Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Cablegate: Wikileaks still sucks

The latest leak is a fascinating look into secret world of fascinating diplomacy. But just because I find this interesting and enjoy reading it doesn’t mean I support the leak or Wikileaks.

So, I thought I’d write up yet again why Wikileaks sucks.

They didn’t do the leak

Wikileaks gets all the credit, but they aren’t the ones who stole the data. It was Private First Class Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst, who deserves all the credit and/or blame.

According to his chat with hacker Adrian Lamo, Manning walked into a secure computing room with a music CD labeled "Lady Gaga". He inserted the rewritable CD into the computer and replaced the music with sensitive data. He walked out with the CD, then posted the data to the Internet.

While acknowledging Manning’s involvement, everyone still gives Wikileaks the credit. But Wikileaks really didn’t do anything other than use the leaked cables to promote themselves.

Which is sad. Manning has been languishing in jail for the last 6 months since the discussion with Lamo led to an arrest, yet all the donations have been flowing to Wikileaks through their relentless donation drive, supporting Julian Assange’s jet-setting lifestyle.

Wikileaks doesn’t deserve either your praise or your condemnation for Cablegate: Bradley Manning does. If you support the publication of these cables, then your donations should go to Bradley Manning, not Wikileaks. If you don’t support Cablegate, then you should be calling for a swift trial and conviction of Bradley Manning, not Julian Assange.

What would ya say...ya do here?

Wikileaks reminds me of that mid-level manager in the movie Office Space trying to justify his job, even though it appears he doesn’t do any real work:

Bob Slydell: What would you say ya do here?

Tom Smykowski: Well look, I already told you! I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

Julian Assange is a people person.

Wikileaks didn’t steal the information – Bradley Manning did.

Wikileaks didn’t analyze the cables, highlight the meaningful ones, and put them into context – the press did.

Wikileaks doesn’t even do much to host the cables. The best way to read the cables is at the various newspapers, or downloading them all through bittorrent.

While Wikileaks pimps the latest outrage, it fails at long term storage. You can’t find things it leaked in the past. In contrast, a responsible Internet leaks site like Cryptome makes sure that leaked items are available years afterward for scholarly research.

They don’t even "promote" the cables: this would have been an equally big news story regardless if Wikileaks was involved or not.

The story becomes even murky when looking at other incidents. For example, a year ago, a hacker stole private e-mails from prominent climate researchers and posted them to websites skeptical of manmade global warming. Wikileaks had nothing to do with this leak, yet days later was widely taking credit for leak, such as in this video:

I blogged about the scandal a full day before the first Climategate files appeared on the Wikileaks sites.

Likewise, Wikileaks takes credit for the hacked Palin e-mails, which it had nothing to do with. In this list from the Daily Telegraph of "Wikileaks Greatest 10 Stories", it appears that Wikileaks had nothing to do with half of them.

There is no clear reason why anybody should send leaks to Wikileaks instead of the alternatives. There are already many ways to do Internet leaks. There is the mailing list called "full-disclosure". There is the 15 year old leaks site "Cryptome. There is the famous 4chan /b/ bulletin board. You can also send them directly to many newspapers.

Is journalism about truth or facts?

There is a debate right now about journalistic ethics and "objectivity".

A good example is Wikileaks "collateral murder" video. The term "murder" is biased and subjective. The term "kill" is objective fact. That’s why, for example, the Wikipedia article on the incident does not use the word "murder".

Perhaps a better example is whether to use "torture" or "harsh interrogation technique" to describe "waterboarding". There is no objective term you can use. Whichever term you use takes sides in the debate. This is an interesting post from NPR that describes the term they decided to use. I’m not sure if they picked the best choice, but this illustrates their commitment to the principle that they should not takes sides on the issue.

Another good example is the recent debate between verteran journalist Ted Koppel and talk show host Keith Olbermann. Koppel wrote an op-end in the Washington Post that criticized the subjective partisan news of MSNBC and Fox. Olbermann responded with this segment entitled "The False Promise of Objectivity", where he claims that subjective "Truth" is superior to mere objective "fact".

