Today WikiLeaks is a political fixture. It publishes anonymously submitted documents, some of genuine historical importance, and coordinates international media partnerships around the same. It has a notably robust attitude to censorship and has resisted numerous demands to withhold material involving powerful political, commercial, and bureaucratic entities. The organization also plays an outsized role in the political imaginary of those who worry about how the advent of social media is changing the business of representative democracy (1).
This all felt very novel in 2010. Over the course of that year, WikiLeaks worked through a series of publications of epochal importance disclosed by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Prime among these documents was a large collection of incident reports from the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, video footage from a helicopter gunship showing the killing of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists by US military personnel in July 2007 and, of course, a comprehensive collection of US State Department cables touching on relations with practically every country in the world.
The import of Manning’s disclosures is no doubt discussed in detail elsewhere in this volume. Given that they served as one of the triggers for the series of revolutions and grass-roots democratic movements that swept the world in 2011–12, it is hard to imagine a set of public interest disclosures achieving a wider resonance or provoking social change on a larger scale. Freely available to the public in a searchable online archive, these documents continue to serve as an important resource for journalists and researchers, as is clear from the regularity with which they are still referenced in news reporting.
During Manning’s court-martial in 2013, it emerged that she had approached a series of prominent media organizations, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, before going to WikiLeaks. The significance of WikiLeaks is amply demonstrated by the fact that, without it, Manning’s revelations would likely never have seen the light of day. The same is surely true of much of the series of publications that have followed since, an impressive group of revelations with particular strengths in diplomacy and the mechanics of public and private sector surveillance.
Without wanting to take anything away from those later releases, when considering the significance of WikiLeaks as a political project, it is 2010 that I find myself returning to. It was a moment when technological innovation, intellectual heft, and bullish public presentation combined to produce a dynamic that was profoundly exciting (2). WikiLeaks in 2010–11 was iconoclastic and engaging. Unlike most phenomena that can be described that way, it was also engaged in work that was profoundly important. An unusual and dangerous combination of traits—one which is liable to inspire others.
As the impact of Manning’s revelations cascaded around the globe, occasioning major power shifts that would otherwise have seemed unrealizable, it felt like there was a lifting of the veil about what kind of change could be contemplated in a post-crash world that was badly in need of a reset. Better still, in WikiLeaks it looked like there was an entity that had both the ability and the commitment to amplify the actions of gratuitously courageous individuals and generate the necessary demonstration effects.
When, at her court-martial in 2013, Manning made a statement taking responsibility for her actions, she also posed a rhetorical question.“How could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better?” Those words carried a particularly heavy weight, it being obvious to anyone not wearing a uniform that changing the world for the better is precisely what Chelsea had managed to do. How could we dare to hope that such a thing was feasible?
Julian Assange’s great contribution to the world is that he made the kind of heroism articulated and enacted by Chelsea Manning possible. Still more than this, he did so by design. Informed by a particular intellectual tradition, but with a degree of originality, Assange formulated a theory about how a particular aspect of the world worked and how it might be disrupted (3). These ideas about the durability of closed bureaucratic structures were set out on paper and are available to read today (4). When they were given organizational form and put into action, Assange did indeed change the world—by enabling others to do so—in broadly the way he envisioned.
This is a significant achievement and one that is worthy of recognition and respect. That respect should not be interpreted as some kind of blank check that exempts the bearer from criticism. Still less is it a claim for unquestioning obedience. Still, there is a kind of duty that pertains not to let the author of that achievement go down without a fight. This would, I think, hold true even if the wider implications of a criminal prosecution of Assange or other WikiLeaks staff for their publishing activities weren’t so utterly dire.
Back in 2010–11, again, this all seemed pretty commonly understood. Not only was there a large degree of consensus, people went to some effort to make the point—some to the extent that they put themselves at risk in the process. By enabling whistleblowers to generate impact on a huge scale, WikiLeaks also created a sense of opportunity that motivated action among a far wider circle. The momentum generated by WikiLeaks produced multiple waves of activism with different focuses and repertoires.
