The Guardian calls it "the biggest leak in intelligence history." Other news outfits are calling it "Pentagon Papers II." The release of more than 90,000 classified military documents on the war in Afghanistan is making headlines around the world. It's a PR nightmare for the U.S. government and its allies, because the documents depict the war as a prolonged effort in almost unrelieved futility.
But this story is extraordinary for several other reasons. The treasure trove of information released on Sunday was obtained not by investigative reporters working for the old-line mainstream media but by a formerly obscure website called WikiLeaks. Its raison d'être is whistle-blowing on a worldwide scale. WikiLeaks must now be counted among the most influential news outlets in the world. And the untouchable way in which it operates marks a seismic shift in the age-old struggle between the authorities and the whistle-blowers.
In the old days, it wasn't so easy to be a whistle-blower. You had to take great risks, sometimes steal or copy physical documents as proof, then find a friendly journalist and an official media outlet to leak to. WikiLeaks gets around the risk because it makes its material untraceable back to the source. Any whistle-blower with access to confidential documents can transmit them electronically, and WikiLeaks will publish them on the Internet. You no longer need an official media outlet to leak to.
The founder of this "media insurgency," as The New Yorker calls it, is an obsessive, anti-war Australian named Julian Assange. He is a gifted cryptographer and former hacker with a strong anti-authoritarian streak who says he doesn't believe in official secrets of any kind. When he got his hands on the cache of Afghan war documents, he made a shrewd decision. Instead of doing a giant dump online, he decided he'd get more impact if he teamed up with the old-line media. So he contacted The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel and offered them exclusive access for a few weeks via an encrypted website. They assessed the material, decided it was for real, and synthesized it into powerful news stories that were published on the same day he put all the raw data on his website. It was the first such collaboration in media history.
WikiLeaks has some powerful advantages over old-line media. It's run by a bunch of guerrilla volunteers. It's not bound by confidentiality deals in which embedded reporters swap access in return for withholding super-sensitive security information. Nor does it have to weigh what may or may not be in the national interest to publish. It is, as journalism expert Jay Rosen says, the world's first stateless news organization. It can't be sued, because it exists primarily in cyberspace. It can't be shut down, because it has an elaborate security system devised by devoted computer geeks.
"In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it," Mr. Rosen writes on his Pressthink blog. "But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new."
We have entered an age in which almost nothing - from the most intimate personal information to the most sensitive matters of state - can be kept secret any more. Who will vet the secret Afghan detainee documents? That sort of question may soon be quaintly irrelevant. Maybe someone will just download them all, and send them to Julian Assange.
In one way, the advent of WikiLeaks is a welcome antidote to the rampant overclassification of information - the tendency of governments and large bureaucracies to withhold more and more stuff from the public for no good reason. But, sometimes, there are good reasons for state secrecy. No matter how much you may dislike the Afghan war, you probably don't want information published that could directly endanger our soldiers or civilians. Yet, Mr. Assange readily admits that such risks are not his first concern. Instead, as he told The New Yorker, he has instituted a "harm-minimization policy."
Meantime, it's safe to say that Mr. Assange has the Pentagon and the White House entirely bamboozled. Not long ago, a U.S. military document discussed a plan to "destroy the centre of gravity of WikiLeaks by attacking its credibility." Someone sent it to him, and he promptly posted it on his website.