Christian Cotton and Robert Arp (editors), WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Chicago: Open Court, 2019).

In a new volume titled WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure, editors Christian Cotton and Robert Arp collect eighteen short essays intending to explore a series of moral questions regarding secrecy, transparency, concealment, and disclosure using WikiLeaks as their heuristic.

Written in the style of the “Philosophy and Pop Culture” anthologies one finds at bookstores, the essays are written with a general audience in mind: short, accessible, and relatively jargon-free. No doubt, public discourse always benefits greatly from a thoughtful, scholarly volume exploring important moral questions about journalism, democracy, and government transparency.

But Cotton and Arp’s WikiLeaking is neither thoughtful nor scholarly. While this genre of philosophy book is supposed to connect the public with academic specialists and experts, piercing the wall between the Ivory Tower and the people, most of the contributors, including the editors, do not seem to know any more about WikiLeaks than their intended audience. Aside from Miquel Comas Oliver, who has published scholarship on WikiLeaks elsewhere, none of the contributors – including the editors themselves – are credentialed specialists on WikiLeaks. Nor have the contributors even attempted to develop expertise: documentary films and Wikipedia constitute the main “primary sources” for every essay but one.[1] In other words, the scholarly standards of WikiLeaking are lower than those most professors set for their undergraduate students. Even though Assange has published dozens of articles and a half-dozen books, only two of Assange’s own writings (short blog entries from 2006) appear in the References in the back of the book. Because the collection lacks expertise, the book is plagued with factual inaccuracies about both Assange and WikiLeaks. And because the contributors failed to conduct research, the collection does not assist the public in conducting its own.

Rather than using moral philosophy to help the general reader think more critically about Assange, WikiLeaks, and journalism, this collection merely reprises anti-democratic rhetoric and national security state talking points under the guise of scholarship. One contributor claims that “free speech isn’t a democratic value,” arguing that “free speech may be regarded as terrorist-friendly.” Another accuses WikiLeaks of conducting “cyber-espionage” and trafficking in “pilfered” documents. Notably, that editor Robert Arp and contributor Brad Patty are consultants for the U.S. military abolishes any pretense to objectivity, for the Pentagon is among the fiercest political opponents of WikiLeaks. Thus, even when this anthology is not actively anti-democratic, its militaristic framing occludes important questions about protecting democracy in the twenty-first century. With philosophers like these, who needs COINTELPRO?

Cotton and Arp’s WikiLeaking is not informed and helpful. It is ignorant and dangerous. Not only does it present the reader with a series of completely uninformed attacks on Assange, WikiLeaks, and journalism more generally, it also manipulates reality by pointing the finger at the journalists and whistleblowers who expose war crimes instead of at the political and military leaders who commit them.

Such a dangerous, uninformed, and anti-democratic volume requires a response, for such misinformation – and, in some cases, blatant lies – should not be allowed to stand unchallenged. The first two sections of this review deal with two of the most ubiquitous myths surrounding WikiLeaks: the myth of harm to innocents, which claims that WikiLeaks’ publications present a serious risk of harm to innocent people named in unredacted documents, and the myth of information anarchy, the anti-democratic claim that journalistic oversight of the government through the Fourth Estate threatens national security.[2] While these militaristic talking points capture the spirit of the collection, the third section below notes the exceptions to that trend, focusing specifically on the moments of praise for whistleblowers that appear in this anthology.[3]

Risk: A Game of Preventing U.S. World Domination

Given the overall lack of rigor that plagues WikiLeaking, it comes as no surprise that the singular obsession of the book is the claim that WikiLeaks’ publications have risked the lives of innocent people. I call this the myth of harm to innocents.This myth is taken straight from the U.S. government’s imperial playbook, so to the extent that this anthology amplifies this falsehood, it becomes a mere vehicle for military propaganda.[4] This myth is dangerous not only because it implies that “real” journalists do not harm innocents but also because it obfuscates the real violence committed by militaries by instead concentrating on the possible but non-existent harms caused by WikiLeaks.

