The WikiLeaks Hoax, Part I

WikiLeaks has done it again. For the second time in less than four months, the shadowy outfit has succeeded in publishing a leak that has completely dominated the news cycle. Even news outlets and commentators that are critical of its posting of tens of thousands of U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan are prepared to confer upon WikiLeaks the honorific of a “whistleblower organization.”

But is that what it is? In April, WikiLeaks published its first mega-scoop of 2010: the so-called “Collateral Murder” video showing a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack in which two Iraqi Reuters employees were killed in Baghdad. At the time, I pointed to glaring differences between WikiLeaks’s handling of the video and the modus operandi that had characterized the “old” WikiLeaks. (See my “The Strange Career of WikiLeaks” at weeklystandard.com.)

The original WikiLeaks website in fact went offline in December 2009, allegedly to make way for a funding drive. It was, as I put it, an “equal opportunity” publisher of classified materials of all sorts from a wide variety of sources. The site, as such, had no clear political orientation and it would indeed have been contrary to the nature of the project to have had any. Like its namesake Wikipedia, the “old” WikiLeaks was, in effect, merely a platform. It was not the team that maintained the platform that provided the site with its essential content, but rather the sources who uploaded material to it.

The “new” WikiLeaks, by contrast, had all the trappings of a propaganda vehicle. Or, more precisely, just a propaganda stunt. When WikiLeaks published the “Collateral Murder” video, the site might indeed have been more appropriately called “WikiLeak” in the singular. For it contained barely any other leaks and none of any consequence.

A site that proudly boasted about having published some 1.2 million leaked documents -- namely, in its previous incarnation -- had managed to post all of twelve in its new incarnation in 2010. Most of them were about Iceland. In the meanwhile, the “old” WikiLeaks archives have been restored to the new site, thus creating a greater semblance of continuity. But the remarkable penury of leaks has continued.

Now, WikiLeaks has managed to chalk up exactly one more leak, and the publication of the files that the site has dubbed “The Afghan War Diary” confirms that the vocation of the “new” WikiLeaks is not unfiltered information, but rather targeted propaganda: highly targeted, since -- Iceland aside -- the real focus of the new site is obviously just the USA.

In light of the evolution of the site in the last four months -- or, more precisely, the striking lack thereof -- there is reason to doubt that there even really is any WikiLeaks “organization” as such that stands behind it. It would appear rather that the WikiLeaks brand itself -- complete with ubiquitous spokesperson Julian Assange and his distinctive shock of white hair -- is part of the desired propaganda effect. After all, if the world’s most famous and courageous “whistleblower organization” only ever blows its whistle about American “abuses,” then what does that say about America?

It is not so much the content of the leaked Afghan war reports that confirms the propagandistic vocation of the new WikiLeaks, but rather the circumstances of their publication. Given the sheer quantity of the reports and their often highly technical character, it will take months if not years for serious analysts to sift through the data sufficiently so as to come to any robust conclusions about the course of the Afghan war. This, notwithstanding the fact that WikiLeaks helpfully pre-spins the material for its readers, noting, for example, in its introduction to the reports that

The material shows that cover-ups start on the ground. When reporting their own activities US Units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves.

But what truly gives away the game is the fact that three selected news organizations were given a substantial head start in viewing the files. This permitted the three organizations to enjoy the prestige of breaking the story and to set the terms of the debate even before the raw material had been posted online by WikiLeaks.

And what, above all, gives the game away is just which three news organizations have thus been granted the privilege of being WikiLeaks “media partners,” as the site refers to them. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and over the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has developed a well-nigh metaphysical, so to say, dismal view of America and of the logic of American military interventions and counterterror operations. No three international print media organizations have done more to propagate this dismal view than precisely Germany’s Der Spiegel, Britain’s The Guardian, and America’s own New York Times.