Blacked Out Author Discusses WikiLeaks

In 2010, the federal government was placed under heavy public scrutiny after WikiLeaks, a nonprofit organization devoted to governmental transparency, released classified documents to American news media. The leaks came in four stages and consisted of gunsite footage from a July 2007 airstrike in Baghdad (leaked in April); 75,000 documents concerning the war in Afghanistan (released in July); 400,000 documents concerning the war in Iraq (leaked in October); and portions of hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S. State Department cables (released in November).


Alasdair Roberts, author of Blacked Out and a professor at Suffolk University, spoke at Hamilton on April 7, offering his own assessment of the progression of the war on secrecy. Roberts, an advocate of governmental transparency, refuted the popular claim that we are moving toward an age of radical transparency following the release of the WikiLeaks documents. He was a guest in the Levitt Center Security series.


Roberts first addressed what he believes are misconceptions about the scale of the leaks. Before WikiLeaks, the Pentagon Papers, released in 1971, held the record for largest volume of leaked confidential government documents at about 10,000 papers. This record was shattered by the WikiLeaks papers, which combined number more than one million. Roberts pointed out, though, that in the information age of digital records, numbers can be misleading. Holding in his hand an 8-gigabyte flash drive, Roberts estimated that the Wikileaks State Department cables amount to 2 gigabytes worth of information—a lot, but only a drop in the bucket of confidential government documents. When the Bush administration left the White House in 2009, it transferred the equivalent of 10 million 8-gigabyte flashdrives worth of information to a confidential server.


Roberts noted that the public response to WikiLeaks has not been the outrage with the status quo that WikiLeaks director Julian Assange was hoping for, and suggested four reasons why:


1. The Internet is not a commons.


One of the premises of the logic of radical transparency is that the Internet is a commons and allows for the uninhibited flow of information and is outside of the political sphere. Roberts said that while this is theoretically true, the Internet is a complex structure with many different players and is subject to market influence that can inhibit the flow of information. He pointed out the responses of several major corporations—Mastercard, Amazon, Visa, and PayPal—to public pressure to disassociate themselves from WikiLeaks, an organization that some people view as unpatriotic. WikiLeaks found itself losing allies and, subsequently, power in the online sphere, when corporations with no interest in creating a global commons began to sever their ties with WikiLeaks.


2. Disclosure is not enough.


Roberts speculates that the higher-ups in WikiLeaks underestimated the work that had to go into organizing, interpreting and explaining the confidential documents in a format that the public could understand. WikiLeaks did not have the capacity itself to publicize their findings in a way that was easily-accessible, so the information was limited by the resources of the major news outlets that handled the documents.


3. The environment was not ripe.


WikiLeaks did not make as big a splash in public opinion as one might expect. Roberts said that WikiLeaks’ goal was a “global diplomatic crisis,” but the American public is too worried about financial security and vulnerability to terrorist attacks to have an overwhelming response to a relatively small-scale leak.


4. The national security complex wields incredible power.


Roberts emphasized that, although WikiLeaks had many staff from several major news outlets working to build up the story, the resources of the federal government are far greater and its capacity to respond to breaches in national security are incredible. The government employee who leaked the information originally, Bradley Manning, is in solitary confinement facing 35 charges that could imprison him for life.


Members of Maynard Knox Professor of Government and Law Frank Anechiarico’s American Public Administration course, who read Roberts’  Blacked Out earlier this semester, had the privilege of dining with him in the Philip Spencer House after the lecture.  James Kruger ’12 commented,  “I feel like I now have a much greater understanding of the state of government transparency in lieu of WikiLeaks.  His talk added to my understanding of WikiLeaks and transparency in the information age. It was great to be able to hear him expand on the points he makes in Blacked Out."

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