Many breathless things have been written and said about WikiLeaks since the organization first released that startling video in 2010 of an Army helicopter over Baghdad firing on civilians. The site went on to drop hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic and defense documents that year. Amid all that raw data, WikiLeaks’ supporters and media theorists on multiple continents suggested we were now entering a new era of transparency — one in which secrecy might be dead.
“All of this,” concludes legal scholar Alasdair Roberts in a new paper, “is vastly overwrought.”
Roberts, a law professor at Suffolk University, tamps down any excited appraisal of WikiLeaks’ impact with an academic’s long view. The leaks weren’t quite as substantial as many perceived them to be, he argues in the International Review of Administrative Sciences, and hardly had the impact their leakers hoped they would. The very logic behind the concept of “radical transparency,” Roberts writes, suffers from several misguided premises.
As a result, the WikiLeaks experiment created more an illusion of transparency than the real thing, he argues — and this illusion may lull us into thinking the hard work of holding governments accountable has a quick technological fix.
“That basic idea — leak, publish and wait for outrage — is an old idea,” Roberts said this week. “The premise of this recent episode was that new technologies were basically supercharging the process. It was easier to leak, easier to publish, and by implication, more likely to produce substantial policy change.”
But in the grand scheme of things, the scope of these leaks was perhaps not that much larger than similar breaches in the pre-Internet, or pre-Julian Assange, age. Plus, the size of a leak isn’t a perfect indicator of its value.
“That’s getting distracted by the novelty of technology: look how big this leak is!” Roberts said. “But in the digital age, everything is big. And in particular, the stockpile of sensitive information held by government agencies is immense.”
The “Afghan war logs” and the subsequent Iraq archive were huge — tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of documents. But today’s U.S. government generates and archives exponentially more data than it did during the Vietnam era. Roberts cites a couple of numbers to illustrate this: when the Bush administration moved out of the White House, it left behind 77 terabytes of data to the National Archives — 35 times the amount generated by the Clinton administration. The Department of Energy calculated a few years ago that the volume of digital information in its files doubled every year.
There’s no way to know if those Afghan war logs represented 1 percent, or one-tenth of 1 percent, of relevant information under Pentagon lock and key (relative to, say, the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers in its time).
The sheer size of the WikiLeaks releases also led to some of what Roberts calls the “politically naive” assumptions behind how the public would use them.
“There is no such thing, even in the age of the Internet, as the instantaneous and complete revelation of the truth,” he writes. “In its undigested form, information has no transformative power at all."
WikiLeaks seemed to underestimate the importance of parsing raw data for the public (an error it belatedly tried to correct by partnering with media outlets). The release of bulk information won’t precipitate political change, Roberts argues. Someone has to impose meaning on it.
And even when that meaning is clear, there’s no guarantee people will be alarmed or outraged by it. This was WikiLeaks’ second faulty assumption, Roberts says: it overestimated the extent to which the public would be up in arms over its revelations. Many people weren’t sure whether there were revelations here at all (“I already thought the government wasn’t doing that”). Or people weren’t too troubled by them (“I’m glad my government is doing that”).
Roberts himself wasn’t surprised by the tepid public reaction. He points to the decade of leaks preceding these, uncovering the practice of extraordinary rendition and interrogation tactics during the Bush administration.
“The notion was once this stuff gets out, the world will change radically — that wasn’t the case,” he said.
WikiLeaks’ final miscalculation, he argues, was to underestimate the extent to which the government would bite back. It has certainly done this with suspected leaker Bradley Manning. But the government has also doubled down as a result on measures that will make future leaks less likely.
We forget, Roberts says, that the battle for transparency is dynamic: outside groups try to promote transparency, governments move to counteract, and transparency advocates then have to move again. Viewed this way, it may ultimately turn out that WikiLeaks prompted tighter secrecy policies, not more transparency (as some groups already fear).
“Part of the difficulty with this particular story is that we only looked at the first inning, we didn’t look at what happened in the rest of the game,” Roberts said, and that game isn’t over. “In fact, it never ends.”