Enthusiasm arose, boundless, and loyalty did not need to be demanded. The activism around and provoked by WikiLeaks took a number of forms. Firstly, WikiLeaks clearly provided the inspiration for further disclosures—the line from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, Antoine Deltour, and others is obvious (5) —and this included the development of a phenomenon Biella Coleman has called the Public Interest Hack (6). Some of these disclosures were in due course released and preserved for the record by WikiLeaks—an act of tremendous value—but others were not. While the catalyzing force of WikiLeaks should not be underestimated, the ecosystem of leaks was always bigger than WikiLeaks itself, something that has become more obvious as time has gone on, particularly in langages other than English (7).
Others set up tools to broaden the use of anonymous disclosure. Regional leaking sites proliferated after 2010, though not many of these have survived to the present day. However, SecureDrop and GlobaLeaks systems are now used by a host of media organizations, civil society, and even government agencies to enable them to receive anonymous reports. WikiLeaks pioneered the use of this technology and that it continues to evolve and develop in several different incarnations is testament to the strength of that original vision.
Beyond the origination of public interest information, groups emerged for the purpose of analyzing liberated data. Impromptu discussions on social media or supporter forums coexisted with more dedicated structures. Prominent among these was Project PM, whose concerns about the political economy of surveillance pre-empted many of the current debates around platform capitalism and the power of the big internet companies. Other WikiLeaks-inspired activist projects were intended to improve the accessibility of published data, sometimes to the extent of providing new search interfaces that improved on those WikiLeaks had produced themselves. Then there were independent surveys of news reflected from and refracted through WikiLeaks publications.
The WL Central website, which launched at around the same time as the first of the State Department cables was released, was one of many that published supporter-driven articles on WikiLeaks and its publications. As time went on it also became one of the better sources for information on the wave of demonstrations that followed in Cablegate’s wake.
In addition to all this was the explicit activism in defense of WikiLeaks. Late 2010 saw the start of an informal payment blockade as major payment providers were prevailed upon to stop servicing WikiLeaks. In response, Paypal and other sites were targeted by a series of digital sit-ins. The selective and heavy-handed criminal prosecution of the #PayPal14 was just one of many (8).
With the experience of 2010–2011 in mind, some of what is happening today should not be unduly surprising. Concerns about a possible US criminal investigation were high at the time. Critics tended to argue not that a US prosecution would not be deeply problematic, but rather that it was not likely to materialize or that, at any rate, the US threat should not be linked to the European Arrest Warrant issued against Assange by a Swedish prosecutor in late 2010 (9).
Chelsea Manning was arrested in May 2010. Throughout the second half of that year, at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and later the Quantico Marine brig in Virginia, she experienced treatment that was later condemned by the UN special rapporteur on torture. At the time, nobody knew.
Information about the circumstances of Manning’s detention was only released to the outside world in the last days of December 2010, with some effort. Manning served almost seven years of a 35-year prison sentence for her whistleblowing, in difficult circumstances, before having that “clearly disproportionate” sentence commuted by Barack Obama in one of his last acts in office.
As I write this, Chelsea Manning has again been remanded to solitary confinement in jail after refusing to co-operate with secret grand jury proceedings in the Eastern District of Virginia. The grand jury appears to be a renewed attempt to bring a criminal prosecution against Julian Assange,the same process that was initiated in 2010 and rolled over several times since, now being pursued by renewed vigor under a US administration with few qualms about media freedom.
What, from the high point of 2010–12, is surprising is that now that the threat is undeniable, how subdued the reaction to it is. It would be a mistake to attribute this entirely to negative press coverage, still less secret machinations by shadowy elites. In part, it’s a product of a gradual attrition of faith in and goodwill toward WikiLeaks, which has been compounded by an utterly self-defeating refusal to acknowledge that this could conceivably be a bit of a problem.
