Blame Enough to go Around in Wikileaks Debacle, Update

Posted on September 1, 2011

2


Der Spiegel has a pretty good break-down of how the entire cache of diplomatic cables that comprise Wikileaks oeuvre ended up in a bit torrent, floating around on the internet for close to a year and how the password for it came to be hiding in plain sight for the last six months. According to the magazine’s report, a combination of bad management, ruffled feathers, poor oversight and hubris led to a perfect storm where the cables could be downloaded and decrypted.

If events occurred in the way that Der Speigel’s account suggests, Assange deserves a healthy dose of blame for ironically not living up to his autocratic reputation, and having no protocols for handling the file once it had been accessed by his media partners. He apparently simply left the file sitting in the sub-directory that the Guardian had accessed, trusting the Guardian to either believe him that he would take the file down and/or change the password [which is what the Guardian contends they were told would happen], or to simply keep his secrets for him. Both are bad, but the latter is even worse, given the repercussions for alleged leaker Bradley Manning if the US could suggest that uncontrolled release of the files endangered lives or national security. That no protocols were in place for how to handle the file after transfer is simply astounding, and that “volunteers” would take it up on themselves to send out the file on bit torrent while an active password was in the ether is also difficult to understand. Serious failures here in Wikileaks, which bolster Domscheit Berg’s accusations that the organization couldn’t make any guarantees to whistleblowers, which is his alibi for taking the files in the first place.

Domscheit Berg’s [and other’s] actions, according to the DS account are arguably worse. As careless as Assange and WL were with the data, the fact that the files and the password were floating freely in the public sphere for anyone to combine would have been little but some local color for history professors to tell their students a half century from now had it not been for DB’s actions. Telling a media organization [and apparently undisclosed others] how to put two and two together is inexcusable, although one can understand some of the logic behind it. DB’s reputation is also on the line given his accusations and the counter-accusations. WL has gone as far as to accuse DB of working for the CIA. Having upped the ante, its clear that DB sought to prove that his actions were based on legitimate issues, and not related to espionage or just petty grievance. But he obviously crossed a bright line.

The Guardian’s editors come off the best in the entire mess. Leigh’s claim that they had no reason to believe that the password had any value seems reasonable, especially in the light that Wikileaks may have known that the file that corresponded to it was bouncing around the internet in a bittorrent since December 2010. David Leigh’s publication of the full password in his tell-all of his experiences with Assange is odd, nevertheless. Even if there is some rationale for expressing the entire password as it was given to him, there was no reason to publish the extra word that he was given verbally, and that would have made the password useless in any case. I suppose there’s an archival argument to be made as the details regard history. Still, its pretty weird. I find the idea that DB and Leigh conspired together in a sort of Treasure Hunt conspiracy pretty ludicrous. But it does end up being one of the only explanations given the lack of any rationale for publishing the password in this manner–not a defense of that conspiracy theory, but simply to demonstrate how difficult it is to understand the logic behind the move.

As always, its the public that are the big losers. What began as a seemingly new paradigm in news-gathering, pretty much ends with a door slamming shut for the time being. I can’t imagine anyone will be eager to leak to anything or anyone for a while to come. What’s made it worse is Wikileaks constant shifting of blame for everything to other actors. To a certain extent, I understand what motivates this, given the incredible pressures that the organization and its founders are under. But as a once enthusiastic [and now less than this adjective] supporter of the work and organization, it’s simply insulting to see the org trying to manipulate its supporters.

As someone who spent many long hours trying to make sense of Wikileaks operations and actions, so that I could understand and explain how awesome it was to others, it does rankle to be told very obvious distortions–such as WL’s recent claim that its failure to make good on its promise of a blockbuster BofA leak was due to DB’s actions in taking documents when he left the organization. I remember quite clearly WL’s claims in December that the leak was just on the horizon. They were using it as a way to raise money for the organization. Again and again, the leak never came, though the rumors began to spread that there was nothing decisive in the documents. Rather than honestly answer to the confusion around BofA, WL kept silent–or worse, hinted that it was just around the corner–and now blames the failure on others. On a more minor note, WL’s constant threats of lawsuit, are to me personally, also disappointing. What all of this suggests is not a break with business as usual, it simply shows that everyone who challenges the game, ends up a player in it, with spin and distortion to their own followers and supporters one of the most salient aspects to it. Assange, like everyone else involved in the halls of power he currently accesses, seems to view us all as pawns, to be manipulated and herded. On a personal level that’s simply disappointing, and the contrary to the public face of Wikileaks as a key to greater openness and honesty in our public sphere.

Nevertheless, nuggets are still being pulled out of Wikileaks leaks, and with the entire cache now available, there is the hope that something that will shake the foundations of the US government will be found there. Though claims that the leaks are behind the Arab Spring are disingenuous and ethnocentric, the world is a much better place for the leaks than it was before them. And an entire generation of young people have been inculcated with the idea of transparency as an important aspect of the political process. All this is very important and gratifying.

But I guess, what I’m saying is, it didn’t have to be this messy, or disheartening.

Update:

The entire set of cables is now available through various venues. Wikileaks has also posted the unencrypted file on its website, where it is available for download as a fairly large compressed bittorrent. The Guardian has now published its own version of events. Here is a link to the Wikileaks version of events published earlier.