Wikileaks, an Illegitimate NGO

Americans, and most people around the world, instinctively tend to trust non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This public trust is generally for good reason; NGOs are ostensibly not-for-profit, independent of governments, mostly run by volunteers, and almost always guided by a laudable, moral cause. Whether an NGO focuses on spreading health awareness, encouraging government transparency, or fighting for human rights, there is a level of legitimacy automatically associated with NGOs precisely because there are no obvious reasons why NGOs would have ulterior motives for their efforts. In instances when NGOs take actions that run counter to the interests of a government, any criticism from government further legitimizes the NGO, as the criticism confirms the image of a selfless, independent organization acting for the good of all.

While most NGOs are selfless and independent, guided by an unwavering, moral ideal, some are far more shadowy and motivated by ideologies that may run counter to the interests of the general public. In particular, Wikileaks fits this mold.

Wikileaks’ slogan, “We Open Governments”, encapsulates the professed mission of the NGO. Wikileaks was founded in 2006 with the vision of creating a mechanism by which secret information and news leaks about government improprieties could be released. A whistleblower, who otherwise might endanger their life or career, can anonymously send information that can be released to the public without endangering the source. Wikileaks became well-known after the release of information about illegal activities of the U.S. military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, Wikileaks has continued to be a prominent tool for the widespread release of otherwise classified information about government action. Most recently, on Tuesday March 7th a massive trove of data about highly sensitive cyberweapons, tools, and tactics used by the CIA in spying and gathering information was released through Wikileaks.

However, despite Wikileaks’ mission of promoting government transparency, there is little to no information available about the organization and structure of Wikileaks itself. Many NGOs, such as Amnesty International, provide information on how the organization is run and who runs it. For Wikileaks, almost nothing about its operations is certain beyond the fact that it’s up to its founder and director, Julian Assange, if a document sent to Wikileaks is released to the public. In a 2010 interview, Assange stated that four other reviewers try to decide if a leak is legitimate, and Assange has the final say (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/04/wikileaks-julian-assange-iraq-video?page=3). From what is known, Wikileaks’ opacity is deliberate. A former Wikileaks employee revealed that nearly everyone in the organization was required to sign a sweeping non-disclosure agreement covering all materials and conversations employees might encounter while at Wikileaks; again, Assange has the sole authority on what can be disclosed in the future (https://www.buzzfeed.com/jamesball/heres-what-i-learned-about-julian-assange?utm_term=.jy33g5pJV#.jhljeY1Mq). And while a level of uncertainty surrounding an NGO may not be such a bad thing—many are operating against countries’ interests, after all— there are worrying implications regarding Wikileaks and the high amount of control that Assange has on internal workings. Wikileaks’ odd level of murkiness surrounding its organizational structure is also worrying because leaks can have such extremely damaging political and personal effects.

There is little concrete evidence behind allegations that Wikileaks has been directly infiltrated by Russian agents seeking to undermine Western governments. However, those allegations have arisen because Wikileaks has released hundreds of thousands of emails and documents that have implicated American and European government agencies and politicians, with no leaks at all which inform the public about Russia. This is a common criticism that Wikileaks has been unable to shake. These accusations of anti-Americanism have only increased since the release of damaging emails about Hillary Clinton’s campaign before the US presidential election. When asked about the absence of similar leaks about Russia in a December 2016 interview, Assange responded by saying that Russia has many “vibrant publications, online blogs, and Kremlin critics”, essentially making Wikileaks unnecessary (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/24/julian-assange-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-interview). Assange’s praise of Russia, an authoritarian state that has a proven record of silencing journalists and media outlets that don’t toe the state line, is in striking contrast to his regular denunciations of web censorship and limitations on media freedom in the United States.

While normally it is important to distinguish an NGO’s founder’s opinion from the mission of an NGO itself, Wikileaks is unique in the level of power and leverage that one individual, Assange, has over Wikileaks’ internal operations. Hence, when faced with questions about his ties to the Kremlin, Assange odd positivity towards Russia and criticisms of the United States become significant in projecting the motivations behind Wikileaks’ actions. Assange himself regularly criticized Clinton and the United States government before Trump’s electoral victory. When former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned, the Wikileaks official account tweeted, calling his resignation the result of a “destabilization campaign” mounted by “US spies, Democrats, press”, showing an odd level of bias against American Democrats for an NGO with a purportedly universal mission (https://twitter.com/wikileaks/status/831468455413030912?lang=en). Assange’s personal opinions, combined his status as the sole judge of what documents are leaked, undermine Wikileaks’ stated purpose of holding all governments accountable to the public and highlight the importance of discovering more about Assange’s potentially biased relationship with Russia.

