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The world as we know it is undoubtedly carpeted with digitalized platforms from which information on almost everything can be derived. A virtual global sphere has resulted as a consequence to digital media, new media, and information communication technologies where many believe the available technological landscape has no boundaries. However, when it comes to the aspect of ‘state secrets’ that belief is split down the middle; for the producers of ‘state secrets’ they maintain that there are certain documents or information that should remain reticent to the public. On the other hand, there are those who hold the perception that there should be nothing like ‘state secrets’ and that state information should be public information.
This uncompromising divide has sparked controversy as stories evolved in varying parts of the world on the topic of information or state secrets leaked to the public through digital means. This paper zeroes in on the recent case of Chelsea Manning once known as Pfc Bradley E. Manning, a former United States army soldier who was arrested, charged and currently serving jail time for leaking state secrets. Peter Walker (2013) with the Guardian penned that Manning “downloaded more than 700,000 classified documents from US military servers and passed them to WikiLeaks” (Walker, 2013). Walker also notes that the first revelation came in 2010, from a video showing a US helicopter crew laughing as they killed unarmed civilians in Iraq.
Manning used “his access to secure intelligence networks to gather secret military and diplomatic files which he then downloaded and passed on to WikiLeaks by the hundreds of thousands” and in his defense he said that he did this because of the gruesome things he saw in Iraq which led him “to seriously question US foreign policy” (Raf Sanchez, The Telegraph, 2013). In an online conversation with a friend, Manning revealed his plan to disclosed the information he had gathered and wanted to ignite worldwide “discussion, debates, and reforms” (Sanchez, 2013). In 2013 Manning was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years for “stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks” (CNN Library, 2014).
WikiLeaks can be considered one of the most feared and detested online media organizations by the United States, because it has “a steady flow of confidential materials” and it is not part of the familiar “responsible press” as such it “was met by increasing levels of angry vitriol from the Administration, politicians, and media commentators” (Benkler, 2011, p.313). According to WikiLeaks official website it is a non-profit media organization with a main goal of bringing important news and information to the public and it provides an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to journalists” (WikiLeaks.org, 2011).
Julian Assange is the famed Australian who is the face of the organization and is considered the founder. According to Jonathan Zittrain & Molly Sauter (2010) Julian Assange “served as the editor-in-chief and spokesperson for Wikileaks since its founding in 2006. Before that, he was described as an advisor. Sometimes he is cited as its founder” (Zittrain & Sauter, 2010).
Discussion on the topic of leaking state secrets often strike a balance in that there are people who publicly oppose the act (often state leaders and officials) and there are those (regular members of the public and some media personnel) who are supportive of the release of state secrets and they label those responsible as heroes or champions for freedom of information. In an article posted on Channel4 News official website titled ‘ What did WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning do for us?’ it stated that “For some, he is a symbol of human bravery and a courageous defender of human rights; for others, he is in breach of the estimable code of military ethics and an irresponsible traitor to the army” (Channel4 News, 2013).
White House officials claimed that the information leaked was ‘sensitive’ and the information was detrimental to national security. What is sensitive information? Well it depends on who is asked; the answer is therefore relative. In comparison with other counties, the United States echoes the loudest voice for human rights and press freedom however, when one examines the content of its ‘sensitive information’ leaked by Manning, a clear picture is revealed that outside its borders, the call for human rights evaporates. In essence, it is safe to conclude that information is therefore sensitive for the public ears if it goes against everything the United States stands for publicly. Moreover, if the information has the potential to negatively impact the image of the United States, then that’s another qualifying factor for sensitive information.
Given the fact that public knowledge of the information leaked by Manning was damaging to the ‘reputable’ image of the United States, it is my view that fragments of mass media would have been reluctant to release such ‘disruptive’ information to the general public. This fear is generally absent in the digital world, predominantly on a site like WikiLeaks which “has combined high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles and provides a high security anonymous drop box fortified by cutting-edge cryptographic information technologies” (WikiLeaks.org, 2011).
