Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wikileaks and the Cable Releases

Wikileaks- the website which brought us Collateral Murder, the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs today released, according the the New York Times, a "quarter million confidential American diplomatic cables"

The cables could not be posted on the actual website,, because they were under a Distributed Denial-of-Service attack, an attack on the website in which multiple systems overwhelm the bandwidth of the site, preventing it from being accessed. Instead Wikileaks gave the releases to multiple news sources including the Times which released some of the cables on its website but with some redactions to protect sources or civilians. (I was unable to access the wikileaks site Sunday until around 8pm, and when I could there was no information on the cable releases)

No one quite knows what the effect these releases will have on foreign relations (the cables include everything from intel. on the leader of Libya to a wedding in the Caucus mountains). But this release, and just the existence of the site in general, is a dramatic example illustrating how information is discovered and distributed in the age of the blog.

The cables were reportedly downloaded by an Army Pfc (for those who are not familiar with military ranks, a Private First Class is the second lowest rank) and talks of a possible leak had been going on in Washington for months. The editor-in-chief and spokesperson for Wikileaks Juilian Assange sent to the US government on the 26th asking for any particular redactions they felt would be necessary to protect lives, the response came overnight that if any cables were published it would endanger lives and that possession and distribution of the cables was illegal. The site went ahead with giving the cables to major news outlets, the Times published some of the cables with its own redactions on the 28th.

Wikileaks, internationally based, flew in the face of the US government by distributing these cables, and they became instantly available around the world. This information, though distributed through major news outlets, was collected on an individual level separate from the journalistic tradition, and would have been distributed via the Wikileaks site, an internet site run by a disjointed group reportedly consisting of Chinese dissidents, human rights activists, and former physicists and mathematicians.

The mediation between events and the public becomes smaller and smaller through sites such as wikileaks, the proliferation of blogging, and smartphones that can take and send pictures and video around the world at an instant's notice. Gone is the day of Watergate and the investigative journalism, now the power to reveal information lies in the hands of anyone with a computer and internet connection. Clay Shirky predicted 50 years of chaos surrounding the rise of peer-to-peer technology, and internet-enabled information sharing. Perhaps it will take that long to see the effects of Wikileaks in toto, but in the coming days and weeks we will undoubtedly get a glimpse into what this technology can do.


Professor Glenn Hendler said...

A really thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Taylor. It's nice to find someone thinking about this event in an intelligent way, without throwing around hysterical and sensationalistic charges of "treason" and "terrorism."

I think you're raising just the right question. The way I'd put it is this: Governments have long conducted what they call "diplomacy" and foreign policy largely in secret. There are arguments that such secrecy is necessary, and also arguments that such secrecy contradicts the principles of transparency and publicity that are essential to democracy. But what happens if technological changes of the sort that Clay Shirky discusses make such secrecy impossible, and citizens (of the U.S. and other countries, some of which don't even pretend to adhere to those principles of democracy) can actually see the things their governments are saying and doing?

Taylor R said...

An addendum- Apparently US diplomats are trained to describe power situations in terms of the DC comic Batman. Russia's Medvedev is describe in one cable as playing "Robin to Putin's Batman," and in a second Canadian distrust of the US is described as the result of insecurity arising form Canada playing "Robin to the US's Batman," I'm not quite sure what this means for American diplomacy, but it is striking/a little humorous