Julian Assange is in a strange predicament: he is a fugitive in his homeland, government agencies have a bounty on his capture, heads of state are hunting him down, and yet, he has broken no laws[i]. Assange’s “crime” is founding and maintaining WikiLeaks, a website that posts confidential documents from governments, corporations, and other organizations. Many citizens and free speech organizations have hailed WikiLeaks as a refreshing voice in a world of increasing secrecy and surveillance. Others, however, find the site a threat to national security and privacy across the globe. The debate surrounding WikiLeaks highlights not only the question of waning protection of privacy but, more importantly, the juxtaposition of government secrecy and the desire for transparency. The news media tends to critique WikiLeaks from a policy perspective. Often unaddressed, however, are the sociological ramifications of WikiLeaks as a challenge to organizations’ claims for secrecy. WikiLeaks’s continued exposure of confidential documents undermines the secrecy expectations between government and citizen. Furthermore, the website challenges our assumptions about secrecy in a digitized world. Using the works of Michel Foucault and Georg Simmel, I will show how our cultural presumptions of secrecy and power dynamics are shifted when the government does not possess absolute control on information. WikiLeaks is an apt case study of how the digital movement and power of the Internet fundamentally alters our assumptions about secrecy and citizens’ relationships with governments.
The Sociology of Secrecy
Secrecy is a social necessity for interpersonal interactions. In his writings, Simmel views secrecy as “consciously willed concealment”[ii] of information to help create and maintain a public sense of self. Keeping secrets from others is a passive method of creating a social identity. Omission of information creates a personal self as much as revealing it. Although many joke about a casual acquaintance being nosy, these actions define why we find such probing to be annoying: it is an active violation of our ability to construct our social self[iii]. The nosy friend steps too far into the circle of friendliness and, by probing too deeply about one’s personal life, ignores the social norm of constructing one’s self. By omitting and revealing information to others, humans create an identity without needing to worry about ridicule or shame. These expectations of decorum are what forge relationships between people. Thus, violations of social norms and privacy occur when an individual’s secrets are revealed without permission. When this happens, an individual may feel their right to produce their self-image has been stripped away. Precepts of sharing secrets change when the second actor is the government, a large-scale bureaucracy composed of many people disconnected from each other, but working under the same name. With that said, one thing that remains is the notion of wanting to create a social identity; government has a vested interest in producing a visage that is appealing to its electorate and citizenry. Much like a person does not want its secrets revealed, successful governments must maintain a stable, orderly front.
By manipulating discourse and information, governments create stability and, therefore, maintain power. Michel Foucault states “There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth…we are subject to the production of truth through power.”[iv] Through a manipulation of discourse, or the means of transferring knowledge, a government maintains power not only by revealing information but also concealing it. The public’s lack of knowledge renders it powerless and prevents it from making completely rational, well-informed decisions. Issues of national security, for example, are kept secret to ensure the success of a military operation. Yet other information is kept secret without such compelling reason. This type of information is more contentious. For Foucault, the only way to challenge the authority of the state is through an entity isolated from outside pressures of power and prestige. We ought look “towards the possibility of a new form of right, one which must indeed be anti-disciplinarian, but at the same time liberated from the principle of sovereignty.”[v] The only challenge to these power structures is to provide the knowledge missing from government without becoming an institution tainted with aspirations of power and control. This had been a very difficult task to complete until the formation of WikiLeaks in 2006.
