WikiLeaks blowing the whistle

By Drew Hunt

Actions taken by WikiLeaks were met with resounding indignation, although not everyone is upset for the same reason. Diplomatic officials labeled the leaking of the cables as an act of outright terrorism, and the Obama administration is considering harsh legal action against the organization. But while the government’s ire stems from what it deems a “serious violation of the law,” others are appalled by what can aptly be described as sheer buffoonery in U.S. foreign relations.

WikiLeaks is a media organization that publishes confidential government documents via anonymous sources, effectively “leaking” them to the public. Its most recent foray resulted in the publication of a quarter million classified communications between foreign diplomats, known as cables. The leak provided an unprecedented look into the conduct of the country’s diplomacy.

This is, in fact, the second major discloser of classified government materials provided by WikiLeaks this year; the first incident came in late July; That particular leak shed light on the calamity of the war in Afghanistan and while the information it entailed was bad for the government, the outcome of this newest leak left a far more substantial blemish.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the cables provided by WikiLeaks depict the country as adrift in a world of growing unease: fussing about Pakistan’s loosely guarded uranium yet remaining wholly unable to influence what it does with it; relying on the Saudis despite their funding of Sunni terrorists and demands that the U.S.  dismantle Iran’s nuclear capabilities; and having absolutely no idea what North Korea is plotting.

The question then becomes whether this leaking of so many confidential documents qualifies as journalism—or even news. The actual act of leaking the documents is surely news, but what about the information in them? What is the significance of seeing a major world event breaking in slow motion?

Despite the sneaky nature of the situation—and the government’s assertion the actions taken by WikiLeaks are egregiously unethical and entirely unlawful—American citizens now have a bevy of vital information at their fingertips.  And it’s the kind of information that directly affects them: The professionalism (or lack thereof) of our leaders correlates to our reputation in the global community.

Meanwhile, diplomats tasked with carrying out respectable and professional foreign relations are often prone to cattiness. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is labeled as “feckless” and “vain” in the cables, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is referred to as “Hitler.”

Seeing as our country’s diplomatic demeanor is currently on par with a gossipy, tween-aged slumber party, to say we,  as citizens, have the right to be aware of diplomats’ conduct is a gross understatement. Had our diplomatic officials operated in a more professional and competent manner, there would have been no reason to leak the cables in the first place.

But while we can credit WikiLeaks for being the ultimate whistleblower, we can’t accurately define its actions as journalism—at least not in the traditional sense.

This is due in large part to its anonymity. Aside from its founder—a man by the name of Julian Assange—nobody is implicated in the actual extraction of the cables, relegating the individuals responsible to nameless, unaccredited hackers.  And for all intents and purposes, that’s precisely what they are. Yet the impact of their hacking—or “reporting”—left no less of a mark than if a group of reporters from any of the major news outlets the website supplied the information to had found it themselves.

In short, WikiLeaks did the work. But WikiLeaks, unlike The New York Times or The Guardian, makes no pretense of objectivity and is entirely unapologetic in its anti-war, partisan viewpoints. Within the context of journalism, virtually everything WikiLeaks does is unethical in practice, yet it remains unscathed because what it does is not journalism. Rather, it transcends journalism—blurring the lines between history and current events and removing the distance between the government and its people.

The variety of information available on the Internet is nothing short of staggering, but by its very nature, is ultimately unfiltered. What WikiLeaks provides is uncensored information, direct from the source and in its purest form.

This is where the role of journalists truly comes into play: They provide the context. While the information within the cables may prove detrimental to certain foreign policy leaders, the media can help the public in understanding exactly why it’s detrimental. Perhaps then, American citizens will demand more from their governmental leaders, and they’ll be forced to take notice.