Those operational techniques are aimed at giving leakers and prospective leakers the assurance that their leaks will be posted anonymously. Information society is excessively swift and vibrant as a result of digitalization and rarely faces stumbling blocks to disseminate information to the masses. This attest to the evolution of our communication society which has given rise to the creation of software programming tools available to create a safe haven for ‘digital citizens’ to impact society on every level (economically, politically, culturally, and academically). Today, unlike in the past, information is transmitted from many to many and from one to many within seconds, creating an exciting phenomenon for millions of participants and create a technologically mediated information society.
There are some issues that must be addressed on the topic of ‘state secrets’:
1. The issue of accountability takes precedence over the issue of privacy when the state has failed and betrayed the trust of the people. I think ‘state secrets’ intended to protect the state from its own wrongdoing, is not state secret but rather a cover up of the state’s abuse of authority which I think is evident in this case discussed earlier. Our information society should not only be filled with the stories the media and its sponsors think we should know about but it should also be filled with stories we never thought we should know but knowing them has the power to impact positive change in various systems.
2. The issue of transparency. In a report by Leonard Downie Jr and Sara Rafsky (2013) they point out that transparency is lacking in the Obama administration and that government officials are hesitant to talk to the press. America prides itself on democracy and press freedom but evidence is widespread of its efforts to silence the press and deny the public of information. Downie and Rafsky further noted that “those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records”. Manning’s leaks testify to the lack of transparency and lack of accountability by the U.S. government.
I think the main challenges we are likely to face in the future are:
1. Balancing the democratic right to information with how much and what kind of information is the public free to publish and access. This challenge ties in with exercising control of our information society, which by the looks of things is inevitable. Digital minds are always countless steps ahead of those trying to place control on information and the digital accessibility.
2. Another challenge for state leaders that is likely to surface is who should be entrusted with ‘state secrets.’ The possibilities in technological advancements are endless and one cannot help but wonder if computers will be made with the necessary capacities to be the sole trusted holders of ‘state secrets.’
3. Defining the merit of withholding information from the public is also challenging tasks for the states with state secrets. The public is seldom convinced that state secrets are meant to protect the masses.
a. Another challenge is widening the distance between state information and the public. By the looks of things, unless challenge number two is addressed and realized, state secrets will continue to be as immediate to the public as it is now. The digital environment that currently engulfs the world has placed information as the nucleus of everything; as such there are no barriers between information and people, particularly for those with the digital know how to create, leak, and access information. Case in point is Manning leaks which was seen, read and discussed by millions around the world.
In conclusion, the leak of state secrets by Chelsea Manning will continue to be the focal point in the debate surrounding leaking state secrets. There are no signs that our information society will be less enthusiastic to share, publish and assess information, rather the world is moving at an alarming rate to develop more sophisticated digital technologies for the purpose of transforming our communication and information landscapes. The question arises through: who gets to draw the line in terms of what portion of state information the public should be entitled to know? I remain somewhat indecisive about my answer. My uncertainly rests on the premise that in the light of information and media freedom, levels of control and filter should be established for the benefit of the public safety. However, I firmly believe that there is a limit to what government should withhold from its public, particularly information that reveals government wrongdoing. Information is power only when it is used to make positive changes with powerful impacts.
Benkler, Y. (2011). A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle Over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate.
Cable News Network. (CNN). (2015). WikiLeaks fast facts. Accessed April 12, 2015 from http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/03/world/wikileaks-fast-facts/
Channel4 News. (June, 2013). What did WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning do for us? Accessed April 12, 2015 from http://www.channel4.com/news/bradley-manning-wikileaks-what-did-they-do-for-us
Downie, L. & Rafsky, F. (October, 2013). The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America. Accessed April 12, 2015 from Committee to Project Journalists Official website: https://cpj.org/reports/2013/10/obama-and-the-press-us-leaks-surveillance-post-911.php
Walker, P. (2013, July). Bradley Manning trial: what we know from the leaked WikiLeaks documents. Accessed April 4, 2012 from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/30/bradley-manning-wikileaks-revelations
WikiLeaks. (2011). What is WikiLeaks. Accessed April 12, 2015 from https://wikileaks.org/About.html
Zittrain, J., & Suater, M. (2010). Everything You Need to Know About Wikileaks. Accessed April 12, 2015 from MIT Technology Review Official website: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/421949/everything-you-need-to-know-about-wikileaks/
- Quote paper
- Asheida Charles (Author), 2015, Wikileaks. When State Secrets becomes Public Knowledge, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/311254