WikiLeaks has hit rock bottom. Once dedicated to careful vetting and redaction — sometimes too much redaction — the “whistleblower site” is now gleefully basking in its dump of thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee — most of which are full of personal, non-newsworthy information — published with the express intent of harming Hillary Clinton’s political campaign. In this latest release, there is no brave whistleblower in sight, just an anonymous hacker believed by the FBI and US intelligence community to be a front for Russian intelligence services. The WikiLeaks project has fallen far from the lofty heights of its founding a decade ago, when Julian Assange promised to “facilitate safety in the ethical leaking movement”.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: It’s a good thing that, thanks to the leak, the public now knows the extent to which the DNC tilted the scales in favour of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary. It’s also a good thing that former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down as a result of these revelations. The DNC had an obligation to stay neutral during the nominating process, and these emails show that the organisation failed at that. Much of what has been reported on out of the hack was newsworthy.
What isn’t good is that the documents released last week (19,252 emails and 8034 attachments) were dumped in an extremely calculated manner by an organisation that holds clear and obvious political motives. It’s also not good that these emails most likely came from hackers working with the Russian government in an attempt to influence the US election. On top of that, WikiLeaks’ careless failure to vet the contents of what they were unleashing on the internet led to the dumping of credit card and social security numbers of individuals who had committed the crime of donating to the Democratic Party.
It hasn’t always been this way. In 2010, when Wikileaks published 15,000 classified field reports from the US war in Afghanistan, it delayed the release until it could properly redact and vet the documents. In the case of the DNC emails, it appears that WikiLeaks was more interested in timing the release for maximum political damage than in combing through the trove to ensure that what it was releasing met its own goal of publishing “materials involving war, spying and corruption”.
The value in publishing the field reports, as well as the trove of US State Department cables that WikiLeaks also obtained from Chelsea Manning, was in part the sheer volume of information: There were specific stories and details that were newsworthy, to be sure, but the bold act of tearing the cover of secrecy wholesale off of hundreds of thousands of official documents that were generated by a purportedly democratic government was breathtaking. They permitted global analysis of both America’s conduct of foreign policy and a largely undercovered war, and gave citizens a rare look inside the behaviours and thinking of officials who were acting in their name. At the time of those leaks, Assange described his vision as “scientific journalism”:
I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research — the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.
But this DNC dump is a different animal, reeking of the sort of “information vandalism” that anti-secrecy activist Steven Aftergood has accused Assange of perpetrating. These emails were not official documents, they were not created by government employees. The logic of wholesale non-consensual transparency does not apply as cleanly to the email inboxes of political workers who do not act in the name of the citizenry. Yes, the DNC is a powerful institution, and yes, its internal machinations are newsworthy. But innocuous exchanges between DNC employees and their spouses or partners do not become evidence of corruption simply by virtue of their adjacency in a database to more substantive conversations about kneecapping Bernie Sanders. Nor do the Social Security numbers of Democratic donors — even the rich ones! — whose donations are already public in US Federal Election Commission databases.
It’s hard to explain this disregard. It could be some sort of ideological aversion to redacting even the most personal or pointless information. Or it could be a lack of manpower and time: Assange has never shied away from expressing his disdain for Hillary Clinton, and he certainly appears to have deliberately timed the release to maximally disrupt the proceedings of the DNC. It’s unclear how long he has had access to the data, but it could be that time ran out and he decided to publish and be damned. In any case, his failure to apply even his own “war, spying and corruption” standards to the release makes the whole thing look more like a personal vendetta than journalism, scientific or otherwise.
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for Julian Assange, the publisher and creator of WikiLeaks, referred Gizmodo to the WikiLeaks Twitter page and his interview with DemocracyNow.
“Often it’s the case that we have to do a lot of exploration and marketing of the material we publish ourself to get a big political impact for it,” Assange told DemocracyNow. “But in this case we knew because of the impending DNC and the degree of interest in the US election we didn’t need to establish partnerships with the New York Times or the Washington Post.”
According to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on Edward Snowden’s NSA documents, it is now harder than ever to defend WikiLeaks.
“I used to defend WikiLeaks all the time on the grounds that they were not indiscriminate dumpers of information,” Greenwald told Slate. “They were carefully protecting people’s reputations. And they have changed their view on that — and no longer believe, as Julian says, in redacting any information of any kind for any reason — and I definitely do not agree with that approach and think that they can be harmful to innocent people or other individuals in ways that I don’t think is acceptable.”
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 28, 2016
WikiLeaks was once a grand idea — a way to protect vulnerable sources while helping important information find its way to the public. Its successes changed the history of journalism. But the dream of scientific journalism has devolved into an egomaniacal campaign of attention-seeking, and a political war waged with documents Assange almost certainly received from Russian-backed hackers looking to influence the US election.