WikiLeaks vigilante denies having blood on his hands over disclosures
AUSTRALIAN-born Julian Assange is peddling a range of excuses for having put Afghans in harm’s way.
His decision to publish thousands of documents containing uncensored US intelligence about the Afghan war is a turning point for the new media.
Never has so much classified information landed in the public domain: it far outstrips the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War published in 1971.
Yet this watershed has nothing to do with the quantity of material first aired last week by the mysterious Assange on his WikiLeaks website.
Rather it is a lack of careful advance thinking about the disclosure by this self-appointed whistleblower.
Just as credible information published by mainstream media organisations does not come cost-free, neither does it come without responsibility. They regularly use discretion — with good reason.
Assange has been savaged publicly for releasing information that could lead to the death of many people identified in US military logs that range from 2004 to 2009.
Like many vigilantes, he is defending himself by trying to appeal to some higher calling. His goal, he claims, was to provide “justice to the innocents” by revealing the full extent of civilian casualties caused by military bungles and gross negligence. Assange claims he went to great lengths to omit from almost 92,000 documents any information that could put local Afghans in harm’s way by tipping off Taliban militants about their collaboration with the US and its allies.
Two days after WikiLeaks posted 76,000 of the documents on the internet, a team of reporters from The Times of London poured over the raw material. In a matter of hours they discovered that the names, villages, relatives’ names and even precise GPS locations of Afghans who had co-operated with US-led forces were easy to spot.
Facing allegations of pending “blood on his hands”, Assange is peddling a series of defences.
He claims no person has ever suffered personal injury as a result of WikiLeaks material since he established the site in 2006 and says he always tries to “ascertain those facts”.
It is not clear how Assange could know if an Afghan village elder were threatened or killed as a result of the Taliban seeing what he had put online. He does not have detectives in the field.
If any Afghan informant were killed, Assange retreats to the argument that the harm caused would be outweighed by the importance of publishing the information. So disclosure is justice, apparently, regardless of consequences.
Assange claims to have been rebuffed after approaching the White House with an offer to vet information in his possession, and so he blames the White House for knowing in advance that Afghan informants could be exposed.
Yet the White House denies that WikiLeaks ever made such an approach. It is also disingenuous of Assange to blame someone else for not excising damaging information when he had the content and deliberately released it.
Assange’s latest breathtaking excuse, reported yesterday in The Observer, is to pin responsibility on the US military for any deaths that do occur — even though it would be his own exposure of Afghan informants’ identities that led to their fate.
One of the great ironies of the WikiLeaks saga is that Assange used traditional media — The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel — to raise his site’s profile by giving them advance access on an embargoed basis.
Those newspapers duly reported issues of news value, such as allegations that Pakistani intelligence agents helped organise Taliban attacks on US soldiers while pretending to be loyal to Washington. They also carried stories on the casualty issue.
What these mainstream media did not do was reveal information that could have led to further casualties by feeding a Taliban “hit list” — as Assange has done.
In a chronicle of the WikiLeaks saga, The Columbia Journalism Review says reporters from The Guardian and Der Spiegel specifically encouraged Assange “to be careful about the lethal harm that could come to people identified in the logs if he released certain documents unredacted”. He did not follow this advice.
Not surprisingly, Assange welcomes comparisons between his latest exposure and the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. That remarkable leak, published by The New York Times, provided dark insights into Washington’s handling of the Vietnam War. It helped galvanise public opinion against the conflict.
The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret history of US involvement in Vietnam that told a great deal about a failure of accountability at the highest government levels. They showed that president Lyndon Johnson had misled voters by claiming he had no intention of widening the war in Vietnam when he was doing the opposite. They showed the US deliberately expanded the war by bombing Cambodia and Laos.
Assange’s documents, by comparison, say nothing new. They contain mostly raw field data that reinforces what is already known. They do not point to failings by the White House or senior Pentagon officials. The Fourth Estate might not be perfect, but it retains an important accountability role in a modern democracy. WikiLeaks and a collection of bloggers who share its fast-and-loose values claim to be working on a brave new frontier of enlightenment. But they stand exposed: no editing, no standards, no accountability, no responsibility — and no shame. Ethics are something made up and retracted along the journey.