What is particularly striking is not that there might be hostility from some of those who used to care the most—it’s that so many have made the journey through disappointment and anger into the realms of utter disengagement. From many quarters that cared deeply—and maybe still do—there is silence. There is no point denying that support for WikiLeaks at this juncture carries with it a certain amount of baggage, not least an unhealthy proximity to unlovely fellow-travelers on the American far right. This is a red line for many, and understandably so. A diminishing number of social media disciples reciting catechism at user accounts who have had the temerity to draw impermissible interpretations from commonly understood facts is also a tragedy of sorts. It’s certainly a strange place for a discursive revolution to find itself in.
Unfortunately, while the clarity and the sense of possibility of 2010–11 may have dissipated, the threats we were all concerned about then have not. A US prosecution of Julian Assange and other WikiLeaks staff for publishing classified information remains a profoundly dangerous prospect. Many of the advances made since 2010 are potentially under threat.
Computer crimes laws should not be used to stifle public interest speech. Extradition proceedings should not be used for political purposes. Large-scale leaks have proven an invaluable tool for social change. Anonymous disclosure is important and any motivation behind the submission of that information is secondary to its public interest value.
The threats are real and many of the arguments are not being made effectively, or at all. A lot has happened since 2010 and I appreciate the difficulty this accumulated baggage presents for many good and principled people. Most of those I have had the privilege to work with since then have a clear idea of what inspired them and the values they hold dear, not to mention the importance of Assange’s contribution to realizing both. If the evident injustice of Chelsea Manning’s re-imprisonment is to have any positive impact, maybe her courage and clear-mindedness can help those who have held back until now to navigate through this difficult and dangerous terrain and tell their truth.
Naomi Colvin, march 2019
(1) In the wake of surprise polling results on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016, many have sought to identify external actors who can be held responsible. While the possible use of anonymous leaking platforms by motivated actors including nation-states is an issue that deserves serious discussion substantial analyses of online information flows around the US presidential election emphasize the rôle of long-standing domestic dynamics. See e.g., Benkler, Faris & Roberts (2018), Network Propaganda
(2) A taste of this can be obtained from the Twitter archive of those years: https://wlcentral.org/twitter-archive.
(3) The intellectual setting for WikiLeaks and many of its founder’s perennial concerns is discussed in Cypherpunks, also published by OR Books, portions of which are excerpted in an earlier section of this collection.
(4) See CRYPTOME, July 31, 2010, http://cryptome.org/0002/ja-conspiracies.pdf.
(5) Though not the focus of this essay, this sequence of disclosures has clearly informed developments in the field of whistleblower protection—not least inthe recognition of the importance of privacy enhancing technologies. The whistleblower directive currently being negotiated by the EU institutions owes much to the examples of Manning, Snowden, and especially Deltour. As such, it simply would not have happened without Assange.
(6) Gabriella Coleman, “The Public Interest Hack,” limn, https://limn.it/articles/the-public-interest-hack/
(7) The patchiness of preservation efforts for those disclosures not published by WikiLeaks has posed difficulties for researchers. Initiatives to collate and preserve these varied archives are to be welcomed See e.g., DDoSecrets.com
(8) Those currently incarcerated for their support of WikiLeaks or alleged involvement in disclosures later published by WikiLeaks include Jeremy Hammond (https://freejeremy.net), Matt DeHart (https://mattdehart.com), Justin Liverman, Kane Gamble and, of course, Chelsea Manning (https://xychelsea.is).
(9) Assange’s battle against extradition to Sweden to face questioning on sexual assault allegations wound its way through the UK courts and was only interrupted by Ecuador’s grant of asylum to defend against a US prosecution in 2012. After several years of standoff and shortly before the statute of limitations on the one remaining allegation expired, the investigation was dropped in a way that was unsatisfactory to all sides. A large amount of WikiLeaks’ early reputational capital was expended around the Swedish matter, though many forget that as a result of that case, UK law was changed in 2014 and it would likely not be possible for a similar EAW to be issued today.