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Wikileaks saga is not the David and Goliath tale one thinks

Mark Urban | 18:24 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

The question about which of the US State Department's leaked cables has had the greatest impact or yielded the most surprising secret has become a bit of a parlour game in newsrooms and foreign ministries alike.

It is a subjective issue that can be argued many ways.

However, one area in which the impact can be accurately assessed is in the boost to the business of those media organisations chosen as partners by Wikileaks (in the first instance, The Guardian, New York Times, and Der Spiegel, later including Le Monde and El Pais).

So far Wikileaks itself has basically limited its own website to material already put out in a co-ordinated way by those major media organisations.

I do not imagine this was done to boost the commercial exclusivity of certain businesses, but that is one of its consequences. So far, people wanting to get access to the broad range of leaked material have been unable to.

One week ago, on the first full day of disclosures, the Guardian website had its biggest ever number of users - 4.1m of them. Insiders suggest the hard copy has added 10% to its circulation.

Wikileaks' partners are doing very well out of this. You might argue it is the classic business proposition - that having taken the legal and journalistic risk, they should reap rewards.

Today, is the first time in 10 days that I have actually managed to bring up Wikileaks' own web page, following cyber attacks that have caused it to move to a new host in Switzerland.

Even so, it is still only carrying telegrams that have already been released by those big media players.

My point here is less that Wikileaks is operating in this instance in a way that gives certain businesses a distinct commercial advantage - though I appreciate many people may care about that - but more that the way this saga has unfolded is rather more conventional and less ground breaking than one might suppose.

The revolutionary point about these leaks is the way in which such vast numbers of files were copied from US government servers in the first place.

The New York Times or Guardian have been in receipt of countless leaked documents before, but they have never been presented with anything like this number.

Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence clerk who is alleged to have copied all these files gave Wikileaks such an enormous quantity of information that they were quite unable to assess it, still less redact out sensitive details.

This is where the big media names with their teams of reporters and correspondents came in.

Whoever has attacked Wikileaks website seems to have baulked at bringing down those of The Guardian, Der Spiegel, or the New York Times. These players are simply too powerful.

Had the person who copied the files sent them direct to a couple of major media organisations it is hard to see that the outcome would have been much different.

In other words it can be argued that Wikileaks acted as no more than post boy, or at most a broker.

I have no idea how far Pte Manning disdains "mainstream media" with its corporate and agenda setting power.

I imagine he is not too big a fan, since it has been said that he acted in the way he did in order to expose US government lies or double standards.

His alleged reasoning was easier to follow on the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks, where such issues as the number of civilian casualties or torture by the Iraqi Security Forces, have long been hidden by the Pentagon.

The US State Department cables, on the other hand, seem to have been most problematic for foreign governments that send completely different messages in public and private.

Some in the online security business say that recent cyber attacks on Wikileaks have originated in Russia. The cables have revealed claims of corruption and collusion with organised crime against the Russian government.

So this has not quite played out as the story of a website "David" against the US government "Goliath" that one might think.

The fact that these cables have been globally published has in the end depended upon big corporate players - the established media - and not Wikileaks.

It is important to grasp that before everyone gets too carried away with ideas that the website has shown all the "old media" the way of the future.


  • Comment number 1.

    given the usa have forbidden anyone without clearance reading the documents

    ..Viewing or downloading still classified documents from unclassified government computers creates a security violation," a spokeswoman said ..

    and that the usa is famously humourless over security then in their mind anyone reading known stolen documents is spying/theft/etc is committing an actionable offence? which at the very least might get a visa revoked?

    the way of the future?

    I thought it was well known any journalist uncovering secrets of govt or organised crime has a very limited future? So rather it is wiki leaks that should learn from old media?

  • Comment number 2.

    'Today, is the first time in 10 days that I have actually managed to bring up Wikileaks' own web page, following cyber attacks that have caused it to move to a new host in Switzerland.'

    You've not been trying hard enough!

    I must admit I am deeply sceptical about the peice-meal approach to the's so stage managed.

    The faux man-hunt for Assange is truly a joke, just as are the trumped up sex charges against him. Holywood couldn't have scripted/filmed it better.

    Assange says he has a few aces up his sleeve as 'protection'. What rubbish!

    Spill the beans and get on with it... or is he just another paid drama queen?

    libertarian string-a-long

  • Comment number 3.