Cotton uses his editorial power to lead a crusade on behalf of the supposed victims of WikiLeaks. In his own contribution to the anthology, Cotton describes what he calls “the WikiLeaking Problem,” writing, “It is a fundamental point of controversy about WikiLeaks that by releasing the kinds of sensitive information it’s famous for, it exposes many innocent lives to danger through no fault of their own” (230). “Even if we expose the powers that be,” writes Cotton in the “About” section at the beginning of the collection, “the fallout for others may be severe” (xi). Following Cotton, the claim that WikiLeaks risks harming innocents remains the central assumption of the majority of the contributed essays.

Cotton is painfully wrong, however, for there is no controversy regarding the fact that WikiLeaks’ publications have never been linked to the harm of innocents. Even the U.S. government – the institution that most frequently promotes the myth of harm to innocents – admits, when forced to testify in court, that not a single of instance physical harm could be traced back to even WikiLeaks’ most provocative publications – the Afghanistan War Logs, Iraq War Logs, and State Department cables (Cablegate). In 2013, when Brigadier general Robert Carr (the senior counter-intelligence officer who headed the Information Review Task Force that investigated the impact of WikiLeaks disclosures on behalf of the Defense Department) was asked in court to substantiate the claim that the Manning leaks had caused harm to innocents, Carr stated, “I don’t have a specific example.”[5]

The origin of this myth of harm to innocents goes back to July 28, 2010, when U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates claimed that WikiLeaks personnel “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” When a journalist asked, “Do you know, have people been killed over this information?,” referring to the Afghanistan War Logs, Mullen and Gates pontificated about the possibility of risk and the inability of journalists to understand military documents. The journalist retorted: “With all due respect, you didn’t answer the question.” As if Mullen and Gates’ evasive deflections were not evidence enough, on August 16, 2010, Gates himself admitted that his earlier accusation was completely false: “the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure.”[6]

In the two-hundred-and-fifty pages that make up WikiLeaking, neither the editors nor any of the contributors provide any specific examples of the ostensible harm that WikiLeaks has caused because such harms to not exist. Yet that did not prevent one contributor from simply making it up. In the most pernicious essay in the anthology, “The Double Effect of WikiLeaking,” Dan Miori refers to (but provides no quotes from) a 2010 Swedish documentary WikiRebels, alleging that Assange admits WikiLeaks has caused harm.[7] At some point in the documentary, Miori claims, “Assange reluctantly agreed that WikiLeaks had caused injury by releasing secret information” (42).

That Assange agreed to this insinuation is completely and undeniably false. In the documentary, during a discussion of the Afghanistan War Logs, Assange said: “We would have had to have released all of this material without separating out any of it, or release none. The value, the extraordinary value, of this historic record to the progress of that war and its potential to save lives outweighs the danger to innocents.”[8] Assange is not saying that harm in fact occurred because it did not; rather, he is saying that the benefits of publishing these unredacted documents are greater than the possible harm that could result. Assange’s comment would come as no surprise to anyone who done due scholarly diligence, for he makes this point over and over. In When Google Met WikiLeaks, for example, Assange repeats the argument: “Our view is that the material is so significant that even if we released it as is, with no redactions, the benefits would outweigh the harm. But through redacting things we can get the harm down even more.”[9]

Now, its possible that Assange is wrong about the balance of benefits and harms when it comes to publishing the kind of material that WikiLeaks is known for, but no one ever pursues that line of argument. The best we get, unfortunately, are national security state functionaries, corporate journalists, and, now, uninformed scholars mimetically deferring to an absent-minded rhetorical trick. Assange observed this phenomenon himself:

If we look at the attacks on us, they always use the words ‘placed people at risk.’ But risk relative to what? Right now we are at risk of a meteorite passing through the roof of this house and killing us all. That is a risk, it is true, but is it a risk that is significant enough to be worth speaking about? The answer is no. It is similar with the word ‘possibility.’ There is a possibility that a meteorite could descend on us all in this moment, but it is not a probability. People who are making an argument in relation to security often use these rhetorical tricks—there is a risk of something; there is a possibility of something. People need to engage in an intellectual defense against this manipulation by rhetoric, by understanding that if someone mentions that there’s a risk without saying that the risk is higher than crossing the road, or twice that of being stung by a bee, then you must ignore it.[10]

The majority of WikiLeaking depends on this rhetorical trick designed to manipulate the public into accepting as fact that which is merely possible and, in actuality, is patently false. It is easy to tell that the authors are not serious about providing any kind of argument at all. Not one contributor defines the term “risk.” Not one contributor explains what standards they are using to conduct their risk assessment. And not one contributor demonstrates that a preferable alternative outcome could have been realized in some particular instance had WikiLeaks acted differently. “Risk” is simply asserted as self-evident.