A Brief History of WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks is a website and online database dedicated, in its own words, to “bringing important news and information to the public.”[vi] The site arose out of several citizens’ growing concerns of government secrecy, enabled by the open access of the Internet. Over its five-year lifespan, both the site and its main spokesperson, Julian Assange, have acquired hundreds of thousands of documents from governments, businesses, and other organizations. Often these documents are classified, protected, or in some way hidden from public access. Assange or other associates receive all information anonymously and each set goes through a strict review process for accuracy. Examples of these releases include interrogation records of Guantanamo Bay prisoners[vii], over 200,000 diplomatic cables, and the Afghanistan War Diary[viii] with over 90,000 documents, images, and records of the US conflict in Afghanistan. Other records include in-house corporate emails, phone records, and the like. Records often portray the subject very differently than the mainstream media and average citizens have been led to believe. The Afghan war documents, for instance, painted a picture far bleaker in the Afghani conflict compared to the information coming out of the US federal government. WikiLeaks does not target groups or governments; rather, its mission is to provide open sources of information in its ongoing effort to increase transparency and knowledge. In other words, WikiLeaks is not spiteful of any one government or business, just organizations that they feel deceives the public. As the site’s prominence has grown, especially in 2009 and 2010, governments and citizens around the world have taken interest in the site. The site has been repeatedly shut down, defunded, and destroyed; yet the remains of the site are continually reposted, downloaded, and born anew by enthusiasts and supporters of Wikileak’s raison d’être. Currently, the site is hosted at wikileaks.org.[ix]
Policy makers and some government officials have asserted that the site poses a security threat because it reveals top-secret information. The Obama administration has denounced the site and demanded the detainment of Assange, as well as anyone found in connection with releasing classified documents. Nations have found it hard to get ahold of Assange, largely because he continually moves from country to country to evade detainment. Many are after this man, although no one has shown that his site has done anything particularly malicious. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that the damages to the United States’ security plans were “modest…but embarrassing” and that no one had died as a result from a WikiLeaks release.[x] Comparisons between the website and the Watergate scandal are abundant in mainstream media. A few similarities exist between the two: both involve the leak of classified information to major news outlets and both exposed confidential information that have often damaged credibility. Otherwise, the analogy falls flat as WikiLeak’s success hinges on widespread access in conjunction with concerns of government surveillance. Unlike Watergate, or any whistleblowers in the past, WikiLeaks gives everyone with an internet connection insider access to the secrets of governments and businesses. The more interesting examination resides in understanding why WikiLeaks shakes the core of secrecy in a way that Watergate never did.
As Simmel discusses, one of the advantages of secrecy is that actors can maintain a self-image and control the flow of information. This is destroyed when someone or something releases information and the organization can no longer keep secrets. In as much as government is an instrument to maintain power and control, it needs the ability to maintain a public image and release information. WikiLeaks dismantles the government’s secret keeping abilities by posting classified documents online. Moreover, it harms the persona of the government by releasing information that is contradictory to the stances it takes on issues. This undermines not only the government’s perceived legitimacy but also its ability to function. As more information is leaked that contradicts what has already been revealed, citizens trust the government less. For example, the United States government fell under scrutiny when Guantanamo Bay interrogation records were published to WikiLeaks and it was revealed that prisoner abuse had occurred.[xi]Initially, the leaks were used spottily in mainstream journalism under threats of treason in the United States[xii]though more newspapers have been reporting on the information as time passes. While one cannot claim sweeping changes to the entire journalistic process, it is likely that distrust will increase overall as citizens see the sheer number of secrets that are being done in their country’s name across the global arena.
More importantly, however, is how WikiLeaks changes expectations between government and citizen. Foucault sees secrecy as a necessary instrument of the state to control its citizenry. The control of knowledge ensures that the state’s power stays consistent and citizens obey the government. WikiLeaks carefully edits documents prior to release to try and prevent endangering anyone – and so far no deaths have been attributed to the release of documents from WikiLeaks. The government predicates the balance between privacy and transparency on national security concerns; when WikiLeaks exposes documents that fail to cause catastrophic effects in foreign policy, their justification for hiding everything falls to the wayside. Without the pretense of national security, the power maintained by organizations based on necessary secrecy is severely weakened. Mark Fenster asserts, “If we cannot assume or predict the existence of effects from a massive disclosure of classified documents, then a core theoretical concept and assumption for the laws governing access to government information are incoherent and conceptually bankrupt.”[xiii] It is foolish to suggest that the government release everything; there is the obvious need for governments to keep secrets to protect lives and ensure the success of current operations. The United States presents itself as being secretive only when necessary and transparent otherwise. If government limited secrecy to actual necessity, WikiLeaks would not need to publish documents and expose cover-ups.[xiv] The government hides too much and, in retaliation, WikiLeaks publishes such hidden information that does it no harm. As consumers and citizens become more accustomed to information transfer being so pervasive, transparency becomes an expected norm rather than an occasional surprise. Information control is out of the hands of the state and as a result, according to Foucault, the state’s legitimacy is undermined. Power of the state is not absolutely bound to information control, but Foucault’s analysis remains salient.
