The Whistleblowers: Is WikiLeaks a Blessing or Curse for Democracy?

By John Goetz and

The whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks, which posted the Afghanistan war logs this week, has made publishing government secrets its mission. Many see founder Julian Assange as a hero, but others, including the Pentagon, consider him a threat to national security.

Photo Gallery: The Web's Whistleblowers Photos
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He walks in quickly, a spring in his step. Even before greeting anyone in the room, he searches for a power outlet for his small, black computer.

It's a simple, inexpensive notebook, but the world's intelligence agencies would pay a lot of money for the chance to see what's on it.

The man's name is Julian Assange. He has just come from Stockholm, following a brief stay in Brussels. Before that, he was off the radar for a couple of weeks.

Assange is practically a wanted man these days. It's almost as if he were on the run.

Five agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security tried to pay him a visit two weeks ago, just before he was scheduled to speak at a conference in New York. But their efforts were in vain. Assange decided to stay in England after his attorney had told him that various other US government agencies were also very interested in speaking with him. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently characterized Assange and his work as "irresponsible."

A Forum for Anonymous Leaks

Assange is the founder of the Internet platform wikileaks.org. Together with a handful of full-time employees and many volunteers, he has operated the site since 2007. WikiLeaks gathers and publishes material that companies and government agencies have designated as secret. The site acts as a forum for whistleblowers and only publishes original documents -- in other words, no rumors or material written by the WikiLeaks staff.

In the past, WikiLeaks has published e-mails written by former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, exposés about the corrupt activities of former Kenyan leader Daniel Arap Moi and secret documents from the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. At that time, the site was mainly visited by insiders, but it gained international attention in April, when Assange invited a group of journalists to the National Press Club in Washington to watch a video.

The film showed the deadly 2007 attack by an American Apache helicopter on a group of about a dozen civilians in Baghdad, two of them employees of the Reuters news agency. The voices of the helicopter crew were also audible, their cynical comments only adding to the horror of the images on the video. Since the incident, Reuters had tried in vain to obtain a copy of the video. Assange, however, managed to get one. It was his biggest scoop to date.

A Threat to National Security

For some people, Assange and his collaborators are heroes fighting for total freedom of information and against any form of censorship. But for others they are traitors.

From the standpoint of the American authorities, the Australian is a serious threat to national security -- something the Pentagon has even put in writing. As early as 2008, the US military classified WikiLeaks as a serious security problem and discussed how best to combat the site. That document was also leaked to Assange -- and then published on wikileaks.org.

Since then, some have voiced concerns about his safety, and even his life. But it isn't quite clear whether the man who is now firing up his computer in London is dangerous or in danger. He is certainly conspicuous: a tall, thin man with snow-white hair and skin that seems unnaturally pale for the summer -- partly because he has spent the last few weeks preparing his next project and hardly ever going outdoors during the day.

In a room on the fifth floor of the building that houses the offices of the Guardian, he is giving the British daily newspaper, the New York Times and SPIEGEL an early look at a group of more than 90,000 individual reports from the war in Afghanistan, most of which are marked "secret."

'Everyday Brutality'

The publication of this archive, says Assange, will not only change the way the public sees the war, it will also "change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence." According to Assange, the documents "shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war" and will "change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars."

The archive contains intelligence information, assessments and many names, both of military officials and sources. The publication of secret military documentation of a war, which was never intended for the public, raises new questions. Is this journalism, covered by the public's right to information? Is it a legitimate look behind the propaganda machinery of the war? Or is it an act of espionage, and are Assange and his collaborators making themselves guilty of revealing government secrets? And are they ultimately jeopardizing the international troops and the Afghan informants helping them?

