What Sense Can We Make of WikiLeaks in Top Secret America?

7 years ago

In the last two weeks, two stories have made national news that  posed challenges for journalists on the national security beat: the Washington Post's blockbuster investigation of the sprawling national security empire that has emerged since 9/11, and Wikileaks' online publication of tens of thousands of internal military documents related to the Afghan War. Taken together, the stories raise important questions about the nature of journalism and the state of public discourse.

For a student of journalism and civic engagement, whole dissertations could be written about what has and hasn't happened as a result of these developments. Principally, I think the lesson is that journalists need to focus not only on the acquisition and presentation of information, but on presenting that information in a way that aids sense-making and empowers citizens to act.

MIAMI - JULY 26: The homepage of the WikiLeaks.org website is seen on a computer after leaked classified military documents were posted to it July 26, 2010 in Miami, Florida. WikiLeaks, an organization based in Sweden which publishes anonymous submissions of sensitive documents from governments and other organizations, released some 91,000 classified documents that span the past six years of U.S. combat operations in the war Afghanistan. (Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a way, the revelations in the Post series and the WikiLeaks disclosures raised related questions. Both prompted the public and political leaders to question the effectiveness of the US response to the threat of terrorism. Both engendered a debate about whether the disclosures affected national security.

WikiLeaks: Journalism Game-Changer or Mischief-Maker?

The unorthodox nature of the WikiLeaks operation, including their decision to provide advance copies of the dispatches to three leading traditional news organizations, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian, forced a new conversation among news professionals as well. Tellingly, WikiLeaks' web page refers to the the three newspapers as their "partners," while New York Times executive editor Bill Keller insisted that WikiLeaks was merely a source.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26: Julian Assange of the WikiLeaks website speaks to reporters in front of a Don McCullin Vietnam war photograph at The Front Line Club on July 26, 2010 in London, England. The WikiLeaks website has published 90,000 secret US Military records. The Guardian and The New York Times newspapers and the German Magazine Der Spiegel have also published details today. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

There has been a lot of discussion about the substance, methods, ethics and implications of the Wikileaks disclosures -- especially after news reports that the Taliban is hunting down Afghan informants named in the documents who cooperated with NATO forces. A young serviceman, Pfc. Bradley Manning, thought to be the source of an earlier leak of a military video showing US troops gunning down Afghan civilians and two Reuters journalists, is in custody in Quantico, VA. According to the UK Telegraph, graduate students at MIT are also under investigation in connection with the charges against Manning.

According to this New Yorker profile of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' idiosyncratic founder and center of gravity, the organization rejects consultation with military authorities as a matter of policy, so that particular piece of standard journalistic method of avoiding life-endangering disclosures was not employed. Instead, WikiLeaks follows what Assange describes as a "harm minimization" protocol. In the New Yorker piece, the harm minimization effort involved scrubbing digital identification information from documents, and getting a message to the family of the Afghan civilians gunned down in the earlier video warning them of its impending publication. Beyond that, Slate's Farhad Manjoo notes that it's not always clear what harm minimization means, but it's quite different from what traditional journalists mean when they use anonymous or confidential sources:

"[T]here is a profound difference between how WikiLeaks uses anonymous sources and how the rest of the media does. When the New York Times has a document provided by an anonymous source, its reporter knows the identity of that source. In that case, we expect the reporter to assess both the source's information and the source's reasons for reporting it. When mainstream media outlets are duped by these anonymous sources, we—justifiably—blame them for not checking things out."

This is one reason I disagree with Daniel Ellsberg, who compared the disclosure to his leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times when he was an analyst for the Rand Corporation back in 1971. (Ellsberg has a list of a few other documents he'd like to see leaked.) The Pentagon Papers came to the New York Times with Ellsberg's assurance of their validity. The Times editors could question him about his motives. The nature of the WikiLeaks submission process makes this impossible. They are an organization whose stated mission is to ensure that government, industry and other powerful organizations operate transparently, but their entire operation is designed to ensure secrecy.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called Wikileaks "the world's first stateless news organization," a fact that leaves them out of reach of many of the traditional methods of ensuring press accountability. Like of other information publishers, however, they are dependent on donations, so that is one way that news consumers can register their support or displeasure with its activities.

There's one other problem. The raw dispatches from WikiLeaks are subject to widely varying interpretation. In their examination of the documents, the New York Times said that it could not always determine whether the battlefield reports were from eyewitnesses or based on second or third-hand accounts. Like the first bulletins from a breaking news event, it's not even clear that the information contained in the bulletins is always accurate. In at least one instance, according to Wired magazine reporter Noah Schactman, "a great deal of important context is missing."

