or not." And one respondent who asked not to be named, given the sensitivity of their current job, was also strongly opposed: "Indiscriminate publication of sensitive information, and sometimes classified information, is not only criminal, under U.S. law, but it's foolish. It endangers the lives of people all across the world. It also jeopardizes the diplomacy efforts of the United States and her allies."

Obviously, the debate over Wikileaks has just started.

Below, the full comments from our respondents:

Q: Do you support or oppose what Wikileaks is doing with the State Dept cables, and why?

Nicco Mele, CEO and "resident futurist" of Echoditto:

"Qualified support. I generally favor greater openness and accountability in our government. There is no doubt that much of the material appearing on Wikileaks is forcing a greater openness and accountability. That said, i also think it is raising some critical ethical issues about information. First and foremost there are concerns about people's lives being put at risk -- a terrible and unnecessary outcome. Beyond concern about specific people, there are questions about what kind of government we want.

Should all information be open and available? Should a democratic government, a republic, have secrets? If so, about what? Perhaps my greatest concern is with the ethics of the Wikileaks organization itself; by many accounts Julian Assange denied the New York Times access to Wikileaks [State Department cables] because they had printed unflattering stories about him personally."

Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos.com:

"Neither. They're doing their own thing, and I'm cool with that, but I'd feel the same if they weren't doing these particular leaks. I'm less interested in what Wikileaks is doing, and more interested in the government and media reaction to it. Given the nature of my work, press freedoms are critical. If Wikileaks is protected by our Constitution, then I'm also protected. If press freedoms are eroded because Wikileaks makes some people uncomfortable, then suddenly I'm feeling a lot less secure myself. In other words, I care less what Wikileaks is doing, but I believe strongly that it has a right to do what it is doing."

Cheryl Contee, co-founder of Fission Strategy:

"I think WikiLeaks has a right to publish the cables, yet I would have preferred a more focused delivery to the public that shed light on any government misconduct or mis-information particularly around the management of wars. I don't agree with publishing information that feeds gossip or damages U.S. relationships without purpose and I don't believe in publishing data that might have endangered people's lives including undercover agents. The real issue here of course is not WikiLeaks but a corrupt, outdated and moribund intelligence apparatus that failed to prevent:
- an attack on U.S. soil by terrorists on 9/11
- an unnecessary war in Iraq in search of non-existent WMDs
- allowed torture in violation of international treaties
- a potential underwear bomber
- complete exposure of private & sensitive messages to the world.

U.S. Intelligence has become highly vulnerable and this situation has been decades in the making. I hope this forces the military and government to overhaul how intelligence is conducted for the 21st century."

Soren Dayton of New Media Strategies:

"It is pretty clear that Assange's target is, broadly, American power. So I strongly oppose that as both an American and as someone who is convinced that US power is one of the most pre-freedom, pro-liberal (in the European sense) forces in the world.He has shown little concern that he is exposing US-supporters and others who have a liberal, pro-freedom agenda to violence and retribution. That said, he is exploiting holes in our national security apparatus that are best fixed. Hopefully this will force a discussion evaluation of a whole serious concerns about secrecy and our national security apparatus. Sadly, he has undermined both transparency -- it is likely that there will be less information recorded and shared -- and international cooperation -- our allies will be less likely to work with us on sensitive issues -- two values that I suspect he claims to support. I hope that Assange is held accountable both legally and morally for the damage he has done."

Kombiz Lavasany, Democratic new media consultant at New Partners:

"My feelings about Wikileaks cables are complicated. Giving information, especially information about government corruption a way to make it unfiltered on to the internet should be an important tool of transparency in our age. A whistleblower could have created a torrent with all of these documents and they would have been in the hands of millions easily, so there's no way to stop information once it's been downloaded and made public. We've already seen fake 'cables' printed in newspapers in Pakistan and Russia, with an organization it's easy to debunk fake data that's being created for political purposes.

Having said that, after Wikileaks realized that simply posting information was not enough to garner attention so they've used the cables, videos to tease the media into writing exclusive pieces to start the information flow, which is understandable and commendable. The problem lies in how overtly political Wikileaks and Assange have been with how they frame the information they leak out. From the 'collateral murder' video that's annotated to enrage rather than inform to the way they describe some of the cables they've released, the process borders on dishonesty when spin would be going too far. 

