Who Leaks the Wikileaks Cable-Leaks? Correction Below

Posted on January 15, 2011

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Since the media started paying attention to the events in Tunisia, which began in mid December, a major theme has begun to emerge: that Wikileaks’ diplomatic cable disclosures brought on the uprising. This theme is based on two incorrect assumptions. That Wikileaks is responsible for the leaks on Tunisia, and that the astonishing and wide-spread uprisings in Tunisia were triggered by the leaks.

Where to begin? In the first place, let’s talk about the normative way that the cable leaks are supposed to emerge. Wikileaks partnered with five newspapers—Le Monde, El Pais, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Wikileaks gave each newspaper the entire database of leaks, and, apparently, came to some semblance of the same agreement with each of them about publishing the leaks from that point outward. The paper could publish any leak, but Wikileaks had final say about when cables from each geographic region could be published (at least that is the agreement with the Guardian). The specifics of those agreements remain unknown. Each time one of the papers publishes an article based on the leaks, Wikileaks then publishes the relevant cables on its website, often with the same redactions that the paper itself may have placed, and apparently at other times without those redactions. I had to cobble together that information from two different sources, here, and here, which had differing claims and information about the process.

Okay. That’s all fine and confusing and not at all clear. But that’s just the start. Vanity Fair reported that someone (most likely affiliated with Wikileaks) leaked the entire cables database to The Guardian, which has technically freed The Guardian from any agreement it made with Julian Assange. The Guardian itself is a bit cagey with how its agreement with Wikileaks/Assange really stands, writing only that:

This system applied to most of the cables released up to the end of last year…

And apparently, Aftenposten, a Norwegian-language paper, announced that it too had acquired the entire cables database, and had absolutely no agreement with Assange or Wikileaks. Wikileaks hasn’t commented on Aftenposten’s aquiring of the leaks.

Al Ahkbar, a Lebanese newspaper, published about 200 hundred cables on Tunisia the Arab World, that were then apparently republished by Tunileaks (that is, if Tunileaks didn’t get them as well and the relationship was actually the other way around). But none of these cables had appeared in any of the affiliated papers, or in Aftenposten, and Akhbar did not have a known agreement with Assange. The editor of Al Ahkbar won’t say where he got the leaks from, except that its a confidential source. Max Fischer reported on the Tunisia Arab leaks in December, though apparently, as far as I can tell, nobody else did. Another wrinkle in the El Ahkbar Tunileaks cable leaks is that Tunileaks was created on the twenty-eighth, the same day the cables were released by Wikileaks, while El Ahkbar published its cables on the thirtieth. Tunileaks was apparently expecting a lot of leaks on Tunisia, but there would have been none if it had waited for the five papers and Wikileaks/Assange to publish them.

Thus, to say that Wikileaks is responsible for the fall of the Tunisian government in some way, is at its heart entirely incorrect. Without Tunileaks and/or Al Ahkbar, and their unknown leaker, none of these cables would have come to light under the current agreements that Wikileaks has with the five newspapers.

Now, that that’s out of the way. Even if the Tunisian leaks had come from one of the five papers, or if we knew that Wikileaks itself had given Tunileaks the leak, the cables themselves do not seem to have been the biggest factor in the uprising. Rather, the self-immolation–or it should be said, astounding act of protest of one young man–Mohammed Bouazizi, triggered the first wave of protests in a small town, Sidi Bouzid. The next day, a shooting of a protester in the same town triggered more protests, and they built up from there and spread through the nation of ten million. This all occurred in a manner reminiscent of the first Intifada of the eighties, in which a car accident that took the life of a young Palestinian girl, served as the catalyst for widespread demonstrations that continued for years.

But this all occurred several weeks after Ahkbar/Tunileaks began posting their leaks. The line of sight from the Bouazizi’s act to the uprising is direct; from Al Ahkbar/Tunileaks not so much. The reality is that poverty and unemployment had been steadily worsening in the past few years, achieving record highs, and popular antagonism towards the Ben Ali regime  had been worsening as the most well-known cable notes:

He was living, however, in the midst of great wealth and excess, illustrating one reason resentment of President Ben Ali’s in-laws is increasing.

Wikileaks is indirectly claiming credit for the Tunisian “revolution”, by citing articles on its Twitter feed that make the claim. One, from the Daily Mail,  should be placed in an exhibit on piss poor reporting at the Museum of Hackery and another from a Huffington Post journal should be placed in an exhibit right next to it illustrating the perils of suspect sourcing from on-line journals.

I’ve liked Wikileaks/Assange and the impact they’ve had, but increasingly I worry about their/his methods. Again, had Wikileaks/Assange followed its plan to allow the five newspapers that it partnered with release the stories, there would never have been these Tunisian leaks.Whether or not the cables had any kind of role in the uprising, Wikileaks certainly didn’t (unless they secretly re-leaked the cables themselves. Ow, my head).

Correction:

I wrote:

Al Ahkbar, a Lebanese newspaper, published about 200 hundred cables on Tunisia, that were then apparently republished by Tunileaks (that is, if Tunileaks didn’t get them as well and the relationship was actually the other way around).

That’s incorrect. The cables were from around the Arab world, not just Tunisia. Tunileaks published 24 cables in total that apparently came exclusively from Al Ahkbar. Only 10 cables appear under the heading Tunis in the cableleak page on Wikileaks.

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