On August 25, 2009, Shactman was on the scene in Helmand province in Afghanistan, where a skirmish broke out between insurgents and NATO forces. The fight ended when the NATO forces, dropped a bomb, reportedly killing one insurgent. The WikiLeaks document notes the exchange, but as Schactman told On the Media's Brooke Gladstone, it leaves out the fact that the NATO forces were surrounded, that some of their representatives were in the town trying to get the cooperation of community leaders, and finally, it omits the efforts the US commander made to avoid civilian casualties. Given all of those omissions, Schactman has this advice for reading the documents:

"Readers might be led to believe that all that's going on in Afghanistan is shooting and blowing stuff up, and that's not the case." Readers have to bring a "critical eye" to the documents. "What they're reading is just kind of an echo of what actually went on."

You can listen to the Shactman's conversation with Gladstone here:

ARLINGTON, VA - JULY 29: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Admiral Mike Mullen hold a news conference at the Pentagon July 29, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. Gates announced that he has asked the FBI to help in the investigation of the release of more than 90,000 classified Army documents about the war in Afghanistan published by Web site WikiLeaks on Sunday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Top Secret America: An Old-Fashioned News Blockbuster


By contrast, the The Top Secret America investigation was conducted in a more traditional fashion. The inquiry disclosed the existence of a US intelligence apparatus that had become unmanageably vast and largely privatized. However, as the trailer for an accompanying documentary by PBS' Frontline shows, it is also the story about the methods professional journalists use in an effort to make the invisible visible. Using public records, mapping software and contacts in the military and intelligence, the Post's reporters created a database with multiple points of entry that lays out connections between individual companies, government agencies, and departments within the military.

The Post team showed the results of their two-year effort to military and intelligence authorities before publication to be sure that their disclosures would not compromise national security. They say they withheld some information as a result of those discussions. Finally, they sought comments from the government leaders and other experts, including an interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had some revealing comments about, among other things, the relationship between his office and that of the Director of National Intelligence:

"[M]y view is that the compromises that were made in passing the Intelligence Reform Act really inhibited the ability of the DNI to carry out what most people thought the DNI should do. "And what we've tried to do is develop some workarounds that try and fill that gap. For example, because the DNI, according to the law, can't hire or fire -- of any of the -- the defense intelligence organizations, even those for which the National Intelligence Program provides money, I agreed to double-hat Jim Clapper as the director of military intelligence. So he actually reported to the DNI, and the DNI had a pipeline into this building where he could levy requirements and information that he -- get information when he wanted it and so on. And we've developed some workarounds that were captured in the redraft of 12333 in terms of hiring and firing that give the DNI more authority."

If you pierce the jargon, Gates is saying there is duplication between his office and that of the Director of National Intelligence because the DNI didn't have statutory authority to do the job. That's a bit of perspective that doesn't come from a document dump alone. Fortunately, the Post team is planning to stay on this story, so there is a chance the kinds of questions that emerge from a response such as Gates' can be pursued.


Reporting for Impact

Neither Top Secret America nor the WikiLeaks documents have generated the kind of policy debate that might have been expected. In the WikiLeaks case, the US government is more focused on prosecuting the leakers than on the substance of the documents, which they insist are old news. The Government Accountability Office is investigating the intelligence effort, and a member of Congress has promised support for a Congressional hearing, according to the Washington Post.

Rosen thinks it might all be just too overwhelming:

"The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?"

Rosen might be on to something. Blogher community member Stephanie West-Allen, at Brains on Purpose points to work by neuroscientists revealing that our brains are wired to respond to singular threats, not dangers that affect large numbers of people. In order for projects such as the Afghan War Diaries or Top Secret America to have a real effect on public discourse, it might be necessary to put more effort into dramatizing the human impact of all of that data. That's generally the point of old-fashioned journalistic storytelling, but it also argues for creative experimentation with the interface designs for data-driven presentations, including formal usability testing. 

Certainly, we need information about how our leaders conduct business in our name, especially when that business is deadly, as in war. Whistle-blowers are a necessary part of that process, and there is every sign that WikiLeaks will continue to be a popular site for exposing secrets. One has to hope that Assange and his colleagues will become a more responsible actor, especially when disclosing information that places lives at risk. One hopes as well, that more investment will be made into creative ways of making vital information more compelling than overwhelming.

Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|

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