Before a full house at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas the question was posed to Julian Assange – ‘has WikiLeaks gone far enough?’ His answer, of course, was an emphatic ‘no’. But in justifying that position Assange revealed more about his organisation’s mission and ethical validation than in many previous public appearances.
From Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, Assange’s image beamed into the Opera House theatre where he addressed not only whether WikiLeaks had gone far enough, but also what more WikiLeaks had to do. Questions since rendered more germane by the announcement that WikiLeaks has suspended further publication and may cease operations by the end of the year.
WikiLeaks and conspiracy
A passage cited from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward (in which a mother questions whether or not to burden her son with the rib-breaking weight of the truth) inferred Assange’s continuing mission and what WikiLeaks is yet to achieve – not simply greater transparency, but the revelation of hidden truth. While Assange acknowledges we can never really know ‘truth’, he argues what is false can be determined with enough information. And that negation, according to theory that animates WikiLeaks, exposes how governments strive for domination as well as the conspiracy that enlivens them.
For Assange, the conspiracy is a transnational security complex run amok. No longer a simple ‘patronage’ network or cold war relic but an elite security shadow state organised through confidential networks and agreements between military contractors and intelligence agencies. Assange cited research suggesting the existence of over 900,000 ‘top secret’ security clearances in the US, implicating one in every 300 citizens – including children, as evidence of the secret network. And further proof, for Assange, that the shadow state is gaining power is in the 6% funding increase for the US military complex despite overall tax revenue dropping 20% since the global financial crisis.
These claims reflect an aspect of WikiLeaks’ ideology located outside general government transparency and accountability activism. While Assange agrees that external government accountability is essential, WikiLeaks’ recent action challenges the categorisation of the group as a benign actor lawfully pursuing governmental accountability and participatory democracy. Rather, it seems Assange seeks to expose something more fundamental – to free us from illusion – he wants, as McKenzie Wark describes, ‘the workings of the world untied’ (see ‘Abstraction/Class’ in A Hacker Manifesto (2004)).
Early in the WikiLeaks media frenzy Guy Rundle insightfully wrote about the progressivist, even Marxist/Leninist motifs in WikiLeaks’ mode of action, as extrapolated from Assange’s 2006 essays ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance’. Rundle saw a fissure between the networked global anti-capitalist movement and WikiLeaks’ counter-conspiratorial practice. He saw actions challenging the furtive corporate-state nexus rather than a general push for accountability.
For Rundle, these actions include releasing categorically large volumes of information such that the targeted powers cannot manage the process. Massive leaks, not with the anarchic goal of dissolving governance, but intended to ‘uncouple governance and conspiracy’. Leaks large enough to prohibit regimes from restabilising and eventually incorporating leaking as ‘a safety valve, steadily releasing pressure in a version of Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance”.’
WikiLeaks’ data ‘dumps’
It is precisely this scale of leak however, that provokes the greatest ethical problem for WikiLeaks. Early in September WikiLeaks released its entire cache of unredacted US Embassy Cables after discovering they were accessible using a password published in Guardian journalist David Leigh’s book ‘WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy’. Assange explained that once the cables were available online publication was the only rational action to preserve the information’s ability ‘to create reform and stoke revolutions’.
WikiLeaks’ former media partners all publically denounced the action, however Assange argued that condemnation was mainstream media abusing its voice to protect its institutional integrity. Instead, Assange claimed the release enables WikiLeaks to be used as a lens into the failures and biases of mainstream media. He argues that by facilitating comparison of the mainstream media stories and the original sources, the release demonstrates the spin and ‘corruption’ in the most powerful English speaking media institutions.
When asked whether ‘it was acceptable’ to publish the names of individuals who may be endangered by the unredacted cables Assange’s response resonated the ideological position of the organisation. He noted that when WikiLeaks began releasing the cables 18 months prior they established rigorous processes, in concert with major media organisations, to ensure names were properly concealed. They even courted the US State Department for assistance to ensure publishing the cables would not potentially harm informants. However, Assange argued the mainstream media’s editorial decisions, including New York Times’ failure to publish a story on ‘Taskforce 373’ (a military unit performing extra-judicial assassinations in Afghanistan), and redacting the cable that described a Reuters correspondent working for US intelligence indicated coercion by the very ‘shadow state’ Assange was trying to illuminate.
As ‘3000 volumes of international political history over the last 6 years’ and ‘the greatest intellectual political treasure put into the historical record in modern times,’ for Assange, the ethical justification for the bulk publication lies in the character of the material itself and its sufficient size to have ramifications for conspiratorial state actors.
WikiLeaks and lawfulness
These actions however, are a blatant non-observance of the framework of media freedoms and responsibility forged by the early press and still governing media today. Assange’s position suggests that the laws governing media, constitutive of where the public interest lies with respect to ‘the right to know’, are no longer relevant. This ideology, clearly necessary to the WikiLeaks theory, prosecutes WikiLeaks dissociation with lawful transparency activism and highlights the radicalism Assange is willing to pursue to achieve his goals. Indeed Assange’s circumventing legal institutions suggests tacit agreement with legal historian A.W.B Simpson’s criticism of ‘judicial passivity’ in failing to exercise control over ‘the vigilant state’ (see ‘The Judges and the Vigilant State’ (1989) 4 Denning Law Journal 145). That is, the state or executive who at the same time as protecting us from espionage, terrorism and subversion, threatens liberty and seems to engage in deceit and illegal activity on an uncertain scale. Therefore, outside the institutional boundaries of what we have ‘the right to know’, WikiLeaks requires a personal choice whether it is dangerous, or rather a force weighty enough to disrupt the status quo. This, of course, remains and will remain difficult until WikiLeaks’ systemic consequences are better known.
Jake Goldenfein is a PhD student at the Melbourne Law School