WikiLeaks Has Radically Altered the Military-Diplomatic-Information Complex – 10 Reasons For and Against

By Florian Cramer & Ted Byfield, 16 March 2011

With co-founder Julian Assange garnering everything from a messianic following to derision and calls to be ‘hunted down like a terrorist', Florian Cramer and Ted Byfield stand in opposing corners of the WikiLeaks ring to debate its impact on the modern state

10 Reasons Why WikiLeaks is Ineffective

by Florian Cramer


1. WikiLeaks doesn't work anymore

The more WikiLeaks has enjoyed mass media attention, the less it has been actually functioning as an organisation and as the service it is there to provide. At the time of writing, WikiLeaks no longer has a working infrastructure for submitting leaked documents. Curiously enough, except the tech community, nobody seems to have noticed that WikiLeaks isn't operational anymore.

2. WikiLeaks lacks internal policies to keep itself working

The reasons for the dysfunctionality of WikiLeaks are not simply governmental and corporate pressures, but first of all the schisms inside WikiLeaks in which the main actors are now fighting each other with lawyers. By turning itself into a personality show, WikiLeaks has become its own worst enemy and seems to have destroyed itself more efficiently than any outside operation could have accomplished.

3. WikiLeaks is stuck in the Enlightenment philosophy of the West

The political philosophy of WikiLeaks is fully in line with the classical radical democratic politics of such hacker organisations as the German Chaos Computer Club and the former Dutch Hack-Tic group. It is the last, dark utterance of European radical enlightenment philosophy: it takes Kant's categorical imperative - 'act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law' - and turns it into a negative yet literal token of critique. (In other words, a categorical imperative that no longer tells how to act, but is matched against existing actions in order to show how not to act.)

4. Therefore, WikiLeaks has little new insight to offer

Disclosing diplomatic, business and military secrets, WikiLeaks aims to make the public aware that their leaders are not acting in accordance with their own public maxims and discourse. But ever since Machiavelli, this has hardly been news. While it is not news, it makes news, thus making WikiLeaks and Machiavellian politics two systems that sustain each other.[1]

5. WikiLeaks does not fundamentally differ from traditional whistleblower media

WikiLeaks, as far as it is functional, has the same role and function that investigative journalism used to have, and - betraying its own name - works only through the same old media. It is a corrective to the system. Like any corrective, it will unbalance the system temporarily but stabilise it in the long term.

6. The leaked cables prove western democracy right

To any western citizen who acknowledges Realpolitik more than the categorical imperative, the leaked US cables will likely be welcome news. Their government may be lying to them; it may be involved in dirty geopolitical business. But it ultimately does so for a higher good - to act as an economic lobby for its own country, doing its best to secure the current way of life of its population: supply of energy and global natural resources, favourable export and import deals, military safety and safety of jobs. In this sense, the leaks prove that western countries do have functioning democracies, with governments doing what they have been elected for.

7. The leaked cables have more literary than political quality

The US diplomatic cables amount to an epic, multi-voiced, William Gaddis novel of early 21st century politics and the decline of the United States as the global superpower. The cable on a clan wedding party in Dagestan, for example, merits recognition as the early 21st century equivalent of Trimalchio's dinner from Petronius' Satyricon.

It is a novel of the military-industrial-diplomatic-information complex of western countries perceiving its own endangerment through new players and competitors. Even if we acknowledge information to be a weapon, the impact of WikiLeaks doesn't come close to the impact of an information bomb like, for example, Stuxnet - the computer worm that targets industrial software and equipment. The later, however, is too abstract to be told as a novel, soap opera or human interest story.

8. WikiLeaks' real impact: just a brief shift of attention

Before the WikiLeaks story degenerated into another case of red-top press celebrity sex and crime reporting, it at least had one achievement: to move geopolitics from the hardly-read pages onto the front pages of news media, if only for a few weeks. Apart from that, the cables hardly revealed anything that one couldn't have read in critical news media earlier.

9. WikiLeaks is based on the same liberal-libertarian ideology as western governments

Karl Popper's 20th century model of the 'open society' continued enlightenment philosophy all the while trying to immunise itself against Jacobinism, categorical imperatives and totalitarian utopias in the tradition of Plato's republic. Hacker culture, of which WikiLeaks is a part, however turned the 'open society' back into a categorical imperative and therefore into another Platonic republic. In this respect, it strangely resembles the missionary agenda of American neoconservativism. George W. Bush's advisors justified the second war against Iraq with their hope of a domino effect of democratisation in the Middle East. It seems as if this hope has now come true, only through the information and not the military side of the complex. The leaked US cables on the corruption of the Ben Ali family, for instance, amounted to a (minor) puzzle piece in the Tunisian blogs prior to the revolution. Most remarkably, the US government information was trusted. The fact that, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere in the world, nobody ever doubted the truthfulness of the cables and other leaked government documents, amounts to a moral victory of the institutions that WikiLeaks supposedly opposes.

10. WikiLeaks suffers from an unacknowledged conflict between two modes of transparency and control

Is WikiLeaks another panoptical medium and surveillance system that undermines privacy? This question can - and would likely - be easily dismissed by hacker activists with the argument that WikiLeaks only monitors the political-economic-military complex, not private individuals. The point of radical enlightenment philosophy, however, is to abolish this difference. As opposed to feudalism and absolutism, the ruler no longer has two bodies, a public and a private one, and must no longer speak with two Machiavellian tongues. In neoliberal capitalism, just as much as in the libertarian open society envisioned by hacker culture, the distinction of 'public' and 'private' had to collapse (and has factually done so). Both used the Internet as the tool for this purpose.

WikiLeaks' scandalous but little reported abuse of the allegedly anonymous TOR web proxy system (by running TOR 'exit node' servers and monitoring their traffic to find leakable data) shows that indeed, privacy is no serious concern for the initiative. If its former anonymous operation was therefore hypocritical, the present celebrity book contract mode is just the flip side of the same coin.


10 Reasons Why WikiLeaks is Effective

by Ted Byfield


Cablegate has dragged on for months now and, given the rate at which WikiLeaks has been processing the documents, it could drag on for years to come. Yet at the outset it was quickly reduced to one of the few kinds of cud the mass media can chew on: the event. (The corollary: Julian Assange, the celebrity.) Much as those who rush out to see the latest movie usually announce that it's ‘great!', the initial round of punditry reacting to Cablegate was quick to declare that the cables were so much triviata that, at best, might flesh out some novelistic details of what we all 'really' knew anyway. But these rushed judgments were based on the slender evidence of a handful of cables and, of course, no sense of how the material, particular or general, might play out over time. We have no idea how 'Cablegate' will unfold, even less so WikiLeaks, and even less so the material it possesses (in particular its 'insurance policy'). But consider what the ur-gate, Watergate, has become: it began as a building and has become, decades later, a suffix universally understood to denote scandal. No one 'really' knew that would happen.


The protean potential of WikiLeaks isn't just the vaporous byproduct of rhetoric or a lack of analytical rigor. Rather, it's intrinsically related to the question it poses: Leak? Not some abstraction like 'leak as metaphor' or categorical exercise like 'what is a leak?', but leak as a verb that beckons, an invitation. One of the abiding mysteries of the modern world, given how much perfidy is perpetrated so knowingly by so many people working in consort, is how very few of these people ever repent, turn coat and rat out their friends (let alone their enemies). Before WikiLeaks, leakers and leaks were marginal in every respect: wanderers of the mediascape; lone, 'disgruntled' whistleblowers who risked their livelihoods; quixotic, precarious journalists; gruff, skeptical editors and conflicted publishers who finally, reluctantly Do the Right Thing; all of this leading, in all but the rarest cases, to whatever-happened-to?... sagas that trailed off into oblivion. Only a lunatic would do it (and kudos to them). Leaking is still completely nuts, but it's become something different now: it's gained a kind of substance‚ a site, a centre, a place, a face, a voice and above all has become a cause. One could even begin to think of it as a human right. (No one has suggested that possibility -- yet.)


We're used to assuming that leaking is a bureaucratic process that involves advocate-mediators, most obviously the journalists who provide the social services that cryptographic protocols supplant, anonymising leakers and authenticating the substance of leaks. But with WikiLeaks the leak has become a more autonomous object‚ part public good, part private commodity‚ in a novel, still very fluid 'market.' Hence WikiLeaks's ability to experiment with new kinds of informatic arbitrage, for example, by playing newspapers against each other to minimise unexpected suppressions or distortions of details. The familiar term for describing this shift would be disintermediation; but, as we've seen (for example, with Google and advertising or Apple and music), 'disintermediation' sets the stage for new remediations with new actors. Market analogies are many and ripe‚ the shift from 'value' to 'high-volume' leaks, to name the most obvious. But it would be a mistake to assume that markets are the only or primary framework for assigning meaning or significance to a leak; as markets become hegemonic and subsumptive, 'leaks' and their like will increasingly become antimarket in substance and form.


WikiLeaks has already exposed critical ideological fault lines and wildly conflicting tendencies among some of the main beneficiaries of the legitimate(d) monopoly on secrecy‚ government officials and military officers. For example, in August 2010 rumours circulated that the US Marine Corps had forbidden all employees and associated personnel from accessing the WikiLeaks website.[2] Seven months later the US Air Force Materiel Command forbade the families of military staff from doing so, then backtracked less than a week later because 'the guidance [...] had not been coordinated with headquarters.'[3] WiReD's 'Danger Room' summed up the problem neatly in its August headline: 'Pentagon to Troops: Taliban Can Read WikiLeaks, You Can't.' Clearly, WikiLeaks has sparked serious debates about some of the most basic tenets of the national security state‚ secrecy, compartmentalisation, operational security and the like. But these debates won't play out solely as commentarial abstractions; instead, they'll take the form of policies as myriad state entities struggle to adapt their operations to leaks of every size and shape. But to the extent that these policies aim to assign meaning and structure knowledge, let's call them by their real name: epistemologies. Dueling epistemologies, maybe, but epistemologies nonetheless.


These conflicts will only intensify as various entities and strata come to see the challenge posed by leaks as they see every other resource in a bureaucratic setting, as a threat, a club, a ladder, a lever and a measure of prestige. Some will push for a softer, pragmatic touch, more openness, a more human face; others will see it as a justification to harden everything in sight, for tighter granular control. True, there's nothing 'new' about these organisational dynamics and WikiLeaks didn't 'cause' them; if anything, since WikiLeaks relies on leaks driven by these kinds of tensions, it's a symptom. But headaches and heart attacks are 'symptoms' too, with very different consequences. As other, very serious leaks come along (and sooner or later they will), the fates of WikiLeaks and Assange regardless‚ these two tendencies will become ever more contradictory. We've seen this play before: the succession of Soviet supremos from Lenin through Gorbachev, the Night of the Long Knives, the Cambridge Five, the paranoiac paroxysms of James Jesus Angleton at the CIA, to name only the most pathological. And we've seen the remakes, too: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the PATRIOT Act, the Official Secrets Act and so on. It doesn't end well.


In its hybrid of justifiably paranoiac networked OPSEC and the most banal social 'meatspace' tensions (rock stars versus roadies, sexual conquests and betrayals, etc.), WikiLeaks is a deeply individual, collaborative entity. In its insularity and secrecy too, it remains fairly bricks-and-mortar, structurally inadequate to its ambitions: it can't scale as quickly as the forces it antagonises. Nevertheless, WikiLeaks was, if not born, then at least educated‚ through several years' of Assange's participation on the Cypherpunks mailing list, a milieu where cryptographically untraceable 'transactions' were seen as heralding the end of the state and the inauguration of a new, stateless era: cryptoanarchy.[4] Assange drank heavily from that well, but unlike the borderline-sociopathic rightism that dominated the list and its project of establishing a new and utterly privatised antisocial contract, he's set out on a reformist mission. WikiLeaks the organisation may be crushed or subverted, and Assange the performer may get locked up in some Brave New Prison, but they've succeeded in mounting a new and general cause that's independent of Assange and his organisation. And they've laid the basis for martyrological recruitment as well: everyone that's caught will recruit many more to the cause of leaking.


