Recently, now infamous international organization Wikileaks released what some have called the, “largest intelligence leak in history.” Wikileaks obtained and the released approximately 92,000 documents related to the American war effort in Afghanistan that, previous to July 25 , had not seen the light of day.
The results have been interesting and contrary to the keen focus that many have trained specifically on WikiLeaks, speak to a much larger movement that technological advancement is driving towards transparency and accountability in political systems across the world.
The Afghan War Diary, as WikiLeaks is calling the release, isn’t the first time that the organization has made waves. In 2007, WikiLeaks became one of the websites blacklisted by the Government of China. In March 2009, Australia followed suit. And shortly thereafter, German police conducted a raid on the home of Theodor Reppe, owner of the German domain for WikiLeaks.
But the big story for WikiLeaks, prior to the Afghan intelligence leak, was a video they posted claiming to, “[depict] the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad.” Entitled Collateral Murder, the video became an immediate buzz on a myriad of websites and blogs within hours of its release and started making the rounds on main stream news outlets shortly thereafter.
The apparent slaying of more than a dozen innocent Iraqis by American soldiers was one thing. But the item that caused the video to blow up in the media was the fact that two Reuters staff, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, were also killed in the attack.
WikiLeaks spokesperson and Editor in Chief Julian Assange provided a harsh assessment of the video, “I believe that if those killings were lawful under the rules of engagement, then the rules of engagement are wrong, deeply wrong.”
The video and WikiLeaks’ assessment of it have since come under fire for the perception of misleading editing and for failing to note that one of the men attacked was clearly carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. All the same, WikiLeaks had officially made a name for itself in the mainstream American media and shifted the rules of engagement when it came to discussions about the actions of governments around the world.
The release of the Afghan War Diaries is, then, the second major coup that WikiLeaks has orchestrated in less than a year. Some casual observers have referred to the release of the intelligence documents as yet another ploy by an agenda driven and anti-American organization.
But for Julian Assange, the release of the documents was all about the very core of the organization’s mission: transparency.
“We have clearly stated motives, but they are not antiwar motives. We are not pacifists. We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.”
Transparency of government is something that another major public figure has said a lot about: US President Barack Obama.
Greater government transparency was, if not a major plank, then at least a prominent element of then candidate Obama’s campaign following the overt secrecy and insularity of the Bush Administration. On August 20, 2009, President Obama released a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
The entire memorandum is worth reading in full.
So while the White House’s rapid move to condemn WikiLeaks’ release of the documents might not be surprising, it does sit as somewhat disappointing given the above lofty statement.
Since that initial response, the White House has moved to downplaying the release, agreeing with experts that the documents released by WikiLeaks don’t actually reveal all that much. What the release of the documents do achieve; however, is to “create fresh doubts about the Afghan war,” which Gallup recently cited as having hit a record high in being seen as a mistake by the public.
These doubts come at a poor time for the Obama Administration.
Numerous other polls show that approval of the President’s handling of the war has dropped precipitously in the past 3-4 months and an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the war is going poorly. While the WikiLeaks release might not bring to light much in the way of startling new information, the leaked documents confirm the beliefs to which many in the country seemed to be coming
Already, the release seems to be contributing to tangible challenges for the Administration in this regard. On July 27, 102 House Democrats voted against giving the President an additional $33 billion towards the Afghan war effort. Among the comments offered justifying the opposition were references to WikiLeaks.
"Wake up, America. The Wikileak-leaked documents gave us 92,000 reasons to end the war," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.”
As reported by ABC News, the divergence from the wishes of the President represented a tripling of opposition to funding for the war over last year, forcing the President to rely on Republicans to provide sufficient support for the measure.
And all this at a time when the Administration needs desperately to ramp up support for its war effort following the controversial circumstances surrounding the removal of General McChrystal and his replacement with General Petreaus.
But, beyond the logistical challenges for the President and his Administration, the reaction to the WikiLeaks release belie a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the landscape on which the Administration now governs. WikiLeaks has effectively demonstrated just how easy it is to pay lip service to notions of transparency and, correspondingly, how difficult it is to actually live up to those notions.
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are not the cause here, but rather symptoms. And they are symptoms of the same thing that caused the President to make transparency a plank in his campaign and release such a sweeping and vaulted statement about transparency in his Administration’s government.
The fact of the matter is that both are reactions to a very real demand amongst average individuals for greater and greater amounts of information about what their governments are doing, stronger and stronger enforcement of accountability for those actions, and a general repudiation of and mistrust in the kinds of deference to power that had become hallmark expectations of many of the world’s governments.
As an example, take the current level of trust Americans hold towards the US Congress, which is at a historic low. In response, both the Tea Party of the right and grassroots progressive organizations like Act Blue on the left have sprung up with the specific mandates of scrutinizing their respective elected representatives records and holding them accountable for their actions.
And as Peri K. Blind, an expert associate with ther United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, notes in a June 2007 UN report entitled Building Trust in Government in the Twenty-First Century, this phenomenon is hardly limited to the United States.
“Since the mid-1960s, public trust in government and political institutions has been decreasing in all of the advanced industrialized democracies. Although the pattern and the pace of the decrease are dissimilar across countries, the downward trend is ubiquitous.”
In many ways, WikiLeaks is the perfect poster child for this shift in perception, because it is powered, in no small part, by the revolutionary change in the way that we share information via technology. Not only is there more information available faster than ever before, but the numbers of people both accessing and analyzing that information is greater than it has ever been.
