U.S. Intellectual History Blog

WikiLeaks and Historians: Some Thoughts

WikiLeaks has become something of a political and cultural obsession in recent weeks. Billions of bits have been spilt on its meaning for secrecy and security, for journalism, and for the future of information.*  Less attention has been given to its meaning for historians, let alone intellectual historians.  Generally, non-historians have tended to glibly remark that the document dumps will, of course, be great for us.  We historians ourselves, however, seem more divided on the issue.  What follows are a few very raw and random thoughts on what WikiLeaks might mean for us.  I hope they mark the beginning of a conversation about WikiLeaks on USIH.

How can we contribute historically to the discussion of WikiLeaks itself?

Some historians have weighed in on the ethical and political significance of WikiLeaks.  Sean Wilentz, for example, has tried to draw a disanalogy between WikiLeaks and what is still the gold standards for leaked classified documents, the Pentagon Papers

It’s not as if we’re still up against the Vietnam War; and everybody has a right — no a duty, to play Daniel Ellsberg.  But this is extremely dangerous, given the imperatives of diplomacy. Is there some profound deception of the American people and the world going on which, as with Ellsberg, requires an insider to, in effect, blow the whistle? I don’t get that sense. I get the sense that there are people out there, like the WikiLeaks people, who have a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency, who are simply offended by any state actions that are cloaked.

I think historians can add significantly to the conversation about WikiLeaks by thinking carefully about such historical analogies….though I’m prone to disagree a bit with Wilentz both about WikiLeaks motivations and about the state of the world today. Unlike Ellsberg, who was a pretty classic whistleblower, dealing in information that he himself had helped produce, WikiLeaks presents itself as a kind of new form of journalism.** They are a platform of sorts for potential whistleblowers and other leakers from all imaginable organizations and states.  And whatever else one may think of WikiLeaks, the charge of simple indiscriminateness is not entirely fair: they’ve released a very small set of the material they’ve collected and have expressed a concern with protecting vulnerable personnel.  Their vetting of their material may be inadequate, but they are not behaving as an organization (if that’s what we should call them) who embody such a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency.
How will the WikiLeaks document dumps contribute to the practice of history?
Some historians, like Timothy Garton Ash, have responded to the WikiLeaks documents in the way most non-historians have predicted that we would, seeing them as a great gift that will, at the very least, speed up historians’ understanding of the recent past.  In a December 1 NPR interview, Garton Ash welcomed the US diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks:

It’s very, very rich material. The only other time you have that opportunity is when a state collapses, like communist East Germany or Nazi Germany. Then historians get to see all this stuff. But it’s incredibly unusual and strange for it to happen with a functioning superpower. 

But in a December 5 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the political scientist Daniel Drezner argues that their effects will be negative in the longterm for political scientists and diplomatic historians, as governments (and, one might add though Drezner doesn’t, corporations which WikiLeaks is also apparently tracking) become much more stingy with their information.
In a sense, I think both of these views miss the real story here:  the very possibility of WikiLeaks suggests that we are in a new age of information. That’s hardly a surprising view…and yet as our information age rolls into different areas of our life, we are continually surprised.  Even nearly a decade after digital files killed CD sales, the movie and tv industries were still apparently shocked when streaming video began to cut into DVD sales and rentals.
As a number of the participants in a recent discussion on WikiLeaks at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society pointed out, WikiLeaks may well be the Napster of the new age of political information.  Just as the recording industry mistakenly believed Napster itself to be the problem when that file-sharing service first appeared, it’s easy to misperceive WikiLeaks itself (or even Julian Assange, who while a founder of WikiLeaks is not even WikiLeaks itself) as the issue.  The real issue here is what 21st-century information technologies do to 20th-century secrecy regimes.  And if the story of digital audio file trading is any indication, what will likely succeed WikiLeaks is a much more anarchic set of players who really will try to make all information available to everyone (something that WikiLeaks has not, in fact, attempted to do).  
And while I have little doubt that states and other entities invested in secrecy will take new steps to limit the spread of information, there’s great truth in Stewart Brand’s dictum that “information wants to be free.”  It’s certainly true that the US government’s post-9/11 emphasis on information sharing made it much easier for someone like Bradley Manning to gain access to what eventually became the WikiLeaks documents.  But the deeper technological and social forces here go far beyond such political decisions.
This new world of information raises an additional challenge for historians (one that historians of the 20th century already deal with in a more limited form): a crushing increase in the shear volume of information available.  Of course, digital technologies also give us new tools to process this information….and that opens up a whole separate area of discussion.
How might intellectual historians understand the “WikiLeaks Manifesto”?

