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Julian Assange's organization WikiLeaks has the potential to save civilian lives in conflict zones — if standards can be created to use it properly.
Julian Assange's organization WikiLeaks has the potential to save civilian lives in conflict zones — if standards can be created to use it properly. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Charli Carpenter is associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and contributing writer at Current Intelligence. She blogs about human security and social media at Lawyers, Guns and Money and The Duck of Minerva.
Since WikiLeaks' massive Afghanistan document dump on July 25, the organization has rightly been critiqued for releasing the names of Afghan informants who shared information with the U.S. military, a move that endangers civilian lives. But WikiLeaks is not, as some have alleged, analogous to a criminal enterprise; nor are its actions inherently antithetical to security. On the contrary, the organization's tools actually have enormous potential to save civilian lives in conflict zones — if standards can be created to use them properly. The Afghan War Diary, however, has demonstrated two things: that there are no clear standards for whistle-blower organizations like this today, and that there is an urgent need to fill the ethical vacuum if benefits are to be realized from the WikiLeaks model.
As WikiLeaks contemplates releasing the remaining 15,000 documents in its Afghanistan archive, it could stand to borrow some basic ethical principles from the organization it appears most in opposition with: the military. For militaries, fighting wars is not a crime, but it's against the law to target large areas indiscriminately without regard for potential civilian deaths. They have to pick their targets carefully. The same standard should be applied to organizations like WikiLeaks with the same goal: blowing the whistle on specific cases of wrongdoing, while minimizing collateral damage.
Criticisms aside, WikiLeaks adds real value to the international regime governing the behavior of soldiers in wartime by promoting precisely the sort of accountability that the Geneva Conventions require but military culture tends to discourage. The laws of war compel soldiers to refuse illegal orders and report war crimes, but troops are typically expected do so through their own chain of command, an act that goes against the grain of everything else they're taught about obedience and loyalty. When service personnel do take the leap to speak out, they can only hope their confidentiality will be respected and that they will be rewarded rather than penalized for honesty.
WikiLeaks could provide a solution — a reporting mechanism through which individual soldiers could report specific war crimes without fear of retribution. The organization has servers in many countries and sophisticated encryption techniques, all of which are intended to disseminate incriminating secrets while protecting the anonymity of sources. Consider what this could have meant in the case of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example. When Sgt. Joseph Darby saw former high school friends abusing prisoners in 2004, he fulfilled his duties under the Geneva Conventions by reporting the abuses to the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command. Though he asked to remain anonymous, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed his identity, inviting hate mail and death threats from the public. It is no wonder that so many other participants at Abu Ghraib chose not to stick their necks out for fear of compromising their careers and personal safety. The Abu Ghraib case is hardly an isolated one.
Organizations like WikiLeaks have the power to shift this calculus. And they have done it before. Earlier this year, Julian Assange released video footage showing the apparent shooting of wounded non combatants by an Apache helicopter crew in Iraq. WikiLeaks protected the identity of its source, and he was only later caught through his own carelessness — not because of WikiLeaks. The video, meanwhile, not only brought to light a specific event but generated an investigation, triggering a broader debate about the rules of engagement in Iraq. In other words, the video did exactly what reports about military abuses are supposed to do.
But targeted whistle-blowing like this has been rare from WikiLeaks. The organization in fact has a far broader mandate, accepting leaks about anything of "ethical, political or diplomatic significance." Equally problematic is the website's favoring of document dumps as often as targeted releases. In the case of the Afghanistan War Diary, WikiLeaks has bombarded the public with far too much data to easily identify specific cases of wrongdoing, yet enough to put individual civilians at risk by revealing their identities.
Imagine the potential of a more targeted approach — if WikiLeaks specialized only in receiving and publicizing reports of specific war crimes submitted by troops in the field. Instead of dumping 90,000 documents into the public domain and letting the chips fall where they may, the organization would serve as a conduit through which to reveal specific events that militaries might otherwise be tempted to cover up. Such a mechanism would ensure that specific war crimes allegations were made public and properly investigated without undue risk to whistle-blowers. That access point of information would encourage governments to take a stronger lead in investigating and punishing transgressions in the first place — a requirement under treaty law — potentially deterring future atrocities.
WikiLeaks would do well to learn the lessons of this and earlier releases, putting in place standards for how best to minimize collateral damage to the victims of war crimes. Such standards are long overdue in the world of war reporting in general. Think about what happened in the Abu Ghraib case: When photos of torture at the prison were aired to the world, the faces of the naked, abused prisoners could have been obscured. Instead, adding to the injustice of torture and humiliation already done to those prisoners, they will now be identified and recognized for the rest of their lives. No media organization at that time was dedicated to safeguarding their identities. Similarly, during the Bosnian war, rape victims were often identified callously by journalists, increasing stigma against them from within their own societies. If WikiLeaks were to take the lead in developing best practices in this area, leveraging its information technology to balance truth-telling with the protection of victims and sources, it would set a standard that all journalists could follow.
Assange's indiscriminate approach may have caused undue collateral damage this time around, the extent of which might never be known. But this doesn't mean that the weapons of his trade should be banned or written off altogether. A more targeted whistle-blowing architecture of this type could save civilian lives in warfare — which is the whole point, after all.