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Wikileaks Releases Reveal Collapse of Journalism in the Secrecy Age

Today’s Wikileaks release of key facilities vital to US national security is a bit less than meets the eye once you delve into it. However, it does send a kind of warning signal to the world that Julian Assange means business when he dsecribes “poison pill” information that will be released upon his arrest or death:

The founder of WikiLeaks has warned that his supporters are primed to publish a ‘deluge’ of leaked government documents should his activities be curtailed by any country.

Julian Assange has distributed to fellow hackers an encrypted ‘poison pill’ of damaging secrets, thought to include details on BP and Guantanamo Bay.

He believes the file is his ‘insurance’ in case he is killed, arrested or the whistleblowing website is removed permanently from the internet.

Keeping this threat credible is probably linked to keeping Assange out of the clutches of law enforcement.

I also can’t help but find the irony in a Wikileak on China’s role in censoring Google coming out at a time when world governments are partnering and mobilizing to censor Wikileaks. There has to be some knowingness there.

And the conclusion should shock anyone who makes a living at sharing information, particularly what passes for the profession of journalism in America. You don;t have to accept what Assange is doing, but you should probably take a minute to try and understand it. He believes that the distribution of secrets will break down the culture of secrecy that has gone hand-in-hand with modern foreign policy, and in turn break down the effectiveness of the government keeping the secrets.

[Assange] decides…that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment…. The idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire.

While journalists don’t share this desire with Assange – and indeed, their welfare depends on a functioning state that they have access to prime for secrets that become their currency – they do share the lesser-order principles of information struggling to be free and the idea of disclosure bringing with it reform. That’s why it’s so shocking – shameful, in the words of David Samuels – to see the attacks on Assange from journalists:

But the truly scandalous and shocking response to the Wikileaks documents has been that of other journalists, who make the Obama Administration sound like the ACLU. In a recent article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll sniffed that “the archives that WikiLeaks has published are much less significant than the Pentagon Papers were in their day” while depicting Assange as a “self-aggrandizing control-freak” whose website “lacks an ethical culture that is consonant with the ideals of free media.” Channeling Richard Nixon, Coll labeled Wikileaks’ activities – formerly known as journalism – by his newly preferred terms of “vandalism” and “First Amendment-inspired subversion.” […]

Assange may or may not be grandiose, paranoid and delusional – terms that might be fairly applied at one time or another to most prominent investigative reporters of my acquaintance. But the fact that so many prominent old school journalists are attacking him with such unbridled force is a symptom of the failure of traditional reporting methods to penetrate a culture of official secrecy that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11, and threatens the functioning of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy […]

It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest – and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together.

The idea that Wikileaks is a threat to the traditional practice of reporting misses the point of what Assange and his co-workers have put together – a powerful tool that can help reporters circumvent the legal barriers that are making it hard for them to do their job. Even as he criticizes the evident failures of the mainstream press, Assange insists that Wikileaks should facilitate traditional reporting and analysis. “We’re the step before the first person (investigates),” he explained, when accepting Amnesty International’s award for exposing police killings in Kenya. “Then someone who is familiar with that material needs to step forward to investigate it and put it in political context. Once that is done, then it becomes of public interest.”

Like Digby I believe this is a healthy debate to be having, because it enables us to talk fundamentally about the actions of elites, to stick America in two grotesque wars that lead to the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. After all, the attackers of Wikileaks are claiming that he’s costing human lives. It’s a dubious point, but if you want to talk about human lives, let’s talk about them. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about this runaway secrecy culture, and the death of the Fourth Estate to act as a check on it.

Assange’s vision may not actually work; US foreign policy machinery may not collapse by turning inward. That’s still not a reason to chill free speech and the publication of any information your government deems secret.

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David Dayen

David Dayen