Friday, August 13, 2010

Analysis: Reporters Without Borders slams WikiLeaks

On 12 August Reporters Without Borders/ Reporters sans frontiers (RSF) issued an Open Letter to WikiLeaks that strongly admonishes WikiLeaks for having released documents that are alleged by the US military to have included the names of Afghan informants.   The letter is signed by both the Secretary General of RSF and its Washington DC representative.  WikiLeaks has yet to issue a formal response to this letter.  

Is the anger justified? Or might it be misdirected?

We are going to examine only those parts of the letter where RSF details their main points of contention with WikiLeaks (letter exerpts in red text):
But revealing the identity of hundreds of people who collaborated with the coalition in Afghanistan is highly dangerous. It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks.

Defending yourself, you said that it was about “ending the war in Afghanistan.”[1] You also argued that: “Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.” [2] However, the US government has been under significant pressure for some time as regards the advisability of its military presence in Afghanistan, not just since your article’s publication. We are not convinced that your wish to “end the war in Afghanistan” [3] will be so easily granted and meanwhile, you have unintentionally provided supposedly democratic governments with good grounds for putting the Internet under closer surveillance.
Jotman's comment:   With the help of Google search, I first want to focus on the source of the allegations RSF is making here.  [1] I cannot find where Assange is quoted as having said "ending the war in Afghanistan." Most likely this is a imprecise version of another quote (see [3]).   [2] The source of the second quote in the above paragraph is the "About WikiLeaks" page on the WikiLeaks website. [3]  The source of the third quote might have been a Washington Post op-ed column by Mark Thiessen.  Thiessen wrote:
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has made clear that his objective in releasing tens of thousands of classified documents was to "end the war in Afghanistan" and "oppose an unjust [war] plan before it reaches implementation." He may well achieve his goal. 
But did the WikiLeaks founder make that clear?   Thiessen has extracted two quotes from an interview published in Der Spiegel Online (to Thiessen's credit he links to the interview). Here are the passages from which Thiessen obtained those quotes; where Assange supposedly "made clear" his objective:
SPIEGEL: Aren't you expecting a little too much?
ASSANGE: There is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan. This information won't do it alone, but it will shift political will in a significant manner....

SPIEGEL: You have said that there is a correlation between the transparency for which you are fighting and a just society. What do you mean by that?
ASSANGE: Reform can only come about when injustice is exposed. To oppose an unjust plan before it reaches implementation is to stop injustice.
We see that a comment to the effect that "there is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan" -- what Assange actually said -- becomes "your wish to 'end the war in Afghanistan'" in the RSF letter.  I believe Thiessen's assumption that "an unjust plan" refers to "an unjust [war] plan" is wrong.   I believe that Assange is talking about social reform generally, describing his philosophy about how change comes about in a society, not war planning in particular.     Did RSF turn to the selective journalism of a Washington Post op-ed columnist, when it might have gone right to the source document?   More on that in a moment.

The RSF letter continues:
It is true that you said that “a further 15,000 potentially sensitive reports” were excluded from the 25 July mass posting, that they were being “reviewed further” and that some of them would be released “once it was deemed safe to do so.”

Nonetheless, indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility. Journalistic work involves the selection of information. The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that Wikileaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. Wikileaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media. 
Jotman's comment:   On 30 July I wrote a post entitled "White House or WikiLeaks to blame for release of Afghan informants' identities?"   I referred to what I considered to have been Assange's best line defense against the Pentagon leaders' (somewhat ironic) charge that he "has blood on his hands." Assange told ABC:
 Now we contacted the White House as a group before we released this material and asked them to help assist in going through it to make sure that no innocent names came out, and the White House did not accept that request.

We told them we were going through a harm minimization process and offered them the chance to point out names of informers or other innocents who might be harmed and they did not respond to that request which was mediated through the New York Times who was acting as the contact for the four media groups involved in this.
RSF does not refer to this defense in their Open Letter.  Yet, I think it's far and away the most compelling argument in defense of WikiLeaks.  At the very least, it shows why the situation, morally speaking, is not anywhere near as simple and straightforward as the RSF letter makes it sound.  In my 30 July post I elaborated on why I think this defense has considerable validity.

