Fresh eyes needed on WikiLeaks’ treasure trove

When WikiLeaks turned from publishing battlefield reports to secret US State Department cables, the initial effect of seeing state-to-state relations shorn of traditional diplomatic obfuscation was electric. The lasting effect was more like reading your teenager’s Facebook page, initially shocking but ultimately predictable, and for those with the right experience, actually pretty familiar.

Again, there were fears about exposure and endangerment. The Atlantic magazine even alleged that WikiLeaks had exposed Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to treason charges by revealing his views on sanctions, as if Robert Mugabe had ever felt that he needed “evidence” to jail someone.

Some regimes are passing laws to extend the meaning of treason to cover economic “attacks” as well as military or political ones. In that particular hall of mirrors simply voicing sympathy for a tourism boycott can get you bundled into the back of a van.

And any association with the US looks bad to a lot of people in some parts of the world, especially when done in private. WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange hardly helped this week by telling al-Jazeera TV that many officials visiting US embassies are “spies for the US in their countries”.

Generally though, the diplomats and politicians named and shamed (and sometimes praised) in the WikiLeaks cables tended to escape chastened but safe from the experience.

The risk is far greater for the many ordinary human rights defenders and civil society activists who have risked a visit to US embassies in their home countries. They come, often in suprisingly large numbers, to make advocacy cases to what they hope are sympathetic US ears, and until WikiLeaks, away from the dictators’ prying eyes.

OccupyWallStreet WikiLeaks Truck
Spoof WikiLeaks truck at an Occupy Wall Street protest: Pamela Drew / WikiMedia Commons

Intelligence officers have a reputation for boosting the significance of their reports by making more out of routine contact with dissidents than the exchanges actually deserve. But the CIA removed them all from the SIPRNET digital shoebox of US diplomatic cables that alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning drew from.

But the risk remains, as I was firmly told by a US embassy political attache in an Arab state this month. A veteran human rights campaigner had already warned that many local rights activists expect more support from US diplomats than they will actually get; in the vault-like security of a typical US embassy they speak more freely than they possibly should.

The embassy attache was adamant. It was only a matter of time before a human rights defender was exposed by WikiLeaks, and jailed or killed as a result. “Then in that case,” he said grimly, “you may ask Mr Assange exactly what he thinks he has done for ‘transparency and human rights’”.

Weirdly, almost on cue, Wikileaks released a cable that might have proven his point, in which the name of the source — a public critic of a particularly reprehensible head of state — was redacted by WikiLeaks. However the redactor, presumably unfamiliar with the dissident’s work, failed to recognise a giveaway clue cited in the cable’s title.

Even with the redactions, anyone with reasonable knowledge of the country concerned could have guessed who was being quoted giving off-the-record, publicly unatributable, deep background information — or so he thought — to US diplomats about top-level state corruption.

Again, dictators don’t need evidence to jail people, and the key equation at the heart of the work of free expression defenders supported by Index on Censorship is simple: risk balanced against effect.

The risk posed by exposure by WikiLeaks is one more fresh edge to the multi-faceted threat they, their families and friends already face.

But WikiLeaks is supposed to be helping, no?

Redaction of data was never meant to be WikiLeaks’ prime duty, so it should be no surprise that they do it unwillingly, and when they do, that they can do it badly or obscurely. Index on Censorship raised the issue of the giveaway clue in the title of the otherwise redacted leaked cable with WikiLeaks directly.

They replied sympathetically, but noted that the redacted name was already out there as author of a critical book about the head of state. “…(S)o we feel that too much redaction is futile,” said the reply. “However, we do feel it is better to be safe than sorry and so have redacted the title…”

Well, OK, but the root of the question is the same as that raised everywhere, very specifically at an Index on Censorship debate between WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and UK journalist David Aaronovich at London’s City University this year.

Since WikiLeaks decided to take editorial responsibility for selecting, redacting and publishing the content, what editorial criteria do they apply, what process is followed, what in-house oversight is there of their work and what qualifies for redaction under its “harm minimisation procedure”?

WikiLeaks itself said this was a problem, solved by opening up the data in advance to selected international publications, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times among them. That relationship has since splintered over coverage of Julian Assange’s personal issues, but the relevance of adding external expertise to the process — expertise that WikiLeaks doesn’t have — still stands.

Assange repeatedly maintains that “(WikiLeaks) must protect our sources at whatever cost. This is our sincere concern”. But while he says his organisation presently releases files in a “responsible” manner, he fears extradition to the US and makes a clear threat to everyone involved, willingly or otherwise. “If I am forced we could go to the extreme and expose each and every file that we have access to.”

It’s easy to underestimate how much time US embassy staff spend talking to dissidents, opposition leaders, human rights and civil society activists. Hundreds could be named in the WikiLeaks collection of diplomatic cables still unreleased. It might be helpful to provide advance warning to dissidents about to get their moment in the WikiLeaks sun, and prepare the various organisations charged to defend them.

The WikiLeaks core principles, at least as they were when Index on Censorship honoured the organisation in 2008, are good ones. But surely it’s possible to bring together independent groups of advisors, or draw on the advice of local human rights defenders. Maybe just three experts, easy to find, who before redacting or not redacting a name, will have at least read one of the redactee’s books or are more personally acquainted with the threats he or she faces?

First published by Index on Censorship on 31 December 2010

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