Has scandalous WikiLeaks gone past its shelf life?
How do you top releasing more than 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables? In WikiLeaks's case, by releasing more than 1.7 million, as it is with its latest release.world Updated: Apr 10, 2013 02:18 IST
How do you top releasing more than 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables? In WikiLeaks's case, by releasing more than 1.7 million, as it is with its latest release.
But this latest trove of documents is less than it seems on the surface: the cables date from 1973 to 1976, Henry Kissinger's tenure as secretary of state, and had already been released - including online - by the US National Archives and Records Administration.
That's not to say there's no value to WikiLeaks's efforts, though: the group has made the information more accessible by converting it into formats more suitable to searching (though how 1.7 million documents were checked for scanning errors is anyone's guess), and spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson emphasises it's now impossible for the US to take these particular documents offline. With its trademark modesty, WikiLeaks describes its trove as "the single most significant body of geopolitical material ever published".
The stark truth is, though, WikiLeaks would not be dealing with 40-year-old material - however significant at the time - if it had anything more recent. Unlike WikiLeaks's activities with the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, and its more contemporary US diplomatic cables, this archival work is hardly unique: there is masses of public and private funding for specialist groups to make such archives more accessible and complete (and to prevent pulldown). Organisations like the British Library are extending their online archiving efforts for present-day material.
WikiLeaks has persuaded several outlets to trawl the archives and write up some of the illuminating material, just as journalists do as new material is released under 30-year rules. Its improved searches have made matters easier. But what of the higher hopes expressed initially for the site?
There has been no way to submit material to an online dropbox run by WikiLeaks since 2010. Releases of information allegedly passed by Anonymous to the site - including documents from the intelligence news provider Stratfor - have not had the same impact as previous releases, and individuals alleged to have been involved in the hacks (and leaks) have been arrested, due to the surveillance of Anonymous by the FBI.
With WikiLeaks essentially "pivoting" its operations to look at making archive material, it's perhaps worth reflecting on its original, assumed, mission: to fulfil an unmet need of people who wish to leak sensitive documents to get them published and covered.
That's certainly what they achieved for the documents now known to have been passed from Bradley Manning.
But how many people like Manning are there? Manning's leaks were each, at the time they were published, the largest in history. The largest leak prior to them had come almost 40 years before, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Was the issue in the intervening time that lots of other similarly courageous individuals came forward but had nowhere to go? It's possible - and reports from Manning's trial do suggest he tried to go to the mainstream media first. But more likely is that such whistleblowers are rare.
Whistleblowers also, often, need cultivation. This can arise through day-to-day contact, slow building of trust, even regular patch reporting.
But for these sources, the approach of mainstream outlets may be more appropriate.
WikiLeaks set forth a series of challenges and questions for traditional media. Do journalists know enough about information security? Are journalists approachable enough to those who might want to disclose wrongdoing? Do they have the ability to co-ordinate complex international investigations? Can they publish enough of the source material to build trust and allow further investigation?
Too often, the answer's been no. But things are changing. TheOffshore Secrets files are a key example of that: a huge, 200+GB leak of files, dating up to 2010, to Gerard Ryle of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Rather than hoard the scoop, Ryle built a consortium of 40 mainstream journalistic outlets - including the Guardian, BBC and Washington Post - who worked for up to a year before publishing reams based on the sensitive information therein.It's perhaps ironic that in the past week WikiLeaks has republished archive material while the mainstream media has published contemporary leak.
A modern media that is willing to collaborate across borders, throw dozens of bodies at months-long probe and learn how to handle safely gigabytes of data, could in the long run - if it sustains - be WikiLeaks greatest, if accidental, achievement.