RSF asserts that "Journalistic work involves the selection of information."  Certainly in the past, on a account of the economics of newsprint, almost all journalism invariably involved a lot of selection.   Towards the end of the 30 July post, I wrote:
 It's worth noting that WikiLeaks represents a challenge not only to government secrecy, but to a mode of journalism by which a handful of news outlets serve as exclusive gateways to information. WikiLeaks represents a new, more open model of  journalism, an open-source approach to the dissemination of knowledge.  What distinguishes WikiLeaks from other press organizations is that WikiLeaks is committed to publishing source material.   
Recall that RSF appeared to have sourced an Assange quote from Washington Post op-ed columnist Thiessen.    Thiessen attributed meanings to the WikiLeaks founder's words that may not have been intended.  We know this because we, the public, have access to the definitive source of the WikiLeaks/Thiessen quotations:  the Der Spiegel Online interview.   The interview transcript is journalism, even though its publication involves little if any "selection of information."   Journalism is not always selective.  Non-selective source material has become an important aspect of online journalism.  Furthermore, turning to Thiessen's liberal approach to interpreting Assange, we have an example as to why non-selective acts of journalism are important.

We need both kinds of journalism, highly selective and otherwise.   The public needs access to the source materials today because this is the only way that the public -- whether as bloggers, or with the help of journalists -- can hold journalists and publications accountable.    That's vital these days when a handful of large media conglomerates -- some with financial ties to the defense sector -- enjoy a too cozy relationship with the US government.

RSF ended its letter with these recommendations:
Wikileaks must provide a more detailed explanation of its actions and must not repeat the same mistake. This will mean a new departure and new methods.
Jotman ended his 30 July post with these questions:
Why was cooperation not forthcoming from the White House in this instance?...  What did the president know about the names in the Wikileaks documents, and when did he know it?
Disclaimer:  Although Jotman has no connection to WikiLeaks, this blogger received the "Reporters Without Borders" award in 2007 in Deutsch Welle's "Best of the Blogs".  Jotman was a contributor to the 2008 edition of the RSF Bloggers Handbook.  Jotman has written frequently on this blog in support of both RSF and WikiLeaks, and encourages his readers to support them too.


  1. I have commented before (and I still believe) that WikiLeaks were not right to make those papers public without having removed potential informants' names and other sensitive details. The fact that the US government did not cooperate (for whatever reasons) doesn't remove that responsibility from Assange and his people. If you own the papers (no matter how they got to you), you own the responsibility. Don't want responsibility, just don't publish the damn thing. You did publish the papers, well, come out and admit "yes, we did it because we thought that was the right thing to do". Don't start asking why didnt the government screen them beforehands, because that is politicking, not journalism.

    And re: "the right thing to do". When I read that Assange used language like "there's a mood that so and so", instead of "we want to end this war" or "we want to win this war" or "we just want this was to continue", I am starting to get lost about their true intentions. Whose "mood", really? If Thiessen assumed that Assange's agenda was to help end the war - isn't that a logical assumption, given that Assange says smth to the effect "publishing these papers alone won't do that, but it shall move the policy in a significant way". By deciding to publish the papers, I am assuming Assange took a decisive step to support that "mood" he's refering to - or did he? I mean, Thiessen is probably right, but I can't be entirely sure, 'cause Assange seems a bit too sly. Would make a good politician.


  2. Sanjuro,

    It also seemed to me that Assange was hedging, careful with his words. And that was my point. If Assange didn't come out and directly say what Thiessen alleges he said with clarity, it would have been better to describe Assange's comments the way you did. Also, Thiessen supposed that Assange was referring to war-planning specifically, when he was probably not. That's no way to build a case.

    Thiessen is writing an op-ed. There is leeway for subjective interpretations in an op-ed. The same can't be said for RSF. RSF should be expected to hold itself to a higher standard of objectivity than an op-ed columnist.

    I think that both RSF and WikiLeaks could be faulted for coming across as too opinionated, and not sounding sufficiently objective.

  3. I find RSF good but not without their biases (nevermind Otto Reich's association) and in this case they are far too critical of Wikileaks and seem to come from a Western establishment perspective, some echoes of other journalists who seem to be annoyed at wikileaks for doing the job they in their corporate largesse have abdicated.

  4. Rick,

    It certainly can be viewed as part of a trend within the establishment media. Jumping on the bandwagon.

    It will be interesting to see whether other well-established human rights groups follow RSF or stay on the sidelines.

  5. I have an unresolved problem with this kind of thing. On one side it doesn't feel democratic for such secret documents to be unilaterally made public, especially when so doing endangers others. On the other side it is absolutely democratic to do so... although my feeling is, in this case at least, the risk that is has caused to other people may mean it has not been a completely responsible action.

    I'm not a politician and this isn't my area. However in my own life I am absolutely sure that it's not right to jeaprodise a minority without their permission in order to achieve any ends, let alone those where eventual success is not assured. That said, I'm still very unsure where my own ethical line would - or should - be drawn in this case.

  6. Carole,

    " my own life I am absolutely sure that it's not right to jeaprodise a minority without their permission in order to achieve any ends..."

    I completely agree.

