Conflicting Accounts of Wikileaks Leaking…Updated

Posted on January 29, 2011

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The AP reported on an interview it conducted with Julian Assange earlier this week, stating:

WikiLeaks hopes to enlist as many as 60 news organizations from around the world in a bid to help speed the publication of its massive trove of secret U.S. diplomatic memos, the site’s founder said Tuesday.

Julian Assange told The Associated Press that he was making an effort to reach beyond the major newspapers — such as The New York Times and The Guardian — that worked with him on earlier releases, saying that he already has about 20 media partners, and could triple that number within the next three months.

Okay. That sounds fantastic. I was hoping they’d do that. But then there’s this:

Assange said that all the newly recruited media organizations are being asked to agree to the same rules originally struck with The Times and other publications. The newspapers are asked to remove potentially harmful names or secrets that could endanger people’s lives and those cables are then submitted to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks in turn times the cables’ release to coincide with the papers’ articles…

Media organizations that say they’ve been given, or have obtained, the cables include NRC Handelsblad and RTL television in the Netherlands, Afternposten in Norway, and Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter.

The editor of Aftenposten, however stated quite clearly when announcing that his paper had the leaks:

“We have no comments on how we have gained access to the documents,” Editorial Manager Ronny Ruud told The Cutline.

“Moreover, I emphasize that we have access to all documents without any clauses or bonds,” Ruud said. “The documents will be continuously reviewed as the basis of articles by the same editorial criteria and ethical rules as the rest of the journalism in Aftenposten.”

Part of the confusion continues to come from the consistently incomplete and odd way that media has reported on the leaks, claiming that Wikileaks does this or that, when the reality is that a media organization is actually behind the actions, with or without the consent of Wikileaks. In the case of papers such as Aftenposten and Al Akhbar, which  have vocally stated they have no connections with Wikileaks, or refuse to acknowledge such connections, media accounts still refer to such publications as coming from Wikileaks. Wikileaks has not done much to settle the matter. For example, in this case, we have no idea if Aftenposten is considered to be one of the media organizations that has partnered with Assange, or if he referred to them in the “20” or “60” new media partners. I don’t know if that’s the fault of the way the article is written, or deliberate or accidental confusion created by Assange. I find no transcript of the AP interview, either.

Recently, the [unctuous] New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, wrote that they had received the database from the Guardian, as a result of the Guardian having received a re-leaked database from someone other than Wikileaks proper. The Guardian apparently, no longer saw itself as bound by its agreement with Assange, since it had received the leaks from a completely different source.

The Guardian was not to share the material with The New York Times [according to their agreement with Assange]…The Guardian’s investigations editor, concluded that these rogue leaks released The Guardian from any pledge, and he gave us the cables.

It seems that Wikileaks and its five named partners don’t have exclusive control of the database. Even if there are now, or will be 20 or 60 media partners, they will also not have sole access to it, nor have sole access now. A small group of entities are controlling who sees this information, when and for what reasons. Worse, we only know who some of them are, and can only guess at their motives. This wasn’t the case with the Iraq and Afghanistan logs, which were released to the world to make sense of and use of.

I understand and applaud the Wikileaks rationale for partnering with the five media organizations in the first place. It was a clever strategy and it worked. Media were forced to outdo each other to publish the leaks, and to republish accounts of the leaks. That’s just bottom line eye-capturing. The impact has been incredible in many ways: the amplification of the discourse of transparency; the loss of credibility of the world’s governments; and the rapt attention and affirmation that the leaks have given movements throughout the Arab world. Moreover, the leaks by their very nature encourage the idea of subversion on a popular level, making it cool to question and erasing some of the more jaded attitudes towards politics that have emerged in the past few years (What does the truth matter? We know they’re corrupt bastards!)

In their never-ending quest to cut through the clutter, new and old media organizations alike are contemplating the Wikileaks “drop-box” model. Al Jazeera has already made it a part of its website, The New York Times, ironically, considering how much jealous venom it’s shot at Assange, is also contemplating it as a model. Openleaks has now launched, with its model of a drop box connection to a variety of media and organizations.

