During the recently-concluded United States presidential election, WikiLeaks – a non-profit organisation which publishes secret information and news leaks from anonymous sources – made the headlines on two related occasions: first, when it released emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which led to the resignation of party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; second, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton accused Russian hackers for leaking information to WikiLeaks. In fact, Mrs. Clinton featured prominently in David Leigh and Luke Harding’s “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”, since she was Secretary of State of the United States when the first batches of documents were released by WikiLeaks in 2010.
What also transpired after the DNC leaks was an online exchange between Assange and American whistleblower Edward Snowden – who copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, revealing global surveillance programmes of the United States – over the need for “modest curation”. WikiLeaks published a searchable database of Mrs. Clinton’s emails along with the DNC emails and voicemails, and along this tangent the non-profit organisation has been critical of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the network behind the Panama Papers in 2016, for not publishing the full documents on the Internet.
Central to the disagreement between Snowden, Assange, and the ICIJ is the form and manner through which leaked information should be communicated to the general public. Cognisant that “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” is written by British journalists of newspaper “The Guardian” – likely to articulate a defence for the much-maligned mainstream media, or MSM – their position on this disagreement, nevertheless, is fairly reasonable. Two quotes illustrate this position: “The material that resided in leaked documents, no matter how voluminous, was not ‘the truth’. It was often just a signpost pointing to some of the truth, requiring careful interpretation”; and “There was a special responsibility to handle the material carefully, and to bring context to the stories, rather than just dump them out”.
In other words, the dissemination of secret information and news leaks in a dump per se adds little of value – especially if few pay attention to them in the first place, and even fewer spend time sieving through the data – unless it is packaged with the necessary context.
Overall, the book is a good primer to WikiLeaks and Assange. First, Leigh and Harding explain the three leaks in 2010 – the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, and the United States diplomatic cables leak – and both the findings and their implications. Second, in likewise chronological fashion, they provide succinct but useful biographies of Assange and Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning), set in the context of these three leaks. They go into some detail about the rape accusations which Assange is facing, yet the narrative of Manning and her disclosure of the military and diplomatic documents when she was working in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, framed through her correspondence with online acquaintance Adrian Lamo, was most compelling.
Third and perhaps most significantly, the process and merits of investigative journalism were detailed. Even though – in terms of sheer quantity of leaked data – the leak of the American diplomatic cables (1.7 GB) would be eclipsed by the Panama Papers (2.6 TB), the three aforementioned leaks involved multiple newsrooms too. Contact had to be made with Assange, through approaches to his colleagues. With the data in hand, they then had to clean the data (to disaggregate “US and allies, local Iraqi and Afghan forces, civilians and enemy combatants, and classing them … as either killed or wounded”, for instance), to create a search engine for efficient data analysis, and to redact identities to protect vulnerable sources or special operations.
The roles of the foreign correspondents and foreign affairs analysts – beyond the availability of the data – were emphasised. “The sheer range of journalistic expertise that five major international papers were throwing at the data would perhaps demonstrate the value of the world’s remaining MSM [to] be the genuine information professionals, standing out in an otherwise worthless universe of Internet froth”, and it was subsequently added that these reporters provided “contextualisation, specialist knowledge, and a degree of entrepreneurship in divining what to look for”. And it was these professionals, not just Assange, who actually helped to advance the discourse.