    However, it is not clear to me that WikiLeaks knowingly put Afghan informants at risk. How could possibly be -- as RSF implies -- that WikiLeaks is the only party at fault?

    In the 30 July post which I refer to above, I suggest that by having raised the matter with the White House, the White House had 1) the moral obligation and 2) access to information necessary to ensure that no Afghan names were released.

    According to WikiLeaks, they gave the White House the opportunity to prevent the accidental release of sensitive information. The White House, which should have known full well that WikiLeaks might not catch every name, did nothing. They ignored the request by WikiLeaks, perhaps hoping to discredit them later. In other words, the White House might have been playing a very cynical game.

    WikiLeaks ought to have seen this coming, but it might have naively assumed that the White House would always go the extra mile to protect its informants. No response from the WH could have been interpreted by WikiLeaks to mean that nobody would be seriously put at risk. Only the government was in the position to mitigate all the risks. (Other administrations have cooperated with the press when asked to identify names that shouldn't be published.)

    Under these circumstances, it seems to me that RSF is blasting WikiLeaks with an astonishing degree of moral certitude.

  7. I think everyone is forgetting that most so called secrets are "only" not known by a countries general population. The country's enemies have their own sources.

    Also, one would hope that any name in a sensitive document would be a code name, for millions had access to these papers.

  8. I frankly don't see why the concern is given to the 'informants' when in reality they are the collaborators who are the "finger men" of a corrupt puppet 'government' of mercenary warlords and compliant frontmen for the US hegemony.

    The last poll of the Afghan citizenry that I was aware of had 90-95% of the population in favor of the return of the Taliban, because while severe in their policies, they were at least honest, and had Afghanistan's interests at heart, not some US multinational petrochemical company's. Not to mention that they weren't insinuating themselves to foreign occupying armies that had Texas-based joystick-jockeys dropping bombs on their houses at night, or firing rockets at their family gatherings by remote control. The real victims in this scenario, other then the folks who were the target of the US military's "wilding" of the countryside, are the countless thousands who have been tortured, or killed and disappeared through the actions of these 'informants'.

    Their attack on WikiLeaks makes me wonder who is fronting the bills at RSF these days,and I have to question their impartiality.

  9. Wyamarus,

    Good to hear your thoughts on this, now it's my turn to be frank.

    I think concern that the lives of the informants could be endangered is legitimate. I don't think it is ethical for WikiLeaks to knowingly release any informants' names or to behave with indifference or carelessness in regards to this matter.

    Also, looking at it from your angle, because the circumstances of an individual becoming an informant are going to vary from village to village, I think it's impossible to make any judgments about the motivations of informants, let alone the morality of their choices. I bet even those Westerners on the ground in Afghanistan -- who filed the reports in which the names appear -- perhaps more often than not, barely had a clue who is who. Could they distinguish between an informant and a double-informant? I have my doubts. Also, The story in every informant's case will be a bit different. Half the time coalition forces probably don't know who the people behind the names really were! Which is not to disparage the intelligence of the soldiers, but the fundamental absurdity of the whole project.

    Therefore, for anyone to conclude on the basis of this evidence: "Well, this person was an informant so they must deserve what's coming to them" is, essentially, to be caught up in the nonsense. The release of names could have consequences to real human beings about which we essentially know nothing. Military leaders continue to act as if Afghanistan is a game that they can understand. Should we fall into the same error, accepting the claims of reports at face value? It would be a mistake to assume the reports are objective.

    The faults of the Americans are easy for us to see because the culture and language are accessible. Yet, this does not imply the absence of great defects in the other. It is true that the Taliban can be seen as defending their home country against a foreign occupation, and this gives them legitimacy and support they likely would not have otherwise. Many of today's Taliban supporters probably just want an end to foreign occupation. Even if they may enjoy considerable public support, this doesn't mean the Taliban have "the interest of the country at heart." (Anymore than the popularity of Sarah Palin means she has the interests of ordinary Americans at heart).

    Certainly, the Taliban haven't shown any regard for the Hazara minority who have suffered from severe oppression and massacres "carried out by the predominately ethnic Pashtun Taliban and are documented by such groups as the Human Rights Watch." (Wikipedia) Also, Taliban have shown no regard for the human rights of half the population; nor for the culture and history of Afghanistan -- as evident by the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas and other national treasures. Last but not least, Taliban have benefited from financial and logistical support from Pakistan and certain Gulf State interests. To some extent the Taliban are proxies for these regional powers. The Taliban can be said to represent another kind of imperialism.

    The West does not know Afghanistan. Regardless of who has access to the names, we are appallingly ignorant about Afghanistan society and culture. This observation holds true as much for war supporters as for war opponents and the media. Therefore, I think nobody has the right to "roll the dice" on the fate of individuals that none of us ever knew.


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