The truly scandalous and shocking response to the Wikileaks documents has been that of other journalists, who make the Obama Administration sound like the ACLU. Assange may or may not be grandiose, paranoid and delusional - terms that might be fairly applied at one time or another to most prominent investigative reporters of my acquaintance. But the fact that so many prominent old school journalists are attacking him with such unbridled force is a symptom of the failure of traditional reporting methods to penetrate a culture of official secrecy that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11, and threatens the functioning of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy.
The true importance of Wikileaks — and the key to understanding the motivations and behavior of its founder — lies not in the contents of the latest document dump but in the technology that made it possible, which has already shown itself to be a potent weapon to undermine official lies and defend human rights. Since 1997, Assange has devoted a great deal of his time to inventing encryption systems that make it possible for human rights workers and others to protect and upload sensitive data. The importance of Assange’s efforts to human rights workers in the field were recognized last year by Amnesty International, which gave him its Media Award for the Wikileaks investigation The Cry of Blood - Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances, which documented the killing and disappearance of 500 young men in Kenya by the police, with the apparent connivance of the country’s political leadership.
Yet the difficulties of documenting official murder in Kenya pale next to the task of penetrating the secret world that threatens to swallow up informed public discourse in this country about America’s wars. The 250,000 cables that Wikileaks published this month represent only a drop in the bucket that holds the estimated 16 million documents that are classified top secret by the federal government every year. According to a three-part investigative series by Dana Priest and William Arkin published earlier this year in The Washington Post, an estimated 854,000 people now hold top secret clearance - more than 1.5 times the population of Washington, D.C. “The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive,” the Post concluded, “that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
The result of this classification mania is the division of the public into two distinct groups: those who are privy to the actual conduct of American policy, but are forbidden to write or talk about it, and the uninformed public. It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest - and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together.
Wikileaks is a powerful new way for reporters and human rights advocates to leverage global information technology systems to break the heavy veil of government and corporate secrecy that is slowly suffocating the American press. The likely arrest of Assange in Britain on dubious Swedish sex crimes charges has nothing to do with the importance of the system he has built, and which the US government seems intent on destroying with tactics more appropriate to the Communist Party of China.
And American reporters, Pulitzer Prizes and all, should be ashamed for joining in the outraged chorus that defends a burgeoning secret world whose existence is a threat to democracy.