Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange is on the run.
The self-proclaimed journalist sleeps in a different room each night, often paying cash, and swaps out encrypted satellite phones every few days. He enjoyed a brief period of asylum in Sweden before being accused of rape and molestation--charges which are still in judicial limbo. Fleeing Stockholm for Berlin by plane, Assange found that a checked bag mysteriously disappeared. In it were three encrypted laptops.
Few countries will harbor him, and his list of allies grows smaller by the day. Wikileaks has experienced massive defections over the past few months, with disgruntled volunteers citing Assange's despotic control over the organization, as well as his increasingly vain and irrational behavior. In response, Assange, in an encrypted internet discussion leaked to the New York Times, is reported to have referred to his collegues as "a confederacy of fools".
Wikileaks cannot function for long with such disillusionment festering among its unpaid, all-volunteer force.
Given recent events, it's difficult to determine why some refer to Assange as a "super-empowered individual". He hardly seems it.
Though there is no one set definition of super-empowered individual (SEI), Adam Elkus and I proposed, in a recent Small Wars Journal article, that SEIs are "an individual or small group possessing the knowledge and/or access to critical nodes in complex social systems, and the power and willingness to leverage such to either change the system’s rule set or at least a strong challenge to it." Assange and his organization have yet to live up to this definition. Although the Wikileaks documents have generated massive media coverage, they've hardly achieved their desired results.
Julian Assange's tirade against the West, and the US in particular, is little removed from classic have-and-have-not rhetoric endemic to revolutionaries from Karl Marx to Saul Alinsky. Yet, it differs from have/have-not theory in one important respect. In classic have/have-not theory, "have-nots" must assume power before adopting the negative traits of the "haves", restructuring the rules of the system in order to retain power. In Julian Assange's Wikileaks world, both the "haves" and the "have-nots" survive by maintaining their secrets. The West, specifically the American Department of Defense, retains power via a monopoly on secrets. Hypocritically, Julian Assange's Wikileaks can not maintain total transparency, either. In fact, one might argue, that the Department of Defense has acted with even greater transparency than Wikileaks has.
Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, suspected of leaking the classified files to Wikileaks on a CD he burned while lip-synching to Lady Gaga, claimed that the files represented "things...awful things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC".
Though the gun camera footage released in Wikileaks' infamous "Collateral Murder" video is disturbing, it was hardly a watershed event. Since the era of Herodotus, men have known that war is chaotic, confusing, and ultimately, tragic. Sometimes, the wrong people are caught in the crossfire and their lives are, tragically, snuffed out in an instant.
Civilians die, drones veer off uncontrollably, and war inevitably brings out the best--and worst--in mankind. Little of this should come as news. For all of Wikileaks' talk of secrets, there's scant information contained in the Wikileaks documents that hasn't been reported in some form of media already. If anything, the Wikileaks reports serve as a sort of therapy for service members and war correspondents looking for closure after traumatic combat events in Iraq and Afghanitstan. For most, the Wikileaks documents do little but play to a person's confirmation bias, as Jamie McIntyre points out.
Strangely enough, the information contained in the classified documents weighs more favorably on the United States than anything. While large stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction were not found in Iraq, the Wikileaks reports reveal that insurgent groups--sometimes backed by Iran--attempted to use crude chemical weapons against US forces. Moreover, the Wikileaks documents confirm accusations from many defense analysts that the Pakistani ISI and Iraninan militaryhave been overtly supporting the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Iran, in particular, has sent unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters across the border, presumably to support insurgents.
Indeed, the leaked documents, according to the Pentagon, are no risk to intelligence sources or methods, though some note that the Taliban may still retaliate against nearly 1,800 "collaborators" identified in the leaked documents.
Not only has Wikileaks failed to produce the desired effects among the governments of the West, it's failed in its duty towards its membership as well.
Wikileaks' most notorious source, Private First Class Bradley Manning, is in a dire a predicament. Facing up to 52 years of federal imprisonment, his fate has scarcely perturbed Julian Assange, who dismissed Manning as if he were unavoidable collateral damage.
Manning is not the first instance of "collateral damage" resulting from Wikileaks' exploits. Though Wikileaks boasted earlier this year that that none of its sources had ever been knowingly compromised, this is not entirely true. In August 2007, Wikileaks released a report from the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, linking the Kenyan police to the torture or death of nearly 500 men. Shortly thereafter, the Kenyan police assassinated two human rights activists. Assange has disavowed any responsibility by Wikileaks, instead claiming that the two murdered activists were not "acting in an anonymous way".
Mr. Assange has had his fifteen minutes of fame. Though he has destroyed the lives of countless compatriots, he's done little to undermine, influence, or disrupt US policy. If anything, he's merely confirmed the worst accusations about America's supposed ally, Pakistan, and indicted Iran in supporting violence within Iraq. In that regard, Assange is hardly super-empowered.