But the best of Wikileaks’ strategy on the diplomatic cables is behind us now. The strategy has done all it can; now as it falls from its apogee, it can only do harm by making the information a commodity shared by a tiny elite. Ironically, this can only replicate the decrepit and corrupt model of information dissemination for profit and influence and control that it sought to undermine.

Update:

Apropos. Today UK’s Telegraph, reports on a Wikileaks cable released by Wikileaks that they claim, shows that the current uprising is the result of a calculated  plan going back to 2008, and that the US gave support to the groups involved. Its a claim that has to be viewed with great skepticism because there’s nothing in the cable that shows any direct linkage to these demonstrations by either the US government, April 6 Movement or the activist.

More to the point, because of the way that Wikileaks publishes its information, and the way that subsequent media orgs report on them, its often impossible to know if the leak appeared on Wikileaks first, outside of the arrangements with partnering media, appeared first with a  media partner, or came from a completely different source with no apparent connections to Wikileaks and then was republished on Wikileaks. At the very least, Wikileaks should start posting where the cable first appeared along with the cable on its own site.

I can’t think of a bigger dampener to the current demonstrations than to start a rumor that they are part of some US backed covert operation. Luckily, as Brian Whitaker notes:

The majority of the 80 million people of Egypt live in abject poverty. They do not even have cell-phones let alone smartphones like the iPhone or the Droid. They go to kiosks to make calls. A pretty substantial number of them have NEVER used the internet and do not have email accounts: the complicated mechanisms of self-promotion and information gathering and sharing on social networks is not a part of their lives – they have never had the money or the resources to get access to this other world which often lives in the relatively more affluent neighborhoods like Zamalek or Garden City or Mohandaseen—all within some walking distance of where the dissent started in Tahrir Square.

The majority of the protesters in Cairo, in Suez, in Alexandria, in Luxor, in Mahalla, in Mansoura and all over this ancient land which is the very heart of what it means to be Arab – are not “twittering” or “facebooking” or “emailing” or even watching the landmark live coverage that Al-Jazeera is providing. They are out on the streets – and yes, without phone access – risking their lives and giving vent to three decades and perhaps more, of anger.

In any case, it seems important to know the provenance of these leaks now if they’re not going to be universally distributed. Otherwise, they’re no different than “anonymous sources”.

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Now, we can see in real time how a press-inflamed rumor is shaped and spread. The Telegraph initially reported that the conference the unnamed activist attended was:

a US-sponsored summit for activists in New York

The actual redacted cable names the conference, “Alliance of Youth Movements Summit.”

Here’s how the Summit is described on its own website:

From December 3-5, 2008 the First Alliance of Youth Movements Summit took place at Columbia Law School in New York City. Streamed live on Howcast.com and MTV.com, the Summit brought together 17 inspiring leaders who shared how they used online tools to create social change.

The Summit was organized by Howcast Media with additional support from Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Columbia Law School, the U.S. Department of State and Access 360 Media.

Speakers at the Summit included:

*Whoopi Goldberg, Host of ABC’s “The View”

*Dustin Moskovitz, Co-Founder, Facebook

*James K. Glassman, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State

*Oscar Morales, Founder, One Million Voices Against the FARC

*The Obama Campaign’s New Media Team

*Matthew Waxman, Associate Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

Panel topics included How To Mobilize in a Challenging Environment, How To Use Online Media to Create Social Change and Building a Global Movement. View the whole agenda, watch the discussions and view the presentations here.

These discussions contributed to the construction of Creating Grassroots Movements for Change: A Field Manual and the launch of a new organization, The Alliance of Youth Movements that will work to help other organizations use online technology to advance their causes.

And here’s how YNet news now describes the Summit:

According to the report, the US-backed figures have been planning a regime change for the past three years.

Moreover, the American embassy in Cairo has helped a dissident travel to New York to attend a conference on the matter, while keeping his identity secret from Egyptian authorities.

That’s how a pretty mainstream and meaningless photo op for the Obama administration hosted by noted master-spy Whoopi Goldberg will soon become known as a secret US conference on the covert overthrow of the Mubarak regime through a fake and constructed grass roots movement.

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