The WikiLeaks Paradox: Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity?

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July 28 2010 4:46 PM

The WikiLeaks Paradox

Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity?

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WikiLeaks staff examine all documents and label any suspicions of inauthenticity based on a forensic analysis of the document, means, motive and opportunity, cost of forgery, what the authoring organization claims and so on. We have become world leaders in this and have an enviable record: as far as can be determined, we have yet to make a mistake. This does not mean we will never make a mistake, but so far, our method is working and we have a reputation to protect.

I don't doubt that the site takes great pains to investigate its leaks—Raffi Khatchadourian's recent New Yorker profile of Assange painted a picture of tireless devotion. You might also argue that questions of trust are just part of the deal when you rely on anonymous sources—a long-defended, if controversial, journalistic practice. But there is a profound difference between how WikiLeaks uses anonymous sources and how the rest of the media does. When the New York Times has a document provided by an anonymous source, its reporter knows the identity of that source. In that case, we expect the reporter to assess both the source's information and the source's reasons for reporting it. When mainstream media outlets are duped by these anonymous sources, we—justifiably—blame them for not checking things out.

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Indeed, some critics of anonymous sourcing have called for the outing of lying leakers. In October 2001, for instance, ABC News' investigative unit reported that "four well-placed and separate sources" revealed that the anthrax used in the postal terror attacks contained a chemical additive that suggested ties to Iraq. When, in 2008, the FBI revealed that its lead suspect was Bruce Ivins, a scientist with no connection to Iraq, Salon's Glenn Greenwald and journalism professor Jay Rosen both called on ABC to reveal its sources. Outing the sources, they argued, would serve as an important check on people who try to peddle false information—if a leaker knew that he could be outed for lying, he'd be much more cautious. (ABC News did not comply with the request.)

Any such checks on a source's veracity are impossible under WikiLeaks' processes. If WikiLeaks doesn't know who provided a document in question, how can it know the source's "means, motive, and opportunity" to determine if the document is real? Even Assange admits these shortcomings. He told reporters on Tuesday that his worst fear was that a source could subtly alter leaked documents without WikiLeaks finding out. If WikiLeaks does end up publishing a dubious document, there would be no way to expose its anonymous source in order to deter further fraud.

WikiLeaks says there is one additional check on the authenticity of its leaks—the "collective wisdom" afforded by the Internet minimizes the risks of fraud, the site says. If a document is fake, the "broader community" will suss it out. To me, that provides little comfort. WikiLeaks is not really a wiki—a Web site that allows the Internet hordes to edit its information. Although WikiLeaks shares what it calls the "comfortable presentation style of Wikipedia," it does not allow people to edit source documents nor the accompanying commentary that explain the documents (those are written by WikiLeaks staff, who aren't identified on the site). Also, unlike Wikipedia, WikiLeaks isn't an open organization that anyone can join, nor does it have any democratically agreed-upon rules about the kinds of leaks it will publish. Instead, in nearly every way that matters, WikiLeaks is an opaque, insular organization.

I'm not saying that any of this should disqualify WikiLeaks' documents from serious discussion. I am surprised, though, that the site's admirers—including Rosen and Greenwald—aren't more troubled by the secrecy at the heart of its operations. I also wonder whether the extreme measures of secrecy WikiLeaks grants to its sources are really necessary to its mission. If WikiLeaks really is legally bound to never release the identity of its leakers, can't it still find out, for itself, the identity of its sources—if only as a way to more thoroughly check out their leaks? Perhaps this would put WikiLeaks in some kind of legal or physical jeopardy; maybe Assange or his staff could be jailed or harassed for not identifying their sources. According to Assange, though, that's already the case—he says he could be jailed if he enters the United States, and he takes extreme security measures. These risks he takes to protect his sources are probably one of the main reasons the leakers trust WikiLeaks with their information. Given the site's track record, would many leakers balk if WikiLeaks began asking them simple questions? Let me offer a few suggestions: Who are you, how did you find this document, and why are you leaking it now?

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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