Although it is unlikely that Wikileaks has been directly infiltrated by the Kremlin, it is easy for Russia to use Wikileaks to release damaging information about the United States and European democracies whilst cloaked in the legitimacy of Wikileaks’ status as an NGO. Rather than release hacked and stolen information itself, which the American public would likely discount and distrust, the Kremlin can have it sent and disseminated through Wikileaks, predicating on the instinctive American qualities of trusting NGO’s and distrusting government. This would fit with Russia’s proven tactics in cyber and information warfare as a means to attack its political enemies. In other words, Wikileaks offers a front of credibility by which state-sponsored cyberwarfare can operate from, turning the organization from a neutral NGO into an instrument of government action.

Beyond the obvious political damages caused by leaks, Wikileaks has also allowed its mission of information transparency to have ruinous effects on innocent individuals. Medical information, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and more belonging to hundreds of ordinary, innocent individuals have often been posted to the web. Deeply personal and sensitive information have become leaked and consequently easily exploitable by criminals. One retired U.S. diplomat was targeted by identity thieves after his personal information was released (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b70da83fd111496dbdf015acbb7987fb/private-lives-are-exposed-wikileaks-spills-its-secrets). Other cables outed rape victims and gay people in Saudi Arabia. After the attempted coup in Turkey, Wikileaks released 300,00 emails, calling them “emails from Turkey’s ruling party, Erdogan’s AKP” (https://twitter.com/wikileaks/status/755500104543526912?lang=en ). But almost none of the emails were actually from the AKP or President Erdogan—the vast majority were useless emails sent to the AKP from regular Turkish citizens or documents which linked to the personal information of thousands of individuals completely unrelated to Turkish politics. In the earlier years of Wikileaks, it often worked with professional news organizations to properly vet and redact this kind of information. Now, Wikileaks often publishes documents and press releases on its own, without working with news and journalistic sources and with almost no curation of the information that gets released. Assange himself has dismissed these privacy concerns when asked about them, calling unfiltered, unredacted information “pristine” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/06/julian-assange-to-bill-maher-we-re-working-on-hacking-trump-s-tax-returns.html) . Wikileaks’ history of releasing indiscriminate dumps of information, without curation or in-depth investigation of the relevance of that information to public interests, should be a source of worry.

Government transparency is important. On the basic level of Wikileaks’ proclaimed mission, it has an admirable goal of pushing for that purpose. But news organizations also push to hold governments accountable, and Wikileaks has shown that it does not have the means or the desire to utilize the same level of curation, vetting and fact-checking of professional journalistic sources. By releasing otherwise secret information, Wikileaks operates as a opaque news source without an identifiable staff of editors and reporters. If Wikileaks wishes to be treated and widely seen as a legitimate NGO, it should take its own mission to heart and make its organizational structure transparent and professional. A visible board of advisors, editors, and information specialists, who can have a say in determining if leaks are relevant to the public interest—and not the medical information of a rape victim in Saudi Arabia—would go a long way in adding to the long-term viability and legitimacy of Wikileaks and preventing the organization from being hijacked by malicious state interests. Another possibility would be for Wikileaks to more closely work with accredited news organizations to carefully vet and prepare leaks in such a way that minimizes damage to individuals and national security.

On a broader level, transparency to the public has its limits. It is one thing to say that the public should know about secret, illegal government programs. It is quite another to say that accountability means every single email related to a political campaign should be widely available. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy and his cabinet had thirteen days of secret talks to manage the situation, isolated from public scrutiny but guided by their fundamental desire to avoid the loss of American life. A level of discretion and secrecy is often needed for the United States to effectively manage top-level foreign and military affairs. There are often issues that the public is distanced from by nature of us living in a democratic republic. Governments are not monolithic either. They are composed of institutions which check and keep an eye on each other, and those institutions are composed of regular citizens like anyone else. Governments first and foremost have the responsibility to provide for national security to protect the individual liberties of its citizens. That is, fundamentally, the purpose of liberal democracies. Wikileaks and Assange, although guided by the missoin of acting in the interest of the public, seem to care only about transparency, regardless of the cost on a nation’s security and the privacy and liberty of its citizens.

Syrus Jin

Syrus Jin '19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at jin.s@wustl.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *