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Studies 07 June, 2011

The Power of Technology and the Technologies of Power


Lena Jayyusi

Dr. Lena al-Jayyusi is an associate professor in the Faculty of Communication and Information at Zayed University in United Arab Emirates and an associate researcher of the “Citizen” organization (The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy). She served as the president of the Department of Communication Studies within the faculty of "Cedar Crest" in the United States and as academic researcher in the College of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research revolves around information and communication studies cultural studies analysis of political discourse the address of memory and identity studies of social and linguistic interaction and social research methodology. Her book Categorization and the Moral Order was published in English and French.

"It is not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power), but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time"

Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Dolin Gordon. 

This paper will try to address the nature of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and its implications. It will attempt to throw light on WikiLeaks as idea, institution, practice and imaginary. In doing so, it will also assess a broad set of question that have been raised in relation to it: what it might mean for the state, what it could mean for dissent, political activism and democracy, and what it means for journalism. I will try to show that these three sets of concern are, ultimately, interconnected and hinge both on the nature of the medium of WikiLeaks, and the nature of the materials posted. This understanding of the WikiLeaks phenomenon and its importance then needs to be sought in/at the intersection of the technological form, (and the power it makes available for shifting social boundaries of knowledge and action), with the substance of the leaks that have been produced, regardless of the various speculations about what agendas might have been behind the leaks in the first place.

The Baghdad video, and the three subsequent leaks, were a direct challenge to the power of the US elite establishment: the power of political and military elites to control or contain access to information and knowledge.

Within the space of less than nine months, between April 2010 and November 2010, a number of momentous leaks took place within the public eye: WikiLeaks first released a US military video of a US Apache helicopter gunning down nearly a dozen people in Baghdad, mostly civilians, including two Reuters reporters; after that came the release of the Afghanistan war logs, then the Iraq War logs, and finally on November 28, 2010 the official release of selected reports out of a collection of 250,000 leaked US embassy diplomatic cables. This was accomplished in collaboration with the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel, all of whom made the initial release simultaneously. It is against this whole backdrop that the WikiLeaks phenomenon is to be assessed, and its specificity understood.

WikiLeaks had been set up in 2006 and had already posted a large number of documents on its site, which had been leaked by various anonymous sources, for which it began to gain a significant reputation.[1] They had received the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, and the 2009 Amnesty International Human Rights Reporting Award (New Media). The US government was reported to have already been investigating them with the hope of trying to discredit and shut them down in 2008.[2] It was catapulted into the spotlight, however, and into a heated (global) public debate after its release of the Baghdad video. Assange was interviewed on many venues, including on the popular television program TED in July 2010, where the audience gave him a standing ovation as ‘hero'.[3] The released video, as well as the act of its release, were analyzed over and over, on political and moral grounds, from both those who were supportive of the US war on Iraq, and those who were opposed to it. Later, with the release of the US diplomatic cables, it was again the act of release itself as much as the content of the cables, that gave rise to much debate, opinion, and counter-opinion. This, if anything, oriented to the model that WikiLeaks presented, and signaled the site's future potential.

Knowledge, Media, Power

The Baghdad video, and the three subsequent leaks, were a direct challenge to the power of the US elite establishment: the power of political and military elites to control or contain access to information and knowledge, and consequently to mold the possibilities of social action and perception in line with state (and elite interests) - d what Edward Bernays, the father of US Public Relations, had called in 1947 "the engineering of consent".[4] His was a vision of democracy steered by elites from above, through manipulation of the public, an idea that was later reconstituted in Chomsky and Herman's important critique of the mainstream US media as being engaged in "the manufacture of consent".[5] In all four of the WikiLeaks releases, and the challenges they posed to elites in power, the new information and communication media, digital and networked, were central to the processes involved, and to the modes and imaginaries of action that the leaks embodied. They were central to the nature and effectivity of the attempt to instigate public debate and begin to reshape the public sphere. In this, WikiLeaks could be said to have been relatively successful.

What is crucially at stake here is the balance of knowledge between elites and ordinary citizens ( not only intra-nationally, but globally) , and the asymmetric right to define what can be known by whom about whom. The asymmetric ability/right to determine the boundaries of knowledge, what is accessible to whom, what may be concealed and what may be revealed, what communicated and what not, is an integral constituent of elite power (and thus often a critical element in power struggles), both arising from such power and in turn constituting it and further contributing to it. It is a critical mechanism that enables power to constitute and determine what will count as 'truth'. Managing the flow of knowledge, and thus the determinations of truth contingent on that, has always been the prerogative of the state and various other elites within the social order. The modern state operates to maximize its own knowledge, and to constrain that of citizens, often in the name of security and national well-being. WikiLeaks's mission is precisely to fracture that ability, declaring on its site that it aims at "providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices". In its mission statement, we read that "WikiLeaks interest is the revelation of the truth."[6]