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1. You bet!
Naturhuf 07/27/2010
Considering the lying, cheating and data manipulation that is going on these days at all levels of society and politics, anyone, who is decent, honest and has integrity, cannot help BUT only see this as a blessing for society!! People really do not know how corrupt societies have become - the public needs to know that and hopefully this will finally foster positive change. Awareness is the first necessary step for change!
2. Accurate data on war a good thing
kevin kirchman 07/27/2010
The Wikileaks are showing everyone how much misrepresentation the US government is capable of. For too long we have all heard about US drones "killing suspects", where is due process of law? They say it’s a war for defence, but the US is a predominantly Christian state. Is this bias being acknowledged? Presumably, the US has a better form of government to install in Afghanistan. Consider this article http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_15452125?nclick_check=1 , "How laws are made in California", which has a very similar process as everyone else. "US interests" are no more an excuse than the same said by a car thief. Time the US government withdrew and saved their technically bankrupt government some money.
3. Democracy? Really?
non_agenda_eyes 07/28/2010
The only time this article even mentions democracy is in the banner headline. Not once do the authors even mention or explain how Wikileaks negatively affects democracy or democratic institutions. This renders the title effectively moot, since you can pretty much exchange any form of governance with democracy. I think they do a disservice to their readers when they make an accusation such as this, but fail to even make a case of how Wikileaks negatively affects democracy. What the MEAN to say is that it's a curse to sitting governments, creating headaches for bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders who prefer to craft and obfuscate their nefarious plans out of the public view. THAT is the curse to democracy. I think the bigger story here is that the media is complacent and even kowtows to the governments which control them, so whistleblowers don't feel comfortable leaking information to traditional media outlets anymore and instead go to unbiased websites like Wikileaks to make their information public without 'spin', such as this.
4. We cannot cherry pick the rights offered by democracy
Norberto_Tyr 07/28/2010
We cannot cherry pick the rights offered by democracy, or perhaps, what we currently call ‘democracy’, a vaporous anonymous cloud of responsibilities and power that would make shiver and course at by true democrats such as Pericles and Demosthenes. In true democracy the sovereign, the people, must be accurately informed, otherwise it degenerates to “chosen people’s oligarchy”. Relinquishing freedom of press is not the sole victim in current USA’s cherished capitalism: common sense, impartial justice, and hard work culture have been lost since long as well. The real problem is not to leak documents, but hiding the truth, namely war crimes. The puerile excuse of potential retaliation does not add-up since it would become a blanket to cover-up everything. For example, we should have not disclosed Nazis’ crimes since could trigger retaliation, nevertheless, they were not only disclosed but spirited into our houses on a daily basis by the ubiquitous and impertinent mass media owners without any scruples regarding retaliation on innocent people whatsoever, which they did occurred. On the other hand, Israel can hide facts such as utilizing chemical weapons upon civilians (Gaza 2008), ludicrous juridical decisions based on the mot blatant and shameless racism (the concept that consensual sex is rape if a person ignores the race of the partner), international trade of organs stolen from Palestine youth, possessing illegal nuclear weapons, et cetera, protected by this strange doctrine developed at the beacon of modern representative democracy, namely the USA: “we do not ask, then you do not tell”. The main problem of this doctrine is that it might leave crimes against humanity unpunished, even worse, it might persuade some people to commit crimes encouraged by the dubious promise of impunity on the grounds of protecting murderers and colleagues from retaliation. We must add the handy fact that it protects people in command as well, and this is an extra bonus. Norberto
5.
BTraven 07/30/2010
Zitat von non_agenda_eyesThe only time this article even mentions democracy is in the banner headline. Not once do the authors even mention or explain how Wikileaks negatively affects democracy or democratic institutions. This renders the title effectively moot, since you can pretty much exchange any form of governance with democracy. I think they do a disservice to their readers when they make an accusation such as this, but fail to even make a case of how Wikileaks negatively affects democracy. What the MEAN to say is that it's a curse to sitting governments, creating headaches for bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders who prefer to craft and obfuscate their nefarious plans out of the public view. THAT is the curse to democracy. I think the bigger story here is that the media is complacent and even kowtows to the governments which control them, so whistleblowers don't feel comfortable leaking information to traditional media outlets anymore and instead go to unbiased websites like Wikileaks to make their information public without 'spin', such as this.
Perhaps the headline was chosen to catch the interest of readers. It is a tradition of the “Spiegel” to give its readers the impression of being critically on every subject published in the magazine. Its reputation is based on a certain hostility to governments run by Adenauer after the war. The magazine still lives on its former editors remark who said that the Spiegel was the assault gun of democracy.
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