"Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media."
- WikiLeaks.Of course, if you currently try to follow that link, you'll find that it gives an error message, thanks to the US government's ruthless harassment and attempts to ostracise WikiLeaks (ironically, a strategy that was outlined in a US Department of Defence document itself leaked by WikiLeaks earlier this year). You can also try here.
There is much to say about the role of WikiLeaks over the last four years. They have broken a wide variety of important information about corruption and abuses of corporate and state power. Not every leak has been equally useful or important, and sometimes perhaps more has been released than was necessary to hold the powerful to account, which may or may not be the case in the current controversy (though currently, only a small fraction of the total files have been released). Nonetheless, from what has already been released, the prima facie case for the release being in the public interest is strong. While we might not need to know internal US diplomatic gossip about which world leaders are liked or disliked (often not that much of a secret in any case), finding evidence that seems to indicate that the US government has been breaking treaties and encouraging other nations to break treaties is no small matter, nor are revelations of the UK Parliament apparently being misled by the Foreign Office.
Yet the most common reaction to these revelations follows the lead of the government currently most damaged by them: distraction through counter-accusation. I am not aware of the legality under US or international law of what WikiLeaks have done (though Assange points out that WikiLeaks have been involved in over 100 legal attacks over the last four years and won them all), but I am aware of at least some of the illegalities exposed. The hunt for Julian Assange is a distraction, as is the witch hunt being put together to assassinate his character (or his person, if some are to be believed). This is what ought to be happening at the very least: resignations of those whose actions have been shameful.
Yet when Assange called on Clinton to resign for issuing instructions to diplomats that apparently break international treaties concerning the UN, the reaction from the White House was "I'm not entirely sure why we care about the opinion of one guy with one website". This response shifts the focus from the substance of what Clinton (and Rice before her, for that matter) has done and onto the journalists who broke the story, blaming the messenger. The question is not whether they care about one man and his website, but whether we all care about what government officials do in our name.
There seem to be plenty more stories yet to come out of the cables. The next major release due sometime in the new year is said to contain evidence of corruption and malpractice at a major US bank.
*The fine print is that I don't agree with everything that WikiLeaks has done, and think that Julian Assange can come across with characteristic Aussie bluntness (rudeness) at times, yet the role that WikiLeaks has already played and continue to play is a very important one. Democracy relies on accurate and relevant information available to those who participate in public deliberation. Where corporations or governments seek to hide information that is relevant to matters of public deliberation on the common good, then they ought to be held to account and whistleblowers deserve principled protection.
UPDATE: If you're having trouble getting to the WikiLeaks site, this site is keeping track of the hundreds of mirroring sites and you should be able to find access.