Well before Foucault's seminal work, and in a distinctly different vein, the Canadian historian Harold Innis addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, focusing on the role of communications media.[7] Innis elaborated on how the development of new forms of media promoted shifts in political and cultural organization, breaking older monopolies of knowledge,  eventually leading to new monopolies. Innis's work, and the work of others in that tradition,[8] emphasizes the relationship between media of communication and social change. What was central for Innis was the form and potentialities of different kinds of media. Without necessarily adopting Innis's entire frame of analysis, we can nevertheless identify how the development or introduction of new media, and thus new modes of communication, is routinely accompanied by a multi-layered struggle over access to, and use of knowledge, and access to the social domains of practice that that knowledge makes possible. It thereby becomes a struggle over the production of knowledge and meaning by different social groups. The introduction of new media can, at critical moments, be a catalyst for the rise of new social groups and elites, and the development of new social relationships and organization. Indeed, if we look back at the history of media of communication, including the development of different writing forms, of parchment, papyrus and paper, of print, of the telegraph and then radio, the xerox machine, the cassette recorder, and now satellite broadcasting and digital media, as well as the internet and social media, we can in fact trace the kinds of contestations that arose with them or employed them, and the kinds of new social constituencies that were empowered through their uses at different times. Print helped break the monopoly of the Church over religious life in Europe, and catalyzed the rise of modern science;[9] much later, its properties were enhanced by the xerox machine, which was the mode through which underground dissent was mobilized in the Soviet bloc;[10] the telegraph enabled long distance commerce and trading, and thus aided the rise of new economic formations and interests; the cassette recorder, coupled with the telephone, helped mobilize the Iranian revolution of 1979 when Khomeini's recorded speeches were phoned into every home in Tehran from the Teheran central operator;[11] radio helped maintain and amplify a sense of continuous and shared national space for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, despite their progressive physical dislocation from each other produced by the multiple checkpoints increasingly established after the Oslo Accords; and mobile phones and social media helped communicate the call for protest, solidarity, and needed support in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions of 2011. Linking with satellite broadcasting, they communicated images and news when television cameras were not allowed, even when main networks were down. Indeed social media converge the kinds of properties that characterized print, radio, and video, as well as the telegraph, but at a more amplified level;- they could operate in real time. However, their impact will be assessed over the long term; it is already clear that they have at least played a role in the emergence of a new political actor in the Arab world - Arab youth, among whom a significant constituency had, in and through their interactions on-line, coalesced a new collective imaginary and sense of purpose.[12] This was at a time when many were bemoaning the atomizing effects of the new technologies.

One can say that the development of new media, whilst never replacing older media, has over time, involved a widening access to knowledge, to spaces and channels of communication and, thus, to the ability to communicate information, knowledge, meaning, and affect even if they are later hijacked as new modes of centralization and control of these media emerge, often managed by new elites. The widening access to knowledge/information, and means and spaces of communication, was accompanied by a widening sense of entitlement to the production of knowledge and meaning. Thus, new media catalyzed, made possible, and/or amplified new and emergent forms of social action, new forms of social solidarity and affect, and new ways of harnessing and broadcasting knowledge for various social ends.All of this has culminated in the possibility for new actors to be able to bring into the foreground, into the arena of public knowledge, consideration and debate, matters and ideas that otherwise would have remained under the control of knowledge defining and proscribing elites, and to utilize channels and spaces of communication in establishing various new networks and communities, and new agendas for (and forms of) action.[13] This applied to the printing press and the camera as much as it applies today to the internet and mobile telephone.

The most significant aspect of the WikiLeaks phenomenon clearly lies here: it is in the challenge it poses to the monopoly of (a particular kind of) knowledge, and thus the further monopolies made possible by this knowledge, a challenge that is powered by the digital and network properties of the medium through which WikiLeaks operates. It is an attempt to institutionalize a new/old form of action (whistle-blowing) that can re-arrange the dominant distribution of knowledge in society, and in Assange's own view, disrupt the ability of the ‘conspiratorial' state.[14] WikiLeaks practice cuts at one of the arteries of state/governmental power: the ability to decide, monitor, and enforce the balance between revelation and concealment, disclosure and secrecy, or in other words, the distribution of knowledge that pertains to the workings of the state/government, its projects, policies and procedures. Effectively, this also means for the modern state, the ability to carry on back room diplomacy beyond the public eye (a public eye which is now, crucially, not merely a local or national one, but a simultaneously global eye), and to conceal its own modes, scope and orientations of knowledge acquisition for state purposes.

It is important to note here that though the leak of the diplomatic cables (as with the earlier leaks pertaining to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) cut at the channels of a particular government (the USA), it is the ‘state,' as an idea and organization that is entitled to control, monitor, and safeguard its cache of knowledge, information, and procedures, without external oversight from non-state actors that is ultimately the target of this practice.[15] ‘Transparency' is the code word here, not merely as in exposing what lies hidden in the backrooms, and what underlies the actual policies of particular states, governments, and regimes. Rather, it is transparency as an abiding structural component of public political life. This undermines the ability of ‘power' to exercise ‘power' as it sees fit, which is itself a component of modern forms of power, despite all rhetoric to the contrary. This shifts the balance of power to determine who knows what about whom and what; it promises to reconstruct the balance of knowledge in favor of the public, a condition that lies at the heart of the modern idea of democracy. "Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance."[16] WikiLeaks can attempt to do this because the nature of the technological medium can enable its specific practice and sustain it.

The Technological Form, the Common Archive and Collective Action

It is in the age of democracy where the premise emerges that government represents the population, represents public rather than simply private interest

One of the most important aspects of digital communications technology is that it allows for the publication and storage of massive amounts of materials, as well as their replication. In other words, it makes possible the form of the public archive, an archive that is both centrally accessible at a particular site on the web, and easily replicable at other sites (i.e., capable of being distributed indefinitely). The many-to-many connectivity embedded in the digital technologies, and the networked architecture of cyberspace, makes possible the production of a consolidated archive that is accessible to anyone from anywhere and which can, in principle, be downloaded, reproduced, and variously annotated and used, extending and amplifying the boundaries of the ‘commons' by leaps and bounds. Thus, the connectivity of the digital media, this network architecture, makes possible a media-based collective form of action, where numerous individuals, often anonymous to each other, can contribute to the same effort or project, and make a collective contribution to establishing and building the digital commons, as with the Creative Commons, and the Copy Left Movement. This is where the term ‘wiki' comes from, and ‘Wikipedia' is, of course, a prime example of this. This collective form of action embedded as potentiality in the network properties of the medium is today embodied in the culture of open sourcing and knowledge sharing espoused by many on the internet, including an active hacker culture which, though it also has lone figures who act on an individual basis, is largely egalitarian and collectively oriented.[17] The very idea of 'open sourcing' is opposed to the proprietary organization of digital space,[18] and suggests an orientation to the shareable and to-be-shared nature of knowledge, so it can be adapted to the needs of anyone/all, expressing a will to democratize knowledge. The practice of open sourcing in turn further amplifies the sense and value of shareable and collaborative work. Both WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, its founder and editor-in-chief, emerge from such a culture. This "free culture movement" includes various loosely affiliated hacktivist and other groups committed to creative and collaborative work that can take many forms, and adopt various projects often using open sourcing as needed.[19] Thus, this technology that makes room for open sourcing, networking, and sharing can catalyze a new form of social agency, and ground distinct imaginaries of practice, including specific forms of political action. In the immediate aftermath of the campaign against WikiLeaks, after the release of the diplomatic cables when it was denied hosting services by Amazon, as well as both Visa and Paypal's denial of services, there was a call to action against these corporations; their sites were subject to Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks mounted collectively - an open source operation.[20] More important for WikiLeaks than the DDOS attacks was the call to action that went out resulting in a whole slew of mirror sites being established (numbering in the hundreds by the end of December 2010[21]). These preserved the WikiLeaks archive, keeping it available, accessible and distributable and can be understood as a low-level cyber-war.

