The Wikileaks Effect

When Wikileaks began to pour out documents from the massive trove of US Government memos, the grand ambitions of the site seemed on the verge of realization. Pundits proclaimed that journalism would never be the same, and tyrants had to shudder, because this was the beginning of a golden age for whistleblowers.

“Unfortunately I think the opposite is closer to the truth,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy, which promotes public access to government information. “It’s a very rich and consequential source of material that people are still coming to terms with.

But in terms of systemic openness there has been a predictable counter reaction setting in, and in place of greater transparency we are seeing heightened security on information.”

That heightened security extends to material many security analysts say never should have been classified in the first place. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order that should have stopped the over-classification. But this year, the Federal government classified 40% more documents than the previous year.

J. William Leonard was the nation’s “Classification Czar” under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2007, and is outraged that “No one has ever been held up accountable for improperly classifying information in the first place.”

Leonard thinks government secrecy is out of control– so much so that he took the unprecedented step of filing a complaint this year against the National Security Agency and Justice Department for classifying a document that contained no sensitive information.

He’s been very disappointed so far by the government’s response to Wikileaks. “We are confronted with — like it or not — a tremendous volume of heretofore classified information has been entered into the public domain. This gives us a perfect opportunity to do almost use it as a laboratory in terms of assessing our fundamental assumptions in terms of what constitutes information that requires protection by the classification system.” Leonard says no one in the current administration seems to be seizing this opportunity.

And while the government rachets up security and expands classification, potential leakers are rattled by what they’ve seen in the Bradley Manning case.

Steven Aftergood finds, “they’re either thinking twice or they’re taking you know more sophisticated measures to protect themselves or in some cases less sophisticated measures in the sense of not dealing with e-mail or any kind of Internet-based communication and simply sharing information in much more old-fashioned ways.”

But for reporters on the national security beat, the old-fashioned ways seem to be doing just fine. Dana Priest is a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for the Washington Post. She says that, “despite all the hoopla, the Wikileaks case has not really had an impact on my relationship with sources, and nor has that been the case with other reporters. If you’ve done national security for a long time, you’ve developed trusting relationships with people over the long run.”

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has criticized mainstream news organizations, and he’s described Wikileaks as a purer, ‘scientific’ journalism. But to claim science, you need to be able to reproduce a result. So far, Wikileaks hasn’t done that.

Dana Priest thinks that’s because the massive cable leak was a one-off, as unique as the Pentagon papers. “That’s not generally the way information comes to reporters. People might think that, it arrives in a package anonymously in the night. It doesn’t really–it’s the relationship building.”

Wikileaks has stayed silent most of the past year, which Julian Assange blames on an economic blockade. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal seemed poised to fill the vacuum; they were developing their own sites to accept material from anonymous leakers. But both efforts have stalled out.

Aftergood says, “It reflects the fact that the core element of Wikileaks disclosure activities is not the platform for receiving leaks or the relationships with the news media or the colorful personalities of Wikileaks proprietors— none of that is essential. What is essential is the leaker, the individual who decides to break ranks, break the rules, perhaps break the law.”

The importance of the source–the individual leaker– is becoming clearer now, as attention shifts from a globe-trotting provocateur to a troubled 24 year old Army private about to face the courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland.

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