Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Double Harrumph on the WikiLeak

Washington reaction to the Afghan document dump is solidifying into "How dared they release official secrets!" combined with "Nothing new here, we knew all that."

Politicians of all stripes are embracing both harrumphs. Unblessed-by-Wikileaks media people tend to favor the latter. But behind such butt-covering responses are issues that will take time to sort out.

One of the leakees, David Leigh of The Guardian, points out that "a game-changing thing has happened. We didn't leak this material. And, actually, WikiLeaks didn't leak this material. This material was leaked by some military source who had access to industrial quantities of electronic information that you can get out and leak across the planet in seconds."

The newspapers involved did the traditional journalistic scut work of verifying authenticity of the material, scrubbing it of any obvious security hazards and trying to put it all in context.

But clearly this will not end there. The floodgates have been opened, apparently by some low-level military clerk, and soon there may be platoons of "whistle blowers" online with more data than any filter, mainstream or otherwise, can responsibly handle.

Such journalistic anarchy, no matter how trumpeted as freedom of information, will not offset the official fictions that are constantly being leaked by those in power but combine with them to raise public confusion to new levels.

Beyond the question of government secrecy is the dismissive argument that the documents reveal "nothing new." Yet, as James Fallows observes, "information that may be old news to insiders may seem a revelation to the broader public. Whether from George W. Bush or Barack Obama, presidential speeches about Afghanistan have not emphasized the mixed loyalties of the Pakistani security services, the frustrations of dealing with tribal leaders and corrupt officials, the extent of civilian casualties, and other items that, according to insiders, 'everyone' already knows."

Fading public support for the Afghan war will almost surely be further eroded by this week's headlines, as reflected in the deeper-than-ever Democratic split yesterday in funding what seems a never-ending drain on the American economy in hard times.

In all this, 21st century politics and journalism are being derailed by speed bumps never before seen on the Information Highway.

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