On Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and Deep Throat

05 juni 2013 • 0 reacties

This week, the US soldier Bradley Manning has gone on trial accused of delivering hundreds of thousands of classified US government documents toWikileaks. He has already pleaded guilty to the charge of transmitting digital information to Wikileaks.

 

Pte Manning faces life in jail for violating the US Espionage Act and for aiding the enemy. The enemy, of course, is notJulian Assange’s WikiLeaks, although the US government really hates him, but Al-Qaeda.

 

Manning says he leaked the documents to spark a debate about the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dark, secret diplomatic dealings. His lawyer claims that manning transmitted the documents to Wikileaks "to make the world a better place," the New York Times reports.

 

The Manning-case has various dimensions. I am not sure a democracy like the United States should be proud of the way it has handled Manning's imprisonment, subjecting him to psychological torture.

 

But here I will focus on the journalistic dimensions, having dealt with some of the leaked documents while I was editor-in-chief of NOS, the biggest news organization in the Netherlands.

 

It was exciting trying to contact WikiLeaks, talking to them through scrambled lines and finally meeting Julian Assange in person and getting some idea of his anarchism, as well as his thoughts on governments and hacking. Although we published a lot of stories and around 200 documents on the NOS website, which everyone could browse, the Dutch government did not fall and no minister was forced to resign.

 

I did not expect that; the Dutch are not really a big player on the global stage.

 

Nevertheless, the stories provided insight into secret dealings, described diplomatic efforts to influence Dutch politicians, and revealed how a Social Democrat minister was put under pressure, at the behest of the Christian Democrats, to vote ‘yes’ to a new military mission in Afghanistan.

 

Very interesting, very insightful.

‘Deep Throats’, or whistleblowers, the people who hand us the information we cannot obtain ourselves, are the friends of journalists. They help us to break the stories that are meaningful by bringing to light documentation that was meant to be kept in the dark.

 

Nothing new there.

 

In a way, Manning and perhaps Assange to a greater extent are both examples of the kind of confidential sources that journalists have always worked with and have a duty to protect. But when we look closer, there are significant differences between how things used to be and how they are now.

 

The digital world is much bigger and more secretive then we tend to think, because we are journalists and a bit naive. As someone from the world of WikiLeaks explained to me a year ago:

 

"The web has closed - digital technology is so refined that your government knows everything. Every phone call you make, every place you take your mobile phone to, every mail you send, all is known."

As a consequence, the original Deep Throat, the one from the Woodward and Bernstein era, would nowadays not be able to remain an anonymous source for very long. Quite soon, the modern day Nixon would know who Deep Throat was calling, where he was going and who was in his vicinity.

 

First and foremost, we need to realise that this is changing journalism and how we manage our confidential sources. There is no place to hide anymore.

 

It also makes it clear that hackers like the 'WikiLeakers', although just a small group of people, can sometimes be a very powerful force for sharing information. Assange and his small group of digital desperados had the American government ‘by the balls' for rather a long time.

 

It illustrates a broader development, which is also taking place outside journalism, whereby technology is empowering individuals and making them equal players with big government, corporations and other organizations.

 

We may have different standards, but there is no doubt that we need to learn the skills and the enterprise of Assange’s hackers, and others. They are warriors in a digital battle that we too often ignore.

 

We should not copy the anarchy of how they often think and act, but we could be their partners – and they ours – in bringing to the surface stories that are hidden deep down below.

 

For me, that was the most important part of dealing with WikiLeaks: getting to know their world, getting to know their ways of thinking, connecting the journalistic powers that be with the digital forces that will arise.

 

Journalists should not copy their methods. We are still here to check and double-check, as well as to protect, as this is demanded on the basis of our own ethics, the privacy of people involved.

 

The old ways of doing, the old institutions, have suddenly collided with a group of new kids on the block. Even if WikiLeaks ceases to exist, new and equally powerful groups of just a few people will emerge and organize themselves on an ad hoc base.

 

Their power will be temporary and they will be temporary partners of journalism.

 

That is what really happened. We are witnessing the rise of the individual, or of small groups of people, who use the digital world to reveal secrets. They have their own agenda, which is not necessarily ours.

 

Bradley Manning is playing a part in all of this. It is likely that he will go to prison for a long time and that the judges probably will not share his ideas of a better world with fewer secrets.

 

But there is another dimension and we, as journalists, should think about what it means for us.

 

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