    It has been pointed out, and I can't help but agree, that most - if not all - of these 'world-changing' events, that are used as leverage-points to bring in the NEW WORLD ORDER, have a blatant SHOW-BIZ quality.

    9/11, the ultimate cult movie, should have been titled: TOWERING BRAVADO.

  • Comment number 4.

    'So far Wikileaks itself has basically limited its own website to material already put out in a co-ordinated way by those major media organisations.

    And it is the control of the timing, as well as the content, that intrigues me most in what often gets billed as a new era of openness.

    As far as I can gather the editorial by omission, at the very least, extends to Wikilieaks, then their paper 'partners', and finally what those who feed off that choose to go with. Or not.

    Which hardly seems much more than pandering to simply another set of agendas, at best.

    I recall some were a lot more keen to 'run' with petty local gossip than what seemed to me the massive confirmation of the hypocrisy of some Middle Eastern governments more usually given easy passes in too many quarters.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've also noted that Wikileaks is still only carrying telegrams that have already been released by specific big-media players.
    The most curious point about these leaks is the "how": How did rather insignificant persons manage to gain access to such vast numbers of files, copied from US government servers in the first place. Are US Government servers this poorly protected?
    Who the heck is Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence clerk to have had access, to have copied all these files?
    Wikileaks gets attacked; is often not avaiable, but the big-media players: The Guardian, Der Spiegel, & the New York Times just keep on ticking.
    So what is Wikileaks, really? Who is responsible? In reading Wikileaks, the primary purpose appears to be to bring down the US Imperialistic Empire.
    This seems like a "George Soros" sort of play - attacking what George would characterize as the notion of “American supremacy". George sees the United States, as I do: the “main obstacle to a stable and just world order.”
    The Wikileaks clearly show that the US so-called "diplomacy" is not being used to dialogie and find alternatives to aggression; rather, so-called doplomacy seems engaged in establishing weak points, assessing enemy strength and seeking out illegal wars to keep fat & healthy the American military/industrial complex.
    Will this documents help to improve dialogue, end wars...?
    The WikiLeaks on the war in Iraq provided proof of American “war crimes”; so, what became of any attempt re prosecution? What became of any attempt to hold accountable those in the Pentagon, the White House, the Justice Department, etc. who wrote the policies and issued the orders? Just about all that happened was that people began to see more clearly (not that they didn't see before) that the United States is not a force for good in the world, not a global seeker of individual freedoms.
    What's happening now is a Boomerang Effect: Let's hold the little guys - Julian Assange and the intelligence clerk - responsible under the Espionage Act!
    Surely the US realizes that there is a much bigger POWER behind Wikileaks than these two little guys. Who or what is that POWER and what does "it" want? One thing for sure this POWER is moneyed, very moneyed.
    Beyond that the motivation is still eluding me, and I remain curious.

  • Comment number 6.

    Wikileaks is a broker, it is one thing to go to the New York Times with confidential documents, another thing entirely to offer up raw data to a web-based 'unaffiliated'? nebulous organisation who then makes it accessible to whom ever expresses an interest, whether piecemeal or not.

    As for 'who may be behind this' (if anyone)I suppose you have to look at the target.

    Wikileaks is mostly damaging to the world 'image' of western democracies.

    From snippets of quotes I have read in the past it is clear Russia (and possibly others) consider the west are just like them (quasi mafia states to varying degrees), the only difference being that the western 'democracies' (incresingly more like media plutocracies)are less up-front about how they operate and more successful in giving the illusion of being founded on utopian values which gives them an elevated position in the world.. and boy how we like to take the moral high ground despite torture flights, phoney wars and all the rest of it...

    Given Russia's recent political past and current position, combined with their talent for 'hacking' into computer systems (lets not forget China as well), I for one would not be surprised if there is some geopolitical interest, covert or otherwise, behind 'wikileaks'.

    If you want to become the new 'superpower' you have to take the moral high ground away from the incumbents as well as the economic foundations.

    Job already done for the second part...wikileaks seems to be doing a good job of the former.

    No doubt I am getting carried away again with my penchant for 'conspiracy theories' but, as an engineer with a mind trained for problem solving, if I wanted to dismantle the western democracies grip on the world, first I would develop and implement a strategy to defeat them economically, then I would develop and implement a strategy to defaet them morally.

    Hey... look on the bright side, it is a much more humane way of doing things than lobbing explosives at each other.