This form of media then has embedded within it these new forms of empowerment, the technology making imaginable new spaces for agency, leading toso new and effective courses of domain-specific social action, a kind that can challenge systems of power and proprietary control. They are a possibility embedded in the connectivity of the medium, but not determined by it. There is another side to this technology and these new media, of course; they are the same media which also make possible the state's panoptic project of surveillance and knowledge. They can function equally well as technologies of power; harvesting knowledge for command and control, precisely through their connectivity, speed and complex processing dynamics, as has been clear in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the Revolution in Military Affairs,[22] and the latest US (and NATO) strategies for military training and operations, deploy digital communications media and cyber-connectivity, and were made imaginable and possible with them. The entire gamut of security controls applied at various sites and nodes within the state's securitization umbrella utilize the digital and networked technologies which are characterized by speed and comprehensive connectivity, and allow for detailed and virtual reconstructions, imaging and distributed information feeds, as well as microscopic analysis, all capable of being integrated together. The very conception of ‘command and control' in the digital age relies on both the distributed operations within a field of action, and their centralized analysis and integration. Biometrics can only work because of this digital technology, and its scope as a constituent of the securitization of the field of operations depends on the network.[23] Thus, the state too, especially the National Security State, can develop an enormous electronic archive on citizens, and on a global scale. This is why a number of scholars are writing about the coming cyber and information wars.[24] The future must be expected to include an escalation of both dynamics: hacktivist and increasingly sophisticated open-source activity of various kinds, on the one hand, and increasing state encryption with digital, as well as other forms of surveillance, and network enacted and enabled war, on the other. This is, of course, not an even battle because of the power of the state to leverage multiple technologies of control and domination.[25]  Certainly, however, the WikiLeaks operation must be seen in this context as a strategy to force hidden knowledge into the open to undercut the state's ability to conspire and control.

The WikiLeaks Difference: Documentation, Democracy, and Deniability

In light of the above considerations, one can argue that this site and its activity might be particularly significant, perhaps a landmark of sorts. What makes it distinct?

It has coalesced various human skills and abilities,[26] technological potentialities, and a particular ethics into a collaborative political project. Emerging from a hacktivist, free culture movement, WikiLeaks is dedicated to "keep governments open," and calls explicitly on the public to help in this.[27] Its program for this is a technologically-based practice of releasing leaked government and corporate secrets. As discussed above, the technology makes ‘leaking' information a viable social activity. WikiLeaks was able to institutionalize this and to link up with other activist groups beyond the hacker community, as well as various media institutions, to pursue the implications of the leaks.[28]

Documentation and Deniability

There have been many leaks and whistle-blowing cases before. One can point, for example, to a long list of biographies by former administration officials, as well as CIA agents, and to numerous powerful accounts and testimonies, as in the original report of the My Lai massacre (and subsequent trial),[29] as well as in Breaking the Silence.[30] There are many more. However, two kinds of difference are evident in the WikiLeaks model, differences which ultimately suggest a kind of quantum leap. First, many whistle blowing instances consisted in individuals of conscience, coming out with the ‘truths' they knew, and which they knew were being consequentially suppressed - facts and truths whose revelation was judged to make a significant qualitative difference to the way publics constituted the politics and policies of their governments. Secrets that were the other face of lies. Often the leaks consisted in first-person testimonies, whose truth was being vouchsafed by the person's own identity, with his/her access to the knowledge now being made public. Occasionally, however, documents were provided in support, as in the landmark leak of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. The difference between the nature of the Pentagon papers and WikiLeaks, on the one hand, and the other forms of whistle-blowing, on the other, is not merely the size and enormity of the secrets made public, but it is the difference between testimony as evidence and documentary evidence. In fact, Ellsberg himself reflects on the importance of documents in the act of whistle-blowing/leaking.[31] The importance of the document is in its status as naturally produced within and as a constituent feature of an activity or organizational practice. The document constitutes the actual traces and indices of a past activity here in the present (retainable into the future), able to deliver features of the activity, or the stances embedded in it. Beyond the actual information exposed (which in the case of the cables will remain a valuable resource and object of historical analysis for years to come), the document can demonstrate an organizational principle or a method of operation. Even when not explicit in relation to some matters or information, it still, at worst, can bear the imprint of an actual posture taken, the shadow of a procedure being followed, or a policy pursued or contemplated.[32]

An example of this is the Collateral Murder Video of the Baghdad bombing which sparked a lot of debate, and brought WikiLeaks into the spotlight. The raw video was extracted out of a corpus of similar documentation of US military operations in Iraq. The camera that was used was mounted on the helicopter gun itself. Regardless of the charges of ‘manipulation' directed at the edited version of the video which WikiLeaks produced, the fact remains that the video clearly demonstrates the real procedures (Standard Operating Procedures) used in the war on Iraq that lie concealed behind both the press releases and official pronouncements, as well as the US and many other western mainstream media accounts of the war (including their significant silence on many points[33]). It also unequivocally uncovers the culture embedding these procedures, and the media culture of tolerance, complicity and gullibility that underpins their continued operation. It reveals the character of both the politics of the US, as well as the nature and limitations of the dominant US/Western media.