Two 2006 essays by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have been circulating to much discussion on the internet.  Entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy and Governance,” they are available in a .pdf here. Although sometimes referred to as the WikiLeaks Manifesto, these represent the thinking of only the most prominent person involved with WikiLeaks…and his thinking may have changed in the four years since they were written.  
Nevertheless, there are ideas here. And intellectual historians presumably have something to add to the conversation about them….as well as to the meta-conversation about them, which seems to me often to be treating them as the pseudo-thoughts of a kind of cyber-bomb thrower, turning Assange into a sort of Unibomber of information.   
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* On this last issue especially, I recommend this very interesting podcast discussion from Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society hosted by Jonathan Zittrain and Lawrence Lessig.
** Ellsberg for his part has been among the staunchest defenders of WikiLeaks, pointing out that “EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time” and urging a boycott of Amazon.com following that company’s decision to knock WikiLeaks off its hosting service at the urging of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Looking back to Noam Chomsky’s essay on the responsibility of intellectuals, perhaps we can title this “On the Responsibility of Leakers.”

    What is the responsibility of WikiLeaks when they have obtained documents that name agents in the field, or might slow the progress of negotiations that could end a war? When lives are at risk, what is the responsibility of those who would claim the greater good of transparency trumps everything?

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for getting this topic started at USIH. Here are a few of my random, immediate thoughts:

    1. If WikiLeaks is whistle-blowing at a meta level, which implies the organization of information believed to be suppressed (needlessly or purposely) but needed for democratic debate, then by all means WikiLeaks is a legitimate object of concern for intellectual historians. Intellectual historians are by nature concerned with:

    (a) How thinkers organize (and distribute) material deemed to be important;
    (b) How decisions are made about what constitutes knowledge; and
    (c) What materials are, or should be, subject to free debate.

    And I do not mean for my a-c list to be interpreted exhaustively.

    2. I like the contrast you draw—or the war you identify—between the (a) necessary secret folks and (b) the anarchic information-must-be-free crowd. I think WikiLeaks has tapped into a fundamental imbalance toward (a) that has occurred, in America at least, since the Patriot Acts. Technology-aided spying must be counteracted by technology-aided releases of information (especially when much of that “secret” material is banal).

    3. This very, very long post by Aaron Bady at his Zunguzungu blog began an excellent intellectual archaeology of Assange’s philosophy. I think it’s the starting point for understanding Assange’s peculiar information-must-be-free-and-unfettered mindset.

    – TL

  3. “It’s not as if we’re still up against the Vietnam War; and everybody has a right — no a duty, to play Daniel Ellsberg.”

    Oh please. Assuming that “we” means the U.S., we’re not fighting two foreign wars at the moment?

    But on to more serious matters. You’re the first person I’ve read to identify the in retrospect common disjunction between how non-historians assume that a leak of documents will be useful to historians while some historians disagree. I made the same non-historian assumption on my blog here and in the couple of posts previous.

    It’s a dangerous disjunction, it seems to me. The historians who disagree seem to want to write the kind of insider history that involves making relationships with politicians and mining them for information — information that preserves their particular slant on events, of course. Or perhaps Dan Drezner makes a serious argument that governments will become more stingy with information as leaks become more common: your link to his article is broken so I haven’t read it, and in any case I’ve never found anything he writes to be worth reading.

    But really — is this an argument that governments will just get more and more open if we’re nice to them and don’t be mean to them by publishing leaks? I should read that Drezner article after all, because I don’t even understand what the argument is supposed to be. How do “we” enforce an agreement that no one is going to make the government more stingy with information? By giving governments the power to punish leakers and publishers of leaks, presumably.

    The whole “disagreement among historians”, until I understand it better, strikes me as being similar to the “disagreement among journalists” about wikileaks — which seems to me to come down to some journalists full-throatedly taking on a role as defender of the government, fully identifying themselves with it. I hope this isn’t happening within history too.

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