(update below)

The material in WikiLeaks’ most recent release of US diplomatic records from 1973 to 1976 called the “Kissinger Cables” is not information from a “leak.” It put the material in a cutting edge searchable database. This has prompted suggestions from critics that WikiLeaks is getting away from its mission.

James Ball, a disaffected former volunteer for WikiLeaks, seems to be the most prominent voice putting forth this argument. In a column for The Guardian, he sanctimoniously asks, “Do we need WikiLeaks any more?”

He makes a claim that he cannot prove, “WikiLeaks would not be dealing with 40-year-old material – however significant at the time – if it had anything more recent.” It also is incorrect. WikiLeaks has material that Pfc. Bradley Manning said in a statement in court he provided to WikiLeaks. The organization has just made the decision (whether proper or not) to withhold publishing of the material until after his court martial is over.

Then, Ball argues, “There is masses of public and private funding for specialist groups to make such archives more accessible and complete (and to prevent pulldown). Organisations like the British Library are extending their online archiving efforts for present-day material.” In other words, he is suggesting WikiLeaks may not be a valuable organization if it is taking already public information, curating the content and making it more accessible to the world. He is also suggesting, in this sentence, that, because there are other organizations out there, the world does not have to look to WikiLeaks for this service (nor should the world do so either).

Ball adds, “WikiLeaks has persuaded several outlets to trawl the archives and write up some of the illuminating material,” as if he thinks this is some kind of con job the organization is perpetrating on press organizations. He notes this is what “journalists do as new material is released under 30-year rules.” But, that should not mean WikiLeaks or some other organization cannot recruit journalists to cover information that may have been declassified but not widely known.

Succinctly, he states: “With WikiLeaks essentially “pivoting” its operations to look at making archive material, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on its original, assumed, mission: to fulfill an unmet need of people who wish to leak sensitive documents to get them published and covered.” Such a statement presumes incorrectly that WikiLeaks cannot do both simultaneously. It also suggests that WikiLeaks may be considering not meeting this “need” anymore, which is unlikely true.

Addressing the time between the largest leaks in US history—the Pentagon Papers and the information Manning disclosed—he makes a few valid points, “Whistleblowers are rare,” and, “Whistleblowers also, often, need cultivation. This can arise through day-to-day contact, slow building of trust, even regular patch reporting.” Then, the animosity he has toward WikiLeaks leads him to utter this conclusion, “But for these sources, the approach of mainstream outlets may be more appropriate.”

However, the argument is not made only because of his attitude toward WikiLeaks. It is couched in a contention that the work of “a consortium of 40 mainstream journalistic outlets” did on the “Offshore Secrets” project for over a year demonstrates the press may be close than ever to being able to handle “information security.” The press may be “approachable enough” for “those who might want to disclose wrongdoing” and may “publish enough of the source material to build trust and allow further investigation.” WikiLeaks may have taught it some lessons that needed to be learned.

When Manning mentioned he had tried to go to the New York Times and The Washington Post, I wrote: Had the Times or Post obtained the logs and begun to examine them for publication, what would the organizations have done? Would they have published? Would they have notified the government they now possessed the documents? And, would they have been able to protect the identity of the lower-level soldier who had passed on information because he believed they were “some of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st Century asymmetric warfare”? After all, the Times met with State Department and other government officials to discuss what cables would be covered and published.

There is little reason to believe that the “Offshore Secrets” project indicates they are better capable of handling whistleblowers or journalism projects involving leaks. Generally, the publishing of information on offshore accounts does not threaten state power like the video or documents released by Manning did. Also, putting  practice that is generally frowned upon by governments (even they are complicit in allowing the wealthy to engage in the practice). It does not involve what the US would consider to be sensitive national security information and, if it did, one can guarantee the staff of US press organizations would be contacting the government to see what they thought ahead of publishing and would cooperate with the government if they came under investigation exposing their source  would be exposed to great risk.

When one finishes reading the column, it is clear that Ball’s issue with this release involves a jealousy that people might be paying more attention to these records now instead of the “Offshore Secrets” project. He sets up this petty false choice like citizens who consume transparency journalism cannot read about Kissinger diplomatic records and elites who have offshore accounts at the same time. And, one can find this story in the section of The Guardian‘s website covering “Offshore Secrets,” making it even more clear that there’s some pompous “our-leaks-are-better-than-yours” elitism behind the column.

Moreover, the source material for the “Offshore Secrets” is not available to the public yet.  The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported agencies from Germany, Greece, South Korea, Canada and the US are asking for access to the files and they are committed to not turning over the files to government agencies because they are not an “arm of law enforcement” or an “agent of the government.” It added, “Many people have asked us if we will release the raw data in full. What we can say is that ICIJ is looking at the possibility of releasing some entity ownership data, but there are many legal, journalistic, and technical issues to work through before we can do that.”

Unquestionably, ICIJ has done tremendous work putting this project together and it has great public value, but Ball and other journalists involved in this release should understand that what made WikiLeaks’ release of already declassified material popular in the past forty-eight hours is the fact that citizens all over the world could participate in the release. By tagging findings with “#plusd,” one could go into a record and read the material and then share what was found. Independent, alternative and citizen journalists could write their own stories, amplifying attention toward the release.

Not publishing source data is a choice that ICIJ is certainly entitled to make, but it has its trade-offs and one of them is less people will engage in the kind of participatory journalism that has been symptomatic of previous WikiLeaks releases.

Finally, the material may have been mostly available, but it is clear that it was not known. These news organization that WikiLeaks partnered with are sincerely publishing stories that they think have a news value for citizens in the country where they are based. They would not have prepared these stories if there was not anything the media organizations were unaware of that filled in gaps in the history of their country.

In India, Guatemala, Spain and Argentina, records made more accessible are making headlines and having an impact similar to the release of US diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011.

It is not a sign of weakness. WikiLeaks can be both an organization that accepts leaks or disclosures of sensitive state secrets, which the public has a right to know, and an organization of “radical librarians” who archive material and make it easy for people to digest previously classified information.

Now, onward to the next incoherent argument from critics.

Update 

WikiLeaks clarifies:

Update 2 

It was my understanding that the National Security Archive had submitted FOIA requests for some sets of documents that appear in the database and were not automatically declassified — as they typically do. This post previously suggested WikiLeaks had published records the National Security Archive had published.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a senior analyst, has appropriately corrected me.

There is a serious error in your story about Wikileaks. The documents were previoiusly declassified and posted not by the National Security Archive–an NGO that works on FOIA, secrecy and transparency–but by the U.S. government’s National Archives. Please do a major correction.
Thank you.

I’ll use this excerpt from Andy Greenberg of Forbes to further clarify and correct an aspect of this post:

WikiLeaks spent months converting the nearly 2 million NARA files from PDF documents to text files, correcting typographic errors and adding metadata to make the files more easily searchable. Aside from having been stored in a difficult-to-access format by NARA, WikiLeaks notes that many of the files were corrupted by technical errors made the U.S. State Department, leaving weeks- and months-long gaps in the data in places. All Top Secret declassified documents were excluded, too, because no digital versions of them were made available.

 I apologize for the error and mistake.