The documentary archive exposes not only the workings of US diplomacy, its various positions and assessments, and the till now veiled positions of its various allies, but it also exposes the deeper level of US politics. Even though, for many people in the Arab world and elsewhere, whose knowledge stems from real life experience and the engagement contingent on it, there was nothing much that was 'new' (i.e., that they could not have told a visiting reporter who was interested); it was nevertheless significant. In Arab and other news reports, WikiLeaks documents are continually cited in relation to various issues. The point here, of course, is that whilst there is ‘common knowledge' based on public exposure, experience, background knowledge, and local discursive networks, the raw archive provides dense documentation which at the lowest limit undermines deniability, a fundamental principle of modern diplomacy and part of the (soft) technology, the techniques and the methodology of diplomatic/governmental management, a tool within the ideological apparatus of the state.

Yet the cables reveal something more significant still; they reveal the methodologies and instrumentalities of the US gaze on the rest of the world, and its knowledge/information harvesting methods - the detailed, cumulative, layered and comprehensive knowledge it seeks - revealing this knowledge to be criterial to its interests, and thus to its policies. The details on the full range of actors,  sites, and institutions that its ''officers' in the field are asked to secure betray the scope and depth of its gaze, which reflexively constitutes that gaze as imperial. Apart from the conversations with Gulf allies, and with the Egyptian regime, its knowledge and observations of the Ben Ali and Libyan regimes (many of which were released as the revolutions in the Arab world progressed), it is noteworthy, for example, that even in a country such as Paraguay, the US seeks to know each and every detail about the country, its capabilities, policies, military and police systems, economy, criminal networks, politics and political figures and groups, including the biographic, financial and biometric details of electoral contenders among others. It also seeks information on the activities and networks of Muslim organizations and networks, discursively located in the report within the rubric of 'terror threats'.[34] A similarly wide purview of information is sought on Palestine, including "Details of travel plans such as routes and vehicles used by the Palestinian authority leaders and HAMAS members," as well as the empirical details (biometrics) that could enable US agents to locate, identify, and tag individuals who are key PA and HAMAS leaders and representatives.[35] These, like the attempt to seek biometric data on UN officials, denote and embody the concerted effort to gain knowledge that can only be described as knowledge for command and control - an attempt to pursue "total information awareness".[36] The digital information and communication technologies make this panoptic project feasible. A project such as WikiLeaks can expose its parameters and methods. In Assange's words: "Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance".[37]

There is, moreover, another critical feature of the WikiLeaks archive: the documents that make it up are ones that, for the most part, get exposure within a concurrent time zone as the events they speak of. This makes them potentially transformative, not merely of our knowledge,[38] but for various courses of practical action that can emerge from that, such as the pursuit of legal action.[39]  They provide immediately enactable knowledge.

Whistleblowing and Anonymity

What further distinguishes the WikiLeaks model, and makes 'leaking' viable, is that, in principle, it both solves the problem of dissemination, and is also able to provide anonymity for those who need it. It is here that one aspect of the power of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is located: given new modes of encryption and programming, safe communications that protects anonymity (mostly now used for commercial transactions) can take place.[40] At least this was the claim made prior to the sustained attacks on it. With the know-how of the hacktivist groups being continually applied, it can, in principle, enable a secure and (semi-)permanent globally accessible display window for government and corporate secrets whose public knowledge has genuine implications.

Whereas many whistle-blowers before did make leaks anonymously (as in the Watergate scandal, for example), the fear of exposure to retribution by the powerful, may have deterred many more. That there is a vast network of people who have access to many ‘secrets,' and much inside knowledge and documentation that is ‘classified' by the US or other governments,[41] (or indeed suppressed by corporations), means there is always a risk of ‘leaking'; however, the programmatic problem for people who have access to this, assuming some orient to it as deserving of revelation, is how to leak it, safely and effectively.[42] The much publicized Karen Silkwood case is taken as exemplary of the risks and problems of ‘whistle-blowing,'[43] as is the case of Mordecai Vanunu.[44] The WikiLeaks model solves this question. This, of course, is its danger: it can be a standing risk to the security establishment (both statist and corporatist), and what is leaked can remain a standing source from which to draw on in analysis, reporting, and interpretation. Thus, the leaked materials themselves, as well as the institution, model and practice of WikiLeaks is the problem for the system it challenges.

Secrecy and Democratic Order

Despite the prognosis that WikiLeaks is not likely to change either the face of journalism or of diplomacy, and indeed despite all that has been said in critique of WikiLeaks, something has changed

Daniel Ellsberg argues that a democratic order must safeguard itself against the "secrecy system,"[45] the system in which loyalty to the institution, or a superior, comes before loyalty to the public good, the public's right to know, and the Constitution. He is correct of course. But this misses something - I want to turn the idea that secrecy undermines democracy sideways. It is precisely in the age of democracy (i.e., in the dominant liberal democracies, and perhaps in those which mimic or impersonate the form within the current global order) that secrets become exceptionally salient. In the age of absolutism, or absolute power, the exercise of power relied on spectacle, precisely because the rulers will, the will of the sovereign, was law. There would not be the same need for a regime of secrecy: power justified itself, was its own guarantor, demonstrated its own legitimacy. It operated through making itself visible, even as it could use invisible means to catch violations. Being unaccountable to the outside of its own operations and operators (i.e., outside of the system instituted by/as the sovereign), it did not need to deploy secrets against the multitude-but force. It bred conspiracies horizontally, among the elites, who plotted against each other, so that secrecy would manifest at the horizontal level. In terms of the larger population, however, the vertical relationships between ruler and ruled, elites and the multitude, secrecy was not as important as it is for the modern national security state, which is constituted within an ostensibly democratic order. Absolute power relied on the spectacular demonstration of enforcement.