One unique criticism of WikiLeaks focuses on the idea of how WikiLeaks actually creates more surveillance and tighter control on information. Bodó Balázs suggests, “by putting the locus of sovereign power under surveillance [WikiLeaks] simply draws the state under this form of control, putting the last missing piece of the puzzle to its place.[xv]” By watching the watcher, in Balázs’s eyes, WikiLeaks furthers the state of surveillance and increases secrecy as more organizations draw within themselves to prevent leaks from happening. Organizations would literally destroy all recordings of information to avoid being exposed. On face, this argument makes little sense. Paper trails were created to replace the inaccuracy of oral communication. It would be foolish for the Pentagon to play “Telephone” with matters of national security, even when faced with the increasing burden of information being leaked. Additionally, this argument is a slippery slope that implies any form of check on government secrecy will encourage more secrecy. This assumes that watchdogs of the federal government are colluding with the government and have nefarious intentions. Eventually, everyone is watching everyone do nothing in Balázs’s world. The only solution, in his world, is to have the government check itself. A self-checking entity with no outside accountability seems just as likely to hide, forge, or otherwise conceal information as one with outside institutions checking their every move. Organizations will do unethical acts whether or not someone is watching. Balázs’s examples are too extreme; the reasonable approach is that some surveillance is necessary for accountability and authority. In as much as it is impossible to stamp out every act of corruption in government, the best solution is to have outside organizations, such as WikiLeaks, expose wrongdoing in hopes to consistently improve the institutions that dominate our lives. When compared to other scandals in American history, WikiLeaks is not nearly as damning as Watergate or the Enron scandals. Critics will say that without this sort of force behind WikiLeaks, it remains a tiny threat and is just exposing what we already know – that the US does sneaky things behind closed doors. WikiLeaks does lack the prestige and journalistic quality that reporters may have had in these cases; however, the site and its founder value openness and stand behind the same ideals that brought these scandals to the public eye.
WikiLeaks has created an interesting power dynamic between governments and their people. The site’s youth and constant media attention have placed it in an interesting position in the public’s eye – is it a friend or a foe, a bastion of transparency or the destroyer of governments? In some ways, WikiLeaks is both. It has changed our expectations of transparency and highlighted many dichotomies that remain teetering as the digital age launches out of its infancy and into its childhood, with Assange and WikiLeaks trailing close behind.
[i] At the time of publication, Julian Assange has been accused of sexual assault in Sweden. Since he has not been convicted of these crimes, I do not consider him a criminal, though this claim’s veracity could be overturned in the future.
[iii] McCoy, Allan. “Interpersonal Knowledge: Secrecy and Lies.” Class. March 3, 2011.
[iv] Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Vintage, 1980. Print.
[v] Foucault, 207.
[vii] “Guantanamo Bay: WikiLeaks releases chilling interrogation files of terror suspects.” Daily Mail Online. Daily Mail Online, 25 04 2011. Web. 26 Apr 2011. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1380290/Guantanamo-Bay-Wikileaks-releases-chilling-interrogation-files-terror-suspects.html>.
[viii] “Piecing Together the Reports, and Deciding What to Publish.” New York Times Online. Online, 25 07 2010. Web, 26 Apr 2011. <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/world/26editors-note.html>
[ix] This was the address as of November 28, 2011. I would not be surprised if this domain was suddenly destroyed and Wikileaks has moved elsewhere.
[x] Calebresi, Massimo. “WikiLeaks’ War on Secrecy: Truth’s Consequences.” Time 02 12 2010: n. pag. Web. 24 Apr 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2034276-1,00.html>.
[xi] Daily Mail Online.
[xii] It is illegal in the United States to report, transmit, or distribute classified documents, even if they have been publically made available.
[xiv] Jarvis, Jeff. “WikiLeaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency.” BuzzMachine. 04 12 2010. Web. 26 Apr 2011. <http://www.buzzmachine.com/2010/12/04/wikileaks-power-shifts-from-secrecy-to-transparency/>.
[xv] Balázs, Bodo. “You have no sovereignty where we gather – Wikileaks and Freedom, Autonomy and Sovereignty in the cloud.” Work in Progress to be Published -.- (2011): n. pag. Web. 24 Apr 2011. <http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1780519>.