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WikiLeaks Lesson: Information Does Not Always Want to be Free

4 years ago
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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."
As a journalist and ex-detective I am unabashedly a professional snoop, but the Swedish-based website's unchecked exposure -- including such titillating nonpublic records as the secret ceremonies of college sororities and confidential records of Masons and religious groups -- qualifies as "too much information."

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blonddur

Personally, I am pissed that somebody is allowed to upload CLASSIFIED documents that could endanger our troops. I don't care what your view is on this war, but somebody releasing classified documents should be considered a traitor and shot. I do not agree with everything our government does, but this is completely outragous. The freedom of speech act is there to protect us, not to harm us, and people who put up documents like such should have gone to school and been made to fully understand our rights as Americans, BUT ALSO our RESPONSIBILITY as an American citizen. The founder of WikiLeaks should be held responsible for every life from this point on that is taken in this war overseas. That includes civilians and troops.

October 23 2010 at 11:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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