It is in the age of democracy where the premise emerges that government represents the population, represents public rather than simply private interest, represents the ruled who delegate the rulers to govern on their behalf (which is what constitutes them as citizens); it is in such a political order that ‘secrets' can find, indeed tend to find, a particular niche. If ‘democracy' is, as in Lincoln's famous and oft repeated phrase, "government of the people, by the people, for the people,"[46] then it is precisely in that space between ‘government of the people' and ‘government by' or 'for the people' that the problem lies. Or, put differently, in the constitution of the "the people's rule" it is the space between the moment of its grounding and the moment of its exercise, the moment of legitimacy and the moment of power, where the problem lies. There is, at best, a tense relationship between the two, one which attains a special and uncertain status within ‘representative democracy'. Government of the people is the exercise of power: government for the people makes a claim against power; it is meant to express their will, and meet their rights and needs, and is thus accountable to them. Who will interpret the will, and the rights and needs of the people, and how? Even if articulated and understood clearly and well at the site of the electoral moment (or the revolutionary moment, as we see in the revolutionary movements of 2011 in the Arab world), who will guarantee and oversee the exercise of power, such that it continues to meet the will and needs of the people. This is where the ethic of ‘trust' arises and gets deployed in the case of the liberal representative democracies. The public is obliged to trust in their representatives - 'trust' is the ethical shadow contract between the two. The institution of ‘trust' stands in here for other institutions that can provide public participatory accountability and oversight. All kinds of ‘security' pleas, ritual clearance procedures, internal structures of accountability, and secret agreements among elite networks within the representative power system, may end up undermining the seamless passage from government ‘of' the people to government ‘by' and ‘for the people,' in particular as they disbar the people (the public) from knowledge, often in the name of their own security, freedom and well-being. Therefore, it is in modern representative democracy that ‘secrets' can be generated and maintained, perhaps at a greater rate than in other forms of polity.

It is noteworthy that in the US, the country whose state secrets were the object of WikiLeaks most notorious leaks, the volume of classified material (i.e., material outside public circulation)has, according to Masco increased in a manifold way over time, growing from 9 million in 2001 to more than 16 million in 2004.[47] But, of course, the USA (the prototype of a representative democracy) is constituted as a modern national security state, in part, as a requirement and organizational principle of its imperial pursuits - j originally in competition with a nuclear Soviet Union, and then as the sole superpower. An imperial agenda and vision, instituted within an ostensibly democratic order, can only produce 'secrecy' as an organizational procedure and a pressing requirement. The actually existing representative democracies are not, after all, abstract set of arrangements and relationships. In the actual world, they are part of an imperial/colonial and capitalist world order. It is in this political form, that of representative democracy, within an imperial and (capitalist) formation, that ‘secrets', classified, unclassified, individual or institutional, can be bred and safeguarded with excess. Equally, it is particularly within this kind of political and social order that radical attempts to secure transparency, make sense and can be deemed dangerous.


Writing on the way the New York Times came to work on the WikiLeaks archive, and the mode within which it did that work, Bill Keller, the point man for this at the New York Times, observed that in the immediate aftermath of the first disclosures, there was intense "...speculation that something - journalism, diplomacy, life as we know it - had profoundly changed forever."[48] His conclusion in the end is that it had not.

Despite the prognosis that WikiLeaks is not likely to change either the face of journalism or of diplomacy, and indeed despite all that has been said in critique of WikiLeaks, something has changed. Both the substance of the published leaks, and the mode of action they embody, change the playing field. Additionally, the publicly available, evidentiary/documentary archive that is now irretrievably in the public domain, as well as the model that WikiLeaks offers for new modes of dissent, in addition to activism, have changed the field.

The archive promises to change the nature of journalism, at least journalism in its claims to ‘truth-seeking,' ‘truth-telling,' and 'objectivity'. The released Iraq and Afghanistan logs, and the contents of the US diplomatic cables, will remain relevant for a long time in terms of a more probing and contextualizing mode of journalism, as well as tool for historians, analysts, and for human rights and other forms of activism, as earlier indicated.[49]

WikiLeaks changes the playing field of journalism over the long haul. It changes the space for journalism's specific content, challenging the nature of the coverage of particular issues and regions, the claims-making, and the narratives that whitewash and excise certain facts. It can provide a means of assessing the nature and standards of western mainstream media reports against the claims they make, and, of equal importance, studying and assessing the patterns of reporting and the ideational frames they operate within. In some sense then, the archive can function as the gold-standard against which future journalistic work can get evaluated. This is only likely to happen in the long run, in the context of serious comparative analysis of the materials that have been placed online, and of the relevant media reports produced, investigating how particular events and issues got (or get) covered, and what the leaked materials might suggest about those particular events and issues.

