Between 2006 and 2009 I wrote a column at Slate.com under the header Hot Document
dedicated to dissecting interesting ephemera. It was in that job that I first encountered WikiLeaks
, the now infamous website which last week released 92,000 classified military field reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For those not familiar with the 3-year-old nonprofit, WikiLeaks allows unidentified sources to upload
nonpublic documents to an online platform where anyone can read them. Launched in 2007
by enigmatic founder Julian Assange
, WikiLeaks was presented as "as a safe place for whistleblowers to reveal their secrets to the world."
It wasn't long until the opportunity to anonymously reveal classified or sensitive papers was eagerly taken up by legions of unnamed persons instructed to "specify the language, country and industry of origin, likely audience, reasons for leaking and approaches to verification." Intended as a means for citizens to safely draw attention to oppressive governments, the site's purview was soon expanded to examples of religious persecution or inhumane methods of interrogation.
I've always been a pretty big document nerd. I was a private investigator before I became a reporter and, in those days, the discovery of arcane agreements or elusive evidentiary epistles broke many a case wide open. I loved whistleblowers
. Resolving allegations of questionable corporate business practices or political corruption often turned on an obscure or otherwise boring contract containing an intriguing clause, addendum, footnote or strikeout.
Keeping my Slate column fresh demanded that I expose and explain new primary source documents
several times a week. So, along with other resources, I regularly scanned the WikiLeaks site for new material
. In that archival frontier, nameless interests randomly released their own versions of smoking gun data in service to individual outrage or personal justice.
As a longtime practitioner of carefully worded Freedom of Information Act
requests, and one who deeply appreciates sealed particulars obtained through legal discovery, I found the open source repository very daring and outlawish. Consequence-free disclosure nonetheless made me uncomfortable.
As much as I appreciated the banquet of heated documents, without more context for the under-sourced data, I could not evaluate the value of the information. Clearly, neither could WikiLeaks. The site's recent over-sharing of the military reports revealed identifying information about Afghans (whose lives may now be in peril as a result). Julian Assange has asked the Pentagon to help review the next batch
of documents in the queue.
Transparency based on full disclosure is the key to good governance and a healthy open society, but businesses, clubs, and especially military maneuvers are also deserving of privacy. Steven Aftergood
, who writes an indispensable column on Secrecy News
for the American Federation of Scientists, calls the WikiLeaks disclosures "information vandalism