    Someone remind me what the background of the Chinese leadership is again? lawyers and bankers or engineers?

  • Comment number 7.

    Bravo Wikileaks the only truth we have.....

  • Comment number 8.

    The difference between Assange and the Establishment press is that Wikileaks and Assange is beyond the Establishment and therefore literally out of control. Most Anarchists and Anarchist movements are kept in check by the Establishment through a constant and insidious campaign of dismissive low-level ridicule, usually disseminated by the media. This is because all States have a deep fear of Anarchist movements.

    Assange - a man with Anarchist principles - is now threatening to wield considerable power through his use of the internet in order to repeatedly humiliate the US Government which is the face of the ruling Western elite. Crucially, Assange's power is relatively free of Establishment control and therefore represents a far greater threat than that presented by the mainstream press. I don't think the power of humiliation when turned on the Establishment's cloak of respectability and fear that has been carefully woven over centuries by Western Power should ever be underestimated.

    What the US Government is attempting to do on behalf of the Western political Establishment is demonstrate that when it is humiliated in this way, particularly by one such as Assange, there is nowhere the offender can hide. As usual when it is attacked, the US and its Establishment backers are attempting to show that US and Establishment power is limitless.

    I think it needs to be recognized how imperative Western Power considers the task of publically catching and punishing Assange in order to show the world that behaviour such as his, most crucially when it emanates from outside the establised institutions, will not be tolerated.

    It will not surprise me at all if Assange does not stay alive beyond 2011.

  • Comment number 9.

    I've enjoyed reading these reponses. DebtJuggler - you're right I should have been trying harder to access the website ! Ceratinly it's been working just fine in recent days from its new Swiss host. If I may just pick up where Joseph Walker ended...
    Surely 'mainstream media' is not so easyily controlled ? A very mainstream, very establishment, US newspaper ran the Pentagon Papers, ditto broke Watergate - both stories having implications that went far beyond the current Wiki-story. True, it was a long time ago, but look at the Observer publishing the GCHQ/NSA telegram about spying on the UN in the run up to the Gulf War. I really don't think most of these papers, even today, are afraid to publish this type of material, even if, like Wikileaks itself, they accept that certain details must be sanitised.
    Without pre-judging the guilt or innocence of Bradley Manning I do wonder what Wikileaks would amount to right now without him (or whoever else provided all those files...). We have reason to believe after all that a single individual gave Wikileaks the helicopter footage, Afghan war logs, Iraq war logs, and State Department cables. How big a force in independent media would Wikileaks be without that single individual ?
    And as for Mr Assange, there may be a clamour from the American right for him to be punished, but nothing yet has actually happened - not even an extradition request. That could change at any time of course, but it is already quite clear that they will throw the book at Bradley manning.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for your comment Mark Urban. Just to respond briefly, I think it is the nature of Assange and his method of dissemination that is the threat to governments of all kinds. Ultimately, the difference between Wikileaks and Assange and the mainstream press is that so far there is no easy sanction or control by Governments over this means of information dissemination when it is controlled by a person with the sort of beliefs Assange holds.

    It is at least as much the message that Wikileaks and Assange is beyond the control of the US State as what Wikileaks is publishing that is the problem.

  • Comment number 11.

    Me thinks they doth protest too much! Given the material published so far by Wikileaks it seems clear to me that they are being played by the US. Is this a classic case of double-bluff? As far as I can see there has not been anything potentially dangerous to the national security of the US despite their vocal protestations, but there has been a conspicuous amount of either 'revenge' or a 'bringing into line' for other states, some of whom have been somewhat embarrassed by the leaked material and others 'warned'. Isn't it clear that the US believes there is more than more than one way to achieve its foreign policy objectives, and leaking material that doesn't contain anything particularly derogatory about the US or its actions/intentions is a little suspicious to say the least.

  • Comment number 12.

    The tittle-tattle isn`t important except to build up a general picture of a global financial"world" empire from the USA... which includes China and Russia as well as us.

    And it was worth it just to hear that our foreign and Defence ministers got their jobs by applying for them at the US embassy....after years of being told I was an "anti-american conspiracy theorist" for pointing out that "our" London government is little more than an american-run puppet regime....just like the EU!!

    All those years of voting "Labour" were a waste of time....but now I feel less responsible for the last forty years!

    Let`s hope we can start a truth and reconciliation process with our political/media class.... based on reality for a "change".


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