The response of officialdom to WikiLeaks, the attempt to bring it down through withdrawal of hosting and payment services (Amazon, Visa, PayPal); the injunction issued to federal employees against reading the cables even though they are, after all, publicly available and already in circulation, all that signifies a judgment about the corrosive impact of the continued presence of, and access to, such an archive. Some of the newspapers which received the cache of documents from Julian Assange, and wrote about them, posted some of the documents. But of over 250,000 US diplomatic documents released, The Guardian had only posted 817 as of February 24, 2011. The New York Times too only posted a selection, with none of the documents posted there focusing on Palestine or Israel.[50] The press can, in fact, be depended on not to cross a certain line, just as the government, given freedom of the press laws in the US, has to accept some leaks, but the mass leaking and posting of documents on WikiLeaks is a different proposition. The US government's response suggests a concern over the very existence of such an archive, such a site, with its visible undercutting of, and challenge to, the state's power to decide what is to stay concealed from the public, and who is entitled to have access to its secrets. It is a challenge to the state's jurisdiction. Attacking the site, and attempting to bring it down, even though at least five newspapers already have access to the cables, suggests an attempt to negate and delete it, not merely as an act of punishment, but in/as a future tense: as a future orientation. In this context,  Pramod Nayar's description of WikiLeaks practice as being for the future is apt. [51] The government's actions and procedures highlight the significance of the temporal properties, as well as the simultaneously consolidated form and distributive properties, of the WikiLeaks digital archive: the possibility of continued access to its full corpus, across a vast network that can preserve the durability of its impact and relevance, and thus act as an invitation to more leaks and a model for others. It is the possibility of such a form of action, the "leak" of government secrets, and for its re-iteration, both in the form of further submissions to WikiLeaks, as well as in the development of other sites, and similar projects, that is under attack. Continued access/retrieval and replication/reproduction are two functions of ‘memory' work: these were the functions under attack. That was countered, of course by the mushrooming of mirror sites. Indeed, WikiLeaks did provide the model for multiple further projects and sites: a Russian site was set up, [52] and a former WikiLeaks employee is setting up Open Leaks.[53] It is common practice in the free culture movement and the open source community to ‘tweak' and develop projects, as well as software. A large corpus of documents related to the Palestinian-Israel peace negotiations were leaked to al-Jazeera, and released by it in a dramatic set of nightly broadcasts, which led eventually to the resignation of the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat. Al-Jazeera also set up its own site, called the al-Jazeera Transparency Unit.[54] Thus, WikiLeaks did indeed act as both model and invitation for further leaks.

The US government's response is understandable: it is the very imaging of an action that challenges and re-organizes the balance of knowledge between government/state and public, this particular form of agency, that, if possible, needs to be erased through the attempt to dismantle the site and erase its traces. The continued existence of the WikiLeaks site could not be tolerated by the dominant regime of knowledge, and is engaged through a manifold set of methodologies and technologies that include prospective legal and executive action, such as the project of reworking the existing Espionage Act, or re-interpreting it to apply to the present case. Here, the various other technologies of power clearly come into play, so that a whole array of methods, techniques, and forms of power are used against the site and its founder. These methodologies of control are also meant to function as sign and model of what can happen to anyone who tampers with the state's claimed domain of jurisdiction.

In conclusion, the following points encapsulate the foregoing argument on the nature and practice of WikiLeaks, and draw out some implications:

  1. It can secure a consolidated digital public archive of leaked ‘secrets' that is indefinitely replicable, and thereby becomes accessible and preservable.
  2. In doing so, it undermines governmental ‘deniability' on matters that may be of public concern, impacting the process of diplomacy at the ideological level, rather than on the crudely relational one. At the same time, it provides 'enactable knowledge' for activists.
  3. It impacts the practice of journalism not in the shor-term, but in the long run, offering the ‘gold standard' by which various news reports and analyses can be assessed, both retrospectively and prospectively.
  4. It produces a new mode of social action - a mode of dissent - which can be expanded, mirrored, repeated and even improved: ‘leaking' government (and corporate) secrets (i.e., leaking the secrets that underpin the operations of the actually existing global order).
  5. It re-arranges the knowledge balance between government and governed.
  6. It can, in sum, be said to insert a breach in one of the pathways of systemic power, both as a result of the actual leaks to date, as well as the potentiality and feasibility of further leaks that the site and the model offer.
  7. As a result, one can locate the WikiLeaks phenomenon (and the open-source activism from which it emerges) as a new constituent within the global anti-systemic movement.[55] It suggests a different model of anti-systemic opposition, however, which is multi-layered and networked, and can manifest in a distinct division of labor, by mode and region, specifically between a (mobile) center and peripheries. This was evident in the Egyptian revolution of 2011 - a revolution that effectively completed the project of anti-colonial national liberation, which if successful would dismember a node within the actual global system. When the Egyptian regime shut down all communications system to impose a blackout, the global hacker and open source communities worked actively to produce alternative routes and modes of connecting the protesters to the outside world, and getting materials in (for example faxing the concurrently released diplomatic cables pertaining to the Egyptian regime into the schools). Indeed, the discussion within these networks oriented explicitly to the idea of lending support against the authoritarian regime, and to the need to develop software technologies that circumvent the authoritarian state's ability in the future to 'disconnect' and to prevent the truth from emerging.[56]

There will undoubtedly be an increasing conflict between the advocates of a free cyber world, one that subtends and reinforces and promotes free and full citizenship in the corporeal everyday, and the (imperial) state's attempt at constraining, circumventing, controlling and repressing the inter-braided fabric of freedoms (to know; to speak; to act). The net is merely a new site of conflict - it is real conflict that takes place within the virtual sites and spaces of interaction, thus becoming a significant interface with the corporeal conflict that takes place in real time and place. The communications are real; the stakes are real; the consequences are real.