I also think that personalizing the entire open information movement around Assange personally is damaging to the transparency movement. From my reading the Wikileaks cables aren't part of a narrative to show corruption but just a dump of information. To frame them the way Wikileaks has been doing as an orgonization (and not the press who published at embargo) is dishonest and damaging anyone who wants whistleblowers to be able to share information. 

My sense from the founding of Openleaks is that there are a lot of people who want whistleblower information to flow freely who feel that Assange has been damaging. The personalization of Assange and Wikileaks as an earned media operation also casts in doubt what they are holding as they manage the news cycle. I've seen rumors about how Wikileaks has information about corruption in the Chinese and Russian governments but have yet to see those released documents. Surely there are important issues there, however you read the information from the cables you get the sense that they fill in holes about our understanding of how the State Department works rather than out government acting corruptly.

Chuck DeFeo, eCampaign manager, Bush-Cheney '04:

I believe in government transparency but value the need for national security.  It is not in our nation's best interest for Assange to decide what our government should release to the world or not.

Several people opted to stay anonymous. One veteran of progressive online politics responded:

Oppose. Indiscriminate publication of sensitive information, and sometimes classified information, is not only criminal, under U.S. law, but it's foolish. It endangers the lives of people all across the world. It also jeopardizes the diplomacy efforts of the United States and her allies.  Identifying Wikileaks as a media organization is misguided. The 1st Amendment does not apply in this situation. Media organizations weigh the cost of disclosure against the public's need to know. They use ethical guidelines and make a calculated judgment when information is reported.

Another veteran of progressive politics responded quite differently:

"As an American, I feel somewhat conflicted about releasing classified info. However, as an activist, and a supporter of the 1st amendment I think its fantastic. The media has been lazy for years about holding any administration accountable for anything for more than 5 seconds, and its nice to see someone can stand up, using the internet, and actually keep the media focused on a single shiny object for more than 5 minutes. Additionally, anything that forces us to set better examples to the world, I'm all for.

It reminds me of that quote in Sicko:  "In France, the government is afraid of the people, they're afraid of protests, they're afraid of reactions from the people, whereas in the States people are afraid of the government. They're afraid of acting up, they're afraid of protesting, they're afraid of getting out." This helps move the scale in the other direction (albeit in the tiniest way.) The government actively sees WikiLeaks as a threat, and rather than improving their internal security, or changing their policies that created this information, they are going after the messenger. It's has subtle whiffs of Valarie Plame to it.

I'm looking forward to the big bank leaks, since those guys did far worse things to our economy, and our country than any inept diplomat, or any internet news organization who lets people in on everyone's dirty little secrets. We're on the verge of financial ruin, there's been no significant accountability created by this Administration, and WikiLeaks seems more and more like our only chance to force congress to do anything that actually sets rules in place for our financial institutions that stops them from scamming the American Taxpayer. I wish The White House was as passionate about the health insurance providers and financial institutions, as it is about Gossip Girl: Diplomats. Then maybe we'd have a more solid economy by now."

A right-leaning veteran of the poli-tech industry:

"Wikileaks has of late been publishing content that I think is deeply problematic from the perspective of executing our foreign and national security policy, and separately, the way they are doing it entails no real effort to mitigate against very obvious and serious potential negative consequences.  For example, when you publish information that enables someone working with the US to be identified and targeted for potentially lethal retribution by hostile forces, I think that's  incredibly irresponsible and unacceptable.  Of course, my personal interpretation is that Wikileaks personnel have a very overt political agenda and are concerned with pursuing it, whatever the consequences.

Ultimately, what Wikileaks got ahold of in the State Department cable instance constitutes a story and I'm hard-pressed to believe that any publisher of a mainstream newspaper wouldn't have used it.  However, I believe (or at least hope) they would have  used that information and other information pushed into the public sphere by Wikileaks with an eye to mitigating certain negative consequences and in a much more responsible fashion.