Today saw the release of 90,000 pages of classified reports from the US Army by Wikileaks.org through its three media partners, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. The leaking of such a large volume of secret material in the middle of a war has only one recent parallel: the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times after they had been stolen and copied by Daniel Ellsberg.
But this leak of the so-called ‘War Logs’ has a number of new features, thanks to the internet. First, and perhaps most importantly, the source remains anonymous. Of course Wikileaks itself is the target of campaigns and attacks and threatened prosecutions by a number of governments, but the individual(s) within the US military who originally supplied the material to them remains unknown. And the same is true of many other Wikileaks sources (although the informant who allegedly leaked the ‘collateral murder’ video is now in custody).
Wikileaks is also (to all intents and purposes) indestructible, and this raises a number of fresh questions for authorities who would like to shut them down. Using secure encryption, servers and mirrors in various countries and the protection of some pretty determined web hosting, Wikileaks has made itself virtually invulnerable to ‘technical measures’.
The combination of these two factors means that the genie really is out of the bottle and we are seeing the ecology, politics and economics of news media changing before our eyes. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of what Wikileaks has done – and let’s face it, when it comes to war all information is a form of propaganda – the fact remains that the wholesale leaking of secret military and diplomatic and commercial information is here to stay. And so far I think it’s fair to say the response of the US government to this new reality has been – how can I put it? – lame.
There’s really only one strategy for coping with Wikileaks, and that is to try to marginalise them. You can’t just shout at them and try to tell people that they are irresponsible. You have to work out a way of discrediting them or removing their legitimacy. And to do this you need to be very subtle. First of all, you need to acknowledge the veracity of a large part of the information they’ve put in the public domain. But then, and only then, can you start to play on people’s legitimate anxieties about the context and interpretation of this data. Do not, whatever you do, try to imply that Wikileaks has an agenda, or that they are effectively doing the Taliban’s bidding. That will backfire, as we have already seen.
Concentrate on the data, take specific examples, show how, with a lack of context for the reports, they become fairly meaningless. Take some of the more unreliable information and show why it’s bogus. Ask some preliminary questions about Wikileaks itself – who are they, do we know anything about them? But don’t push it, and certainly don’t try to insinuate that they are putting soldiers at risk. It might even be true, but if you say that you’ll come across as threatening and defensive. Simply explain why some operational information has to remain secret in order to protect soldiers. Maybe even try releasing a little information of your own, but be careful.
Unfortunately for them, the US govt doesn’t show any sign of accepting and certainly not understanding this situation. They still just think that if they get their lawyers to mail a ‘cease and desist’ letter and threaten sufficient punishments, the leakers will sooner or later comply.
Of course the impact propaganda has, and the public’s propensity to believe it, has as much to do with the situation in the war as it does with the presentation of the message. There has been for some time a growing feeling that Afghanistan is a disaster, an unwinnable war, a costly and unnecessary foreign adventure that will harm the US and possibly destroy the NATO alliance. This makes it much more likely that the public will accept wholesale the version of the war presented in the ‘War Logs’ and via the partner news outlets. Any counter-messaging has to be extremely carefully considered at this stage, not to appear to be painting a rosy picture of a desperate and hard-fought conflict.
It will be very interesting to see how Julian Assange’s carefully managed media presence evolves over the next few weeks, and how the response of governments to this latest leak takes shape as the story unfolds. So far, Wikileaks is winning, and not just on points. If the White House and the Pentagon want to regain the initiative they need to get their heads around this whole new world of news immediately and start dealing with it in a very different way. But judging by their reactions today, the signs are not good. They had better be careful in case sooner or later Wikileaks lands a knockout blow, and domestic support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq collapses completely. That might make it impossible for the US to engage in any military interventions overseas for the foreseeable future.
And that would make the world a very different, and not necessarily safer, place.
UPDATE: in case you missed it, here is Julian Assange’s press conference from the Frontline Club today – http://bit.ly/9MIBtW