  • [1] See http://www.WikiLeaks.ch/.
  • [2] See John Pilger, "The war on WikiLeaks: A John Pilger investigation and interview with Julian Assange," posted on January 13, 2011, http://www.johnpilger.com/articles/the-war-on-WikiLeaks-a-john-pilger-investigation-and-interview-with-julian-assange. See also the site where the secret counter-intelligence document on this was posted: http://www.WikiLeaks.ch/wiki/U.S._Intelligence_planned_to_
  • [3] The interview took place in July 2010. See: http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_assange_why_the_world_needs_
    WikiLeaks.html. Also posted on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNOnvp5t7Do.
  • [4] Edward L. Bernays, "The Engineering of Consent," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250, 1947, 113-20.
  • [5] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.(Pantheon Books: 1988). The expression the "manufacture of consent" was first used by Walter Lippman in his 1922 book, Public Opinion.
  • [6] See: http://www.WikiLeaks.ch/. See also http://www.WikiLeaks.ch/About.html.
  • [7] SeeHarold Innis,  Empire and Communications, (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1950), and Harold Innis,  The Bias of Communication (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1951).
  • [8] Some of those scholars who were most influenced by Innis taught at the University of Toronto during the 1950s, where Innis had been. They include Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1962; Understanding Media, New York: Signet/McGraw-Hill, 1964); Jack Goody (Literacy and Traditional Societies, ed. Jack Goody, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968; The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and Eric Havelock (The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
  • [9] See E. L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Vol. I and II, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  • [10] See Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi, Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), especially Chapter 2.
  • [11]  Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi, Ibid.
  • [12] During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011, and immediately after, there was much talk by commentators in various western media that these were Twitter, Facebook or WikiLeaks revolutions. This mechanistic narrative betrays a western-centric optic, where technologies that are emblematic of contemporary developments originating in the west are credited with making such revolutions in the Arab world. There was no such talk of the Tiananmen uprising as the fax revolution; instead a sober assessment of the use of fax machines as methods for communicating and mobilizing dissent was evident in the accounts produced. A parallel understanding of the new media (in the forms of social media as well as  WikiLeaks) is appropriate. The discourse of technological determinism is itself always historically situated and politically implicative.
  • [13]  See for example, the work of Jon Anderson on Muslim on-line networks: Jon W. Anderson, "The Internet and Islam's New Interpreters," in New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, ed.Dale F. Eickelman & Jon W. Anderson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
  • [14] See his essay " Conspiracy as Governance," http://cryptome.org/0002/ja-conspiracies.pdf.
  • [15] This conforms to what Assange describes as "the authoritarian regime". Ibid.
  • [16] See the mission statement on the WikiLeaks site, op.cit.
  • [17] A distinction is to be made between the hacktivist or hacker culture I am talking of and hacking for cyber crime or espionage.
  • [18] It also differs from the organizationally distinct crowd sourcing. The latter describes what is a business model for obtaining creative solutions to technological or design problems. The task is outsourced  by a particular organization or company to an undetermined  public (somewhat like a an academic call for papers), and one of the responses will be adopted by the company outsourcing the problem.
  • [19] For more on this, see the article by Alistair Davidson, "WikiLeaks, Karl Marx and You," Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 23, 2010, http://links.org.au/node/2094.
  • [20] A loosely defined group called Anonymous took credit for this; they also later sent calls to action over Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. See their "Press Release 2nd February 2011 (A message to the people of Egypt)," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7whjQKx-C8. For an account of how they integrated WikiLeaks releases into their Egypt campaign, see: Andy Greenberg, "Amid Digital Blackout, Anonymous Mass-Faxes WikiLeaks Cables To Egypt," January 28, 2011, http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2011/01/28/amid-digital-blackout-anonymous-mass-faxes-wikileaks-cables-to-egypt/. For an interesting take on the group see: Bernard Keane, "Inside the hive-mind," January 27, 2011, http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/01/27/inside-the-hive-mind-watching-anonymous-at-work/.
  • [21] Interestingly, Reporters Without Frontiers, despite their serious  reservations about the unredacted nature of the released Afghan war Logs, also set up a mirror site in December. See      http://WikiLeaks.rsf.org/cablegate.html.
  • [22] On the current Revolution in Military Affairs, see, for example,Thierry Gongora and Harald von Riekhoff (eds.), Toward a Revolution in Military Affairs?: Defense and Security at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000). 
  • [23] This was demonstrated fairly well in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. See Noah Shachtman, "Iraq Diary: Fallujah's Biometric Gates," Wired, August 31, 2007, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2007/08/fallujah-pics/.
  • [24] See, for example, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, "Cyberwar is Coming!," Comparative Strategy, 12(2), Spring 1993.
  • [25] On the fast evolving forms of digital and networked technology in the US military, see Wired magazine. For example, see, Spencer Ackerman, "Pentagon Looks to Militarize the Cloud," February 22, 2011, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/02/pentagon-cloud/.
  • [26] For an insight into its mode of operation, see Raffi Khatchadourian, "No Secrets: Julian Assange's Mission for Total Transparency," The New Yorker, June 7, 2010. The WikiLeaks site, of course, offers a more formal description of its principles and modus operandi.
  • [27] Its on-site logo is "Help WikiLeaks Keep Governments Open". See http://www.WikiLeaks.ch/.                        
  • [28] These include human rights groups and various NGOs, as well as media organizations. This was clearly evident in the press conference given after the release of the Baghdad War Logs, where panelists included John Sloboda, Co-Director of 'Iraq Body Count' and Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers.These organizations, as well as various news organizations, such as al-Jazeera, Der Speigel, the  Guardian, Le Monde and the New York Times,  had been involved in the study and analysis of the logs prior to the release and press conference.
  • [29] The My Lai massacre took place at the hands of US troops in the Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. It came to light when a young Vietnam Veteran, Richard Ridenhour, who had not been involved but had heard many accounts of it, sent letters with the details to members of the political establishment, including the President, a year after the event. For the original series of report on the massacre by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, which appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 13, 20, and 25, 1969,  see "An Atrocity Is Uncovered: November 1969 The My Lai Massacre" at http://www.pierretristam.com/Bobst/library/wf-200.htm. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting on My Lai. See also the Time magazine report on November 28, 1969, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,
