The WikiLeaks Paradox
Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity?
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, doesn't know who leaked the thousands of Afghanistan war documents that his site posted this week. That's not unusual—it's how WikiLeaks works. To get a scoop to WikiLeaks, a would-be whistle-blower clicks the Submit Documents button on the site's home page, then uploads a file through a form that encrypts every interaction between the source and the site. WikiLeaks keeps no logs of the submission, and the site says that it is legally bound, under Sweden's press secrecy laws, never to cooperate with any investigation into the identity of the source. The site takes several additional measures to scrub submitted documents of any information that could compromise the leaker, removing any ID trails left by word processing software, for instance. The site also constantly feeds fake submissions through its network in order to fool potential attackers. "We have never lost a source,"Assange declares in his pitch to whistle-blowers around the world. "None of our sources has been exposed or come to harm."
At the same time, WikiLeaks says its founding mission is radical transparency. Assange argues that "increased scrutiny"—of governments, corporations, and institutions like the Church of Scientology—can be a powerful force for good, reducing corruption and oppression. "Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future," WikiLeaks says.
This is the paradox of WikiLeaks' methods. Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity? If we don't know who the leaker is, why he's leaking, and how he came upon his information, can we really know the full story the document tells? More importantly, how can we know that the information is authentic? Look deeply into WikiLeaks' efforts at radical transparency and you find complete opacity; WikiLeaks wants to shine a light on the world, but only by keeping itself shrouded in secrecy.
Consider the Afghanistan war logs. WikiLeaks says that its source has given the site more than 91,000 classified military reports. So far, WikiLeaks has posted all but 15,000, which have been delayed "as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source." What does this mean? You can imagine many different scenarios: Perhaps the source is affiliated with the U.S. military and is afraid that immediate publication of the unpublished reports might harm American troops. On the other hand, what if the "harm" that the source wants to minimize isn't physical, but political? For instance, perhaps the information is so incendiary that it would affect the war funding bill being debated in Congress or significantly impact the midterm elections. Or maybe the danger is entirely more intimate for the source. If the source is Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst previously charged with sending documents to WikiLeaks, perhaps the demand to keep 15,000 documents in the dark is an effort to minimize further legal jeopardy.
Any one of these theories could be true, or none of them. That's the problem; the fact that the leaker wants to minimize harm suggests that he, like most whistle-blowers, has some sort of agenda. That agenda is a part of the story, and it could provide valuable context for all of this data. If the source wants the United States to end the war in Afghanistan, we would look at the documents in one way; if he simply wants the U.S. to prosecute the war differently—perhaps, for instance, by sending more troops—we would see the documents in an entirely new context. Because we know nothing about the source, we don't know the story he's trying to tell in releasing these—and not other—documents covering the war.
Also, isn't it at least conceivable that WikiLeaks' source altered these documents? Nobody in government has questioned the authenticity of the trove—in fact, in condemning their publication, the Obama administration seems to be confirming that the reports are real. Nobody in the media seems to be questioning whether WikiLeaks' stash is authentic either. This is partly because the documents look authentic—they correspond to known times and places of U.S. troops, and comment on real participants in the war in ways that fit a pattern with well-known events. But that only tells us that the documents aren't complete forgeries. There are tens of thousands of reports here, each extremely dense and technical. How do we know that the source didn't add, hide, or in some other way change a number or a sentence here and there in order to paint either a more positive or negative picture of the war?
We don't know. On its site, WikiLeaks explains its authentication process this way:
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.