Wikileaks and War; Secrecy and Context

The world's sudden and unprecedented interconnectedness - as well as the great amount of novelty produced as a consequence of such a dynamic as this - puts new strain on the public's ability to identify that information which most demands consideration. The possibilities inherent to a radically altered global environment in which most anyone may talk to anyone, and is increasingly likely to do so, in turn amplify the potential forms that human activity may take. In an age in which more is happening than ever and all of it has implications for everyone else, the citizenry requires similarly amplified access to the most relevant information. What it gets instead is a haphazard media infrastructure that has developed through a blind mess of profitability, career maneuvering, chance, and inertia, rather than such circumstances as could lead to a more optimal end result.

Of course, no one is demanding that the mainstream outlets achieve some sort of Platonic ideal with regards to its end product. Rather, the deficit in quality between such outlets on the one hand, and others of more recent origins on the other - user-driven aggregation sites like Reddit, for instance, as well as the better blogs - provides us with a sense of what can be accomplished even without the exponentially greater resources possessed by such entities as CNN. Similarly, we can look at a copy of Time from the mid-20th century and see how far our newsweeklies have fallen since, or look at a copy of The Economist now and wonder why no American newsweekly can seem to pack an average of more than seventeen words into a single fucking page. We are not demanding the impossible, the improbable, or even anything that has not been done in the distant past and every week since - which is to say that we are indeed asking for the impossible, like when a kid asks Santa not to give him any toys but rather a sober daddy. Incidentally, the mainstream media has yet to hit rock bottom, blessed as it is with a hundred million enablers.

Still, those who are in a position to do anything about the broken media did not do it yesterday and are unlikely to come up with any good reason to do it tomorrow. More to the point, we do not need them to. The new institutions have begun to arrive; they have barely begun to approach their full potential, which we will not be prepared to even guess at for perhaps a decade. Among the most significant of these institutions, unprecedented in function and effect, is Wikileaks, the syndicate of free information activists who have established their own institution as the world's most effective outlet for the dissemination of secrets, particularly the stolen sort. And insomuch as that a large contingent of our fellow humans live under governments possessed of no transparency whatsoever and operating largely in secret - and insomuch as that our own government has failed to earn any sort of easygoing trust on the part of its citizenry - such an entity as this serves a wholly necessary function. Leakers know that any documentation provided to Wikileaks will reach a wide and sympathetic audience by way of a group of individuals who wholly support their decision to leak. And rather than just passively convey the information it receives, the administrators are actively involved in the struggle to ensure that there exists a viable refuge for whatever knowledge may require a legal haven in the future or is already outlawed in the present; several have been involved in writing the Modern Media Initiative, proposed legislation which would establish Iceland as the first such a haven. Like a number of other phenomena that have arisen over the past decade or so, Wikileaks brings implications that are not yet fully understood, even by its founders.

Broader issues aside, though, Wikileaks risks narrowing both its audience and its potential pool of informants if it makes a habit of coloring its releases as it did the Department of Defense video released on April 5th. Entitling the Apache gunner cam footage "Collateral Murder," for instance, was a foolish move, not least because "murder" is quite arguably not the best characterization here, to put it mildly. Worse was the editors' failure to point out that one of the men whose killings constituted the "murder" in question could briefly be seen holding an RPG early in the video; if they did not come across this in the course of identifying photography equipment in the hands of the two Reuters employees over the course of however many dozens of views they must have undertaken before releasing the video, they might want to recruit the folks at the Jawa Report to go over their work next time. If they did spot the RPG but neglected to point it out, they have gotten into the business of deception themselves. An institution that derives its position in part from its trustworthiness cannot afford to engage in that sort of behavior, particularly when so clearly fueled by some ideological bent - in this case, anti-Americanism of the sort that highlights cameras and ignores heavy weaponry. I assumed that Wikileaks would note any such potentially important factor as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the hands of one fellow among those whose killings near a battlefield are to be characterized as "murders;" and because additionally no one else had spotted such a weapon over the next day or so, I asserted that no RPGs appeared on the video at all. Although any error that I make is ultimately my responsibility no matter how it is made and no matter how many others made the same error, I will simply note that I and quite a few other commentators will never again give Wikileaks the benefit of the doubt when evaluating future releases, particularly when such things deal with the U.S. in general and military matters in particular.

As I predicted in last month's radio interview with Scott Horton, the video itself is not particularly earth-shattering in terms of what it depicts. Still, it has provided the public with a glimpse of guerrilla warfare as is practiced on urban battlefields - the sort in which a civilian who attempts to take a wounded man to a hospital can be shot to death and his daughter wounded in accordance with the rules of engagement, only to have some soldier remark that it was the civilian's fault for bringing his kids to a fight (which he didn't, of course). The importance of this clip is not that it depicts some rare and straightforward war crime, but rather that it depicts an unfortunately common and accepted aspect of such a war as we have gotten ourselves into at the behest of people who assured us that our goals would be accomplished in less than a year and with less than $60 billion.

Most such people, incidentally, are still pretending to be competent, honest commentators and statesmen, rather than abject failures. To varying degrees, the media has assisted in this ploy - due not to ideology, this time, but rather inertia. The "statesmen" in question are still around, giving advice to the current administration as it pursues a military course largely indistinguishable from the one that came before it. The commentators in question still retain their positions. Some of those whose predictions are now so laughable that no one bothers laughing at them anymore have actually been rewarded for their failures. Time gave William Kristol a column. The New York Times gave William Kristol a column.

The traditional outlets have largely failed, and the online institutions that have come about as a response to that failure already face an uphill battle in establishing themselves as credible alternatives to the large and established entities that lay claim to so much public attention by virtue of being large and established. It does not help when one of the most promising of these new, internet-driven institutions seeks to advance some ideology through incompetence, dishonesty, or both. William Kristol has enough competition as it is.

If you've had enough of people like William Kristol, meanwhile, consider joining Project PM. You don't have to be a blogger or journalist to assist; any clever person is qualified to serve on the legislative network, for instance, and various disparate skill sets are of potential use in our campaign to engage the traditional news outlets and demonstrate the viability of technocratic online citizen initiatives.