  • [30] This was an organization set up in 2004 by Israeli soldiers who had served in the Occupied Territories. The soldiers gave testimonies about events, activities and practices that revealed the practices of the Occupation. They remained anonymous, though they gave the date and location of the events they described.  The organization has since released a book called "Occupation of the Territories - Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000-2010", (2010) . The book contains the testimonies of 101 soldiers, men and women. For more see: http://www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp.
  • [31] See his "Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing,"Social Research, 77(3), Fall 2010.
  • [32] Of course, documents such as the diplomatic cables  require a methodologically rigorous  ‘reading' and   analysis to distinguish between ‘opinion', and the stances, orientations, practices, and  conditions of knowledge demonstrably embedded in the expression of opinion, or in the reporting of various details. 
  • [33] See, for example, Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, "The Pentagon's Secret Air War in Iraq," AntiWar.Com, February 8, 2007, http://antiwar.com/engelhardt/?articleid=10485.
  • [34] See cable 08STATE30340, S) Reporting And Collection Needs: Paraguay. http://www.wikileaks.nl/cable/2008/03/08STATE30340.html
  • [35] See the Guardian "US embassy cables: Washington requests personal data on Hamas," November 28, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/176247.
  • [36] This was the title for a vast surveillance  program established by the Bush administration under the leadership of John Pointdexter after the September 11th attacks. It was part of the Homeland Security Act, and was administered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It was designed to secure complete information on everyone in the United States and was meant to forestall and locate terrorist activity and threats through using advanced technological methods for amassing a comprehensive database.  For more on this see the American Civil Liberties site: http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/qa-pentagons-total-information-awareness-programthe.
  • [37] "Conspiracy as Governance"  op.cit. p.2
  • [38] Indeed as the authors of a study of the Afghan war logs say, "Our comparative quantitative approach can contribute to debates about how (as well as when and where) the previously secret military data can change interpretations of the conflict that heretofore have been based largely on media reports" (p. 493) . They go on to declare that "Academic researchers rarely have access to timely and detailed data on wars, and it is in this regard that the WikiLeaks data are unique" (p. 494).  See  John O'Loughlin, Frank D. W. Witmer, Andrew M. Linke, and Nancy Thorwardson, "Peering into the Fog of War: The Geography of the WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Logs, 2004-2009," Eurasian Geography and Economics, 51(4), 2010.
  • [39] Such as that brought by British human rights lawyer, Phil Shiner. See CNN World Report, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-11-09/world/uk.abuse.inquiry_1_abuse-allegations-allegations-case-public-inquiry?_s=PM:WORLD.
  • [40] This is emphasized over and again by Assange. See the WikiLeaks site, as well as his interview on TED, op. cit. It is still not clear on what evidence Private Bradly Manning was accused of  having been the person behind the leaks and so imprisoned for them. Other websites that have followed WikiLeaks, such as Open Leaks, attempt the same mode of secure anonymity.
  • [41] According to  New York Times editor, Bill Keller, there are about 500,000 people who would have clearance to access the classified data base from which the leaked cables came. See Bill Keller, "Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets," The New York Times, January 26, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/magazine/30WikiLeaks-t.html?ref=europe. According to Scholz, "Currently, there are some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence work in more than 10,000 locations across the United States." Trebor Scholz, "Introduction: Points of Control," Social Research, 77(3), Fall 2010, 935. 
  • [42] This seems to be a possible reading of the interest by the counter-intelligence unit in the activity of WikiLeaks in 2008. It betrayed a possible fear that some of their employees were contemplating leaks: the effective solution (which they attempted)  would have been to discredit the organization's ability to provide secure communications.
  • [43] See the book Richard Rashke, The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case (2nd ed.), (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000). The  film "Silkwood" was released in 1983.          
  • [44] Mordecai Vanunu is a former Israeli nuclear technician who was apparently opposed to nuclear weapons, and  leaked information about Israel's secret nuclear program. He was imprisoned for eighteen years, eleven of which were in solitary confinement. See the Guardian profile of him on the eve of his release: Duncan Campbell, "The Guardian profile: Mordechai Vanunu," The Guardian, April 16, 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/apr/16/israel.
  • [45] Ellsberg, "Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing," op.cit., p. 775 onwards.
  • [46] See his Gettysburg Address, 1863.
  • [47] Joseph Masco, "'Sensitive but Unclassified': Secrecy and the Counterterrorist State,"Public Culture 22(3).
  • [48] Bill Keller, op. cit.  
  • [49] In fact, regardless of the chances of success, it is noteworthy that WikiLeaks has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize for 2011.
  • [50] Of course, many have charged Assange/WikiLeaks of being selective in what cables are actually released on the site, especially when it comes to documents related to Israel. Nevertheless, this does not really dent the robustness of the model that WikiLeaks offers. The press, on the other hand, has a procedural and institutional dependency on government sources, and on other establishment networks which, all else not withstanding, tends to constrain it when matters of 'national security' are cited (as opposed to the conduct of particular administrations and their members) or  foreign policy issues, or indeed matters that have acquired an ideological rootedness, such as support for Israel.
  • [51] Pramod K. Nayar, "WikiLeaks, the New Information Cultures and Digital Parrhesia," Economic & Political Weekly EPW, xlv(52), December 25, 2010, 29.
  • [52] See Ruleaks, http://ruleaks.net/.
  • [53] See http://www.openleaks.org/.  Open Leaks, however,  is intended  to be different from WikiLeaks in that, for one, it will not post the documents or any analysis of them on the site itself,  but merely operate as a secure conduit. Though this is distinctly different to the WikiLeaks model, it is the WikiLeaks model that has inspired it.
  • [54]  See http://transparency.aljazeera.net/.
  • [55]  Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins, and Imanuel Wallerstein, Antisystemic Movements, (London: Verso, 1989). It is no surprise that WikiLeaks has been described in the on-line world as a " global open source insurgency": see John Robb at: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas
    /2010/08/global-guerrilla-julian-assange.html and Okke Ornstein at: http://www.ornstein.org/2010/12/04/how-wikileaks-builds-a-global-open-source-insurgency/.
  • [56] In addition to Anonymous, (see note 20), an important network that became active was the TOR Project. TOR is an open source project that provides the architecture of anonymity for WikiLeaks, through a complex system of nodes for rerouting communications. It became active in Egypt as well (and before that in Tunis), and contributed to the attempts to provide communication channels for protestors. Interestingly, TOR is also used by government and law enforcement agencies, but the premise behind its development and use is that anonymity safeguards both freedom of communication and security (though it obviously enables safe surveillance too). For more about TOR see: https://www.torproject.org/about/overview. For their blog about Egypt see: https://blog.torproject.org/