WikiLeaks Failure Suggests Need For Radical Transparency
March 24, 2012

WikiLeaks Failure Suggests Need For Radical Transparency

Enid Burns for

It's possible that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks didn't live up to what they hoped to accomplish, yet accusations from the government came with more force than necessary. Those are conclusions discussed in "WikiLeaks: The illusion of transparency," an article in the International Review of Administrative Sciences," published by SAGE Publications on behalf of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS).

The article, written by Alasdair Roberts of Suffolk University Law School in Boston, discusses four reasons why radical transparency is difficult to achieve. He believes WikiLeaks' goal for radical transparency has failed. The author argues that old-style secrecy still exists, though in its operations WikiLeaks and its advocates "have overstated their scale and significance."

The article points primarily to the 2010 postings of over a quarter of a million US government cables and documents. WikiLeaks goal in publishing said government documents, following the publication of leaked classified documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was to "give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the US Government's foreign activities," according to the company back in November 2010.

That insight sparked initial public attention, followed by action from the US government to take down the leaked documents as well as the organization and its founder, Assange. Roberts believes the demise of "old-style secrecy" is an illusion. He also finds that WikiLeaks supporters hold the open source information site in too high a regard.

"They also overlook many ways in which the simple logic of radical transparency - leak, publish, and wait for the inevitable outrage - can be defeated in practice," said Roberts, in a statement.

WikiLeaks operates under the goal to challenge "increasing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corporations." In going about its attempts to expose governments and corporations of wrongdoing the organization and its founder, Assange, became a target of the US and other governments.

The most notable events occurred in 2010 with the posting of US government documents. Just months after the site revealed classified documents to the public, WikiLeaks was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also, founder Assange became embroiled in a personal legal battle where he was charged with allegations of rape and sexual misconduct in Sweden.

Despite legal battles, Assange has been tapped to host the Julian Assange Interview Show on the Russian television broadcaster RT. The show was set to begin airing this month. The show does not appear on RT's programming schedule. The WikiLeaks founder also put in a bid to run for Australian Senate.

While WikiLeaks continues to put confidential documents under the public eye, is the method of a Wiki-based publishing system effective in shedding light on the dark dealings of governments and corporations? Assange thinks so.

In a speaking engagement at Cambridge University last year the CEO and founder of WikiLeaks called the internet "the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen." Yet article author Roberts questions whether the effect of publishing classified documents online has any greater effect than past incidences where classified materials were revealed.

Referring to the 2010 leak, the International Review of Administrative Sciences offers perspective on the volume of the leaks, "The leaks' sheer size in terms of volume of pages was cited as proof of their significance - these were the largest set of confidential documents ever leaked to the public. Yet in quantitative terms, the data's significance as a fraction of the total number of confidential documents is no greater than previous leaks during other eras. The sheer quantity of this type of data held by governments is constantly increasing," the article states.

The biggest casualty of the leaks dating back to 2010 was not the intended target. The US government recovered from the posting of revealed classified documents. It was the anonymous source, US Army private Bradley Manning, who was court-martialed in January for being a WikiLeaks informant.

When proceedings began in February, Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst, deferred his plea, meaning he allowed the trial to begin without entering a plea of guilty of not guilty. Manning was formally charged with 22 counts, including aiding the enemy, wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, and theft of public property.

In the meantime, US federal agencies are making it more difficult for workers to leak classified documents. The administration is tightening administrative controls on access to sensitive information. WikiLeaks continues to operate and publish leaked documents from anonymous sources. Just last month the site published confidential emails from a US-based intelligence agency, Stratfor.

According to Roberts, leaked documents could accomplish WikiLeaks goal of "radical transparency." Under this vision, the governments will practice an open policy on its operations, and explain its actions. In the article Roberts argues that even if documents are leaked, the government retains power by providing interpretation to leaked confidential documents.

"In its undigested form, information has no transformative power at all," Roberts says. "Raw data must be distilled; the attention of a distracted audience must be captured; and that audience must accept the message that is put before it."

This is where greater transparency works, when information is provided with interpretation. The interpretation component is missing when WikiLeaks posts thousands and millions of documents on its site for public consumption.