It is clear that Julian Assange and Wikileaks are of the same breed as Olbermann. Wikileaks is pursuing the activist cause of subjective truth rather than the journalist cause of objective facts.

I disagree. Modern society is based upon the Enlightenment values of objectivity, whether it applies to journalism, the scientific method, or the rule of law. Sure, we often fail at objectivity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.


I support the idea of leaks. Our system is based upon the idea that our leaders are accountable to the people. Our leaders are kept honest by the fact that there is always a possibility that their misdeeds can be leaked to the Internet. Even when we don’t always agree with the validity of a leak, we should also support the idea that leaks should happen.

But we shouldn’t support Wikileaks. They are not committed to objective facts. Instead, they are committed to self-promotion, and distorting the facts to fit their own political agenda.


Composing said...

Surely one great thing about wikileaks though is that they are crusading *for* the idea of leaks.

I don't want to take anything away from cryptome and the other leak-sites, but wikileaks have done more to promote the public awareness of leaks. To encourage people to leak (by taking a well publicised stand on protecting the leaker's anonymity (that's why they can't explicitly credit Manning)). And to work with other media organizations to get those leaks into public debate.

That's what Assange explicitly says he's trying to do with WL. And it does appear to be what he's doing, pretty successfully.

If you "support the idea of leaks" then you have to applaud Assange as, at least, their greatest salesman and evangelist.

Robert Graham said...

No, they aren't crusading for "leaks". They are crusading for "Wikileaks". There's a difference.

Composing said...

Not a particularly big or important a difference.

As a basis of comparison, don't Apple promote the idea of tablet computers when they sell the iPad? (That's why everyone else started making them, after all.)

If you were to apply the same reasoning to Apple : "Steve Jobs makes such a big noise about the iPad but Microsoft have been working on tablet computers since the 90. Meh!" you'd a) miss an important point about Apple, and b) miss an important trend in the computer industry.

Apple are *great* for the tablet computer market, even if you ultimately want to buy an Android or Windows device.

Similarly, Assange and wikileaks are *great* for the leaking business, even if people prefer to use Cryptome or, even, if newspapers get themselves back in gear start to do real investigative journalism again.

Robert Graham said...

The point is not that Cryptome was better then, but that it's better now.

Wikileaks is all about promoting Wikileaks. That's what it does best. It sucks at actually helping "leaks" along.

If you have something juicy you want to leak, and you want to help promote Julian Assange's jet setting lifestyle, then by all means, send to Wikileaks. If you want your leak to actually do something, send to a major newspaper, Cryptome, or full-disclosure.

Anonymous said...

I was a bit sad when you said we should all strive for objectivity, but then talked about Assange's "jetsetting lifestyle". I think jetsetting lifestyle is a bit of a strong statement for someone who is being tracked and threatened by every government in the world...

Anyway, Cryptome or full disclosure may have been around for a while, and what they are doing is great, but they never had the impact Wikileaks has had.
And this whole thing is also about raising awareness regarding dirty government secrets, and thanks to Wikileaks it's working, so really I can't see why you're complaining.

Robert Graham said...

Cryptome or full disclosure may have been around for a while, and what they are doing is great, but they never had the impact Wikileaks has had.

No, they haven't had the impact that Bradley Manning has had.

If Wikileaks hadn't been around, Bradley Manning would have used some other Internet leaks mechanism.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but you're really arguing over thin air.

Wikileaks didn’t steal the information – Bradley Manning did.
Wikileaks didn’t analyze the cables, highlight the meaningful ones, and put them into context – the press did.
That's correct, but no one said that anyway ! Just have a look at how Wikileaks describes itself:

"WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box)."

No more no less !
So I really can't see what the problem is. You're saying Wikileaks sucks because Assange is too talkative or something. Is this enough to just ditch the whole organization? I mean, who cares really ?
And it's not like anonymous sources are supposed to get credit for leaking info ??

Lets Talk About it said...

We run a Miami-based radio show called "Let's Talk About It!" on Wed. at 7pm. We are talking this week about wikileaks. Would you be interested in talking about it?