There were scandals, revelations and co-optations long before the leak and they'll continue long after the leak exits from the historical (or at least linguistic) stage. What distinguishes the leak is its appearance at a particular point in time when, at least notionally, government, business and the press inhabited discrete and conflicting spheres. One could argue, in a vaguely Foucauldian way, that the appearance of the 'leak' was itself a sign of this regime's collapse. In that sense, then, the name 'WikiLeaks' can be seen as a nostalgic misnomer‚ though not because it isn't a 'wiki.' Rather, as government, business and the media (not the press) become less and less distinguishable, 'leaks' will necessarily involve new forms (knowledge, documentation, data, etc.) escaping in new ways and to new ends. Despite the best efforts of cultural zombies and metaphor-mongers to debate which metaphor or precedent fits WikiLeaks best, it's not a 'publisher' or a 'terrorist organisation' or any other established entity between these poles; and Cablegate isn't a repetition of the 'Pentagon Papers.' The 'leak' was once a new phenomenon, but anonymous sources and spinning info have become the media's norm. WikiLeaks has upgraded it‚ to a new world of network effects, as both inputs and outputs and to a more cynical world in which knowledge has become a subset of 'content.'


Where the leak involved the press mediating the shift of knowledge or documentation between government and business, there is of course a new kind of leakage that's much more systematic and on a scale that very regularly dwarfs Cablegate. It's endemic to networks and the corporate consolidations they enable, but we still don't have a good name for it: hack, compromise, exploit, ID theft, and dataleak are the most common names, but poor ones‚ they're all hopelessly burdened with baggage and they shift emphasis from agency to the event and the product, two hopelessly commodified forms. The forces responsible for these new leakages are sometimes organised, sometimes not; many are in a fast flux of constant, ephemeral reorganisation around means of production, derivatives, affiliations and federations, buyouts and betrayals. These leakages from the 'private' sphere, or whatever it is that encompasses relations between corporations and individuals, have reached boggling proportions. It's only a matter of time before they do the same in the 'public' sector‚ if secretive civil and military authorities, as well as surrounding penumbra can be called that. But there's nothing passive about them: these aren't leaks, they're takes. This transformation can be summed up in a single word that doesn't exist yet: Wikitakes.


The word may not exist yet, but the phenomenon does; and Assange and WikiLeaks have played a pivotal role in its development. Anonymous began as a networked-in-real-life counter to the 'Church' of Scientology (itself a business founded on dogma and ritual). Initially, they adopted the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta as a practical measure during street protests, due to the CoS's history of surveilling and persecuting critics. But with the coordinated governmental and commercial effort to deny WikiLeaks cover and support, Anonymous mutated: it's much bigger and its disorganisation is much more advanced. The mask itself has become an aesthetic in the deepest sense: the general face of a general cause that's neither an ethical 'ethic' or an unethical 'unethic', call it an anethic ('for the lulz'). And their generality isn't the lonely, half-mad obscurity of the leaker or the criminal, syndical pseudonymity of  fraudsters; it's a spectacular public performance. To their list of epithreats‚ ‘Anonymous is legion. Anonymous does not forgive. Anonymous does not forget.'‚ they could equally add: ‘Anonymous takes.'


If global civil society circa 2003 was the second superpower, Anonymous might be the third: people sitting behind their computers, typing.

Florian Cramer <fcramer AT> is director of the Piet Zwart Institute, the graduate school of the Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam and lecturer at Hogeschool Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Ted Byfield <tbyfield AT> is on the faculty at Parsons the New School for Design and co-moderates the nettime mailing list

[1] Credits to Josephine Berry Slater.