Relatively recent numbers show that, “a record-breaking 46 percent of all Americans have used the [I]nternet, e-mail or cell-phone text messaging to participate in the political process.” And as recently as this past April, Mark Penn noted in the Wall Street Journal that,
“The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work, and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income. That’s almost 2 million Americans getting paid by the word, the post, or the click — whether on their site or someone else’s. And that’s nearly half a million of whom it can be said, as Bob Dylan did of Hurricane Carter: “It’s my work he’d say, I do it for pay.”
Indeed, as Blind again notes in her UN report, the revolution in electronic forms of information sharing having become a key tool used by governments in increasing participation and fighting perceptions of corruption.
“One innovative way to promote trust through fighting corruption is the e-government. Computer based interactions can potentially reach those citizens who would otherwise e reluctant to express or listen to different viewpoints (Redburn and Buss 2004, 163). The enhanced technological tools at the disposition of countries today can be used to devise virtual models of participation where citizens can interact and share opinions freely and openly on the Internet. Enhanced computer technology can also allow citizens to contact heir political representatives more easily, and hold them accountable for their deeds. E-government, as such, also forces many holders of public officialdom to post regular and detailed information pieces about their performances on the Internet. This, in turn, contributes to increased transparency and accountability. E-participation and e-government, therefore, do not only decrease information asymmetry between the governors and the governed, but it also enhances transparency by inviting greater citizen participation and oversight of policy affairs (Kalu 2006).”
The recent G20 fiasco in Toronto, Ontario is another good example of this phenomenon.
It is hardly new that groups of protesters would gather in a city to demonstrate against an event like the G20 Summit. My own memory is not so hazy as to forget the throngs of people present in Seattle in November of 1999 for the Battle in Seattle against the WTO Ministerial Conference.
What is new; however, is the extreme nature of the push back against legislation to curtail civil rights that was passed in secret and that many view as an unconstitutional, as well as the full court press to hold the police to account for their actions.
Not only was news about the events in Toronto in the public consciousness almost as they occurred, but civil rights advocates and activists have used any and all means at their disposal to press their case for an inquiry. Twitter accounts passed pictures of the events across thousands of sets of eyes. Facebook has been alight with tips on how to support an inquiry and lodge your own complaint with the Ontario police. And blogs have been steadily discussing the issue for weeks now, presenting individuals stories of participants mistreated by the authorities.
The technology available isn’t just changing the way we see and perceive the events of June 26 and 27, it is also changing the way we respond to those events.
In the 2009 Iranian revolution -- itself a demand for transparency and accountability -- the explosively popular social networking platform Twitter became a centrepiece in disseminating information about various atrocities and planned protests. Indeed, Twitter put off what it described as, “a critical upgrade,” required to, “ensure [the] continued operation of Twitter,” because events in Iran. On the company’s blog, representatives from Twitter wrote,
“[O]ur network partners at NTT America recognize the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran. Tonight's planned maintenance has been rescheduled to tomorrow between 2-3p PST (1:30a in Iran).
Our partners are taking a huge risk not just for Twitter but also the other services they support worldwide—we commend them for being flexible in what is essentially an inflexible situation.”
Needless to say, the announcement changed many people’s perspective on Twitter, both as a social networking phenomenon and as an agent for social change.
As well, Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Daily Dish, became the primary North American vehicle for information about the Iranian protests. Sullivan’s coverage of the events in Iran is just one example of an increasing ability to bring wider audiences up to speed on a monumental event happening across the world in a manner not seen since the televising of the Vietnam War.
At one point, Dish bloggers Sullivan, Patrick Appel, and Chris Bodenner began blogging in shifts to ensure that their coverage of events was maintained twenty-four hours a day as they carried information via You Tube videos, tweets, and official releases. In essence, their coverage was of a 360 degree kind.
For many bloggers and political observers, Sullivan and his co-bloggers’ work on the elections and following revolution is considered to be groundbreaking, helping to shape opinion on the Iranian events in a drastic and rapid fashion.
These are the new rules of engagement and expectations that technological advancement have enabled. And they are being enacted and enforced, increasingly by average and newly empowered individuals in a massive, world wide devolution of power. Or, at least, there is a mounting struggle for such a devolution.
It is -- to borrow a term from Thomas PM Barnett -- this new rule set to which Assange/WikiLeaks and Obama are respectively reacting. What the White House reaction truly provides insight into is that, unsurprisingly, structural institutions are running to try to catch up with the shifts in perspective and understanding that have been enabled and in some senses driven by technological revolution.
It is hard to say exactly what the implications of this movement are.
For all of WikiLeaks’ talk about enforcing transparency as a means of cultivating good government, new criticisms have surfaced about the danger in which the organization has placed American soldiers’ and Afghan informants’ lives with the release. For all the fervor surrounding the Iranian revolutions, little has actually changed in the country’s power structure. And for all the backlash about police actions at the G20 summit, a strong majority of Canadians found police actions justified.
Of course, in many regards, the events we experience now are the tip of the iceberg in this struggle. Movements of the type we are talking about take time -- sometimes not just years, but decades -- to come to real maturity and fruition.
But what we may well be witnessing is the beginnings of a global grassroots turning of the tide away from declining degrees of not just trust in government, but in civic engagement itself.
Where traditional forms of engagement are met with increasing skepticism and cynicism, citizens are finding -- and in many instances creating -- new guerilla means of engagement in the socio-political process.
The events I’ve outlined demonstrate that it doesn’t matter whether the terms of engagement occur on the streets of Iran or the corridors of Washington, transparency and accountability are increasingly the names of the game. President Obama and other world leaders misunderstand the extent of this fact at their own peril.