I attend a lot of conferences on media and technology -- indeed, they might actually be the biggest growth sector of the media -- but the one I attended this past weekend was one of the most fascinating I've been to in quite a while. Entitled "A Symposium on WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom," the one-day event was sponsored by the Personal Democracy Forum and was moderated by the group's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.
The WikiLeaks story is an ever-shifting one -- witness the latest twists of the Air Force blocking its personnel from accessing more than 25 news sites that have posted material released by WikiLeaks, and the shocking treatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of being the source of the leaks.
One of the problems with the WikiLeaks story is that there has been way too much conflating going on, as Katrin Verclas pointed out at the symposium. So some serious unconflating (disconflating?) is in order.
I see four main aspects to the story. The first important aspect of the revelations is... the revelations.
Too much of the coverage has been meta -- focusing on questions about whether the leaks were justified, while too little has dealt with the details of what has actually been revealed and what those revelations say about the wisdom of our ongoing effort in Afghanistan. There's a reason why the administration is so upset about these leaks.
True, there hasn't been one smoking-gun, bombshell revelation -- but that's certainly not to say the cables haven't been revealing. What there has been instead is more of the consistent drip, drip, drip of damning details we keep getting about the war. Details that belie the upbeat talk the administration wants us to believe. The effect is cumulative -- not unlike mercury poisoning.
It's notable that the latest leaks came out the same week President Obama went to Afghanistan for his surprise visit to the troops -- and made a speech about how we are "succeeding" and "making important progress" and bound to "prevail."
The WikiLeaks cables present quite a different picture. What emerges is one reality (the real one) colliding with another (the official one). We see smart, good-faith diplomats and foreign service personnel trying to make the truth on the ground match up to the one the administration has proclaimed to the public. The cables show the widening disconnect. It's like a foreign policy Ponzi scheme -- this one fueled not by the public's money, but the public's acquiescence.
The cables show that the administration has been cooking the books. And what's scandalous is not the actions of the diplomats doing their best to minimize the damage from our policies, but the policies themselves. Of course, we've known about them, but the cables provide another opportunity to see the truth behind the spin -- so it's no wonder the administration has reacted so hysterically to them.
The second aspect of the story -- the one that was the focus of the symposium -- is the changing relationship to government that technology has made possible.
Back in the year 2007, B.W. (Before WikiLeaks), Barack Obama waxed lyrical about government and the internet: "We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interest and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight."
At that moment he was, of course, busy building an internet framework that would play an important part in his becoming the head of the next administration. Not long after the election, in announcing his "Transparency and Open Government" policy, the president proclaimed: "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset."
Cut to a few years later. Now that he's defending a reality that doesn't match up to, well, reality, he's suddenly not so keen on the people having a chance to access this "national asset."
Even more wikironic are the statements by his Secretary of State who, less than a year ago, was lecturing other nations about the value of an unfettered and free internet. Given her description of the WikiLeaks as "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" that have put in danger "innocent people," her comments take on a whole different light. Some highlights:
In authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable... technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights... As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.
Now "making government accountable" is, as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, a "reckless and dangerous action."