And it is telling that none of the contributors express the same concern about the death and destruction actually caused by U.S. wars that they express about the possible risk posed by WikiLeaks publications. Conservative estimates conclude that the War on Terror has killed a half million people, and a recent analysis concluded that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela have killed 40,000 people; meanwhile, WikiLeaks has killed none.[11] As Glenn Greenwald forcefully noted regarding the Cablegate publications, “many of those running around righteously condemning WikiLeaks for the potential, prospective, unintentional harm to innocents caused by this leak will have nothing to say about these actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter by the U.S.”[12]

Ultimately, WikiLeaking performs the same inversion of reality that the U.S. government performs, obfuscating state violence by projecting that violence onto those who resist it. “The snap view of people who don’t understand our work – who don’t want to understand our work – is that we might endanger lives,” Assange writes. “But the great thrust of our work is to save lives. By making a contribution, in the public interest, to the ending of wars, by supplying journalists with the means to keep a check on the excesses of power, we aim to limit the hunger for killings, skirmishes and invasions, as well as to limit the effectiveness of the lies that support them.” “How it can be us, or the enquiring public,” Assange wonders, “that has blood on their hands, as opposed to the generals and governors who prosecute these wars, is a matter for clairvoyant abstraction.”[13]  

Even though Assange views redaction as censorship, WikiLeaks nevertheless redacts documents for pragmatic reasons. It is extremely rare for a publication to pose a risk to innocents, but if WikiLeaks did not redact, Assange notes, “our opponents will opportunistically attempt to distract from the revelations that we have published—very important matters—by instead speaking about whether there is a potential for harm.”[14] Essentailly, this is what WikiLeaking is designed to do – opportunistically distract readers from the important matters. One simply need to compare WikiLeaking with The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to U.S. Empire, which addresses “the need for scholarly analysis of what the millions of documents published by WikiLeaks say about international geopolitics.”[15] While the latter provides scholarship, the former offers only ignorance.

The Machiavellian State versus the Fourth Estate

Not only does WikiLeaking fixate on the harm that wasn’t, it also frames the debate about WikiLeaks’ style of journalism as a choice between security and anarchy, thus providing a platform for authoritarian ideology. The constituent myth here is the myth of information anarchy, the anti-democratic claim that journalistic oversight of the government through the Fourth Estate threatens national security. This myth reflects the logic of the Machiavellian state, which operates ruthlessly in the shadows while the public remains ignorant, and poses a direct threat to the freedom of the press. But in between their breathless demands that journalism remain subservient to government, the contributors betray their absolute ignorance about Assange’s theory of “scientific journalism,” once more exposing this collection’s lack of substance.[16]

In an essay tellingly titled “Lied to for Your Own Good” (notice there is no question mark at the end of the title), Frank Scalambrino remarks upon “the tension between the principles of democracy and the principles of Machiavellian statecraft” (109). Though he does not explicitly resolve this tension in the essay, he implicitly comes down in the side of Machiavellian statecraft, ending the essay with the famous line from the 1992 film A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”

The rest of WikiLeaking, however, explicitly comes down on the side of Machiavellian statecraft. David LaRocca foregoes a direct attack on WikiLeaks and instead takes on journalism as such, making two frightening assertions. First, LaRocca claims that “free speech isn’t a democratic value” (79) and that “free speech may be regarded as terrorist-friendly” (70). Second, he claims that information should only be disclosed “by those who are trained to handle it” (80). In this context, LaRocca means that citizens and journalists should defer to the government regarding matters about the government: “we should want our journalists to withhold information, even if it’s well-sourced, when agencies like the CIA indicate that harm may come if that information is released” (82). Tellingly, LaRocca’s argument resonates with one of former director of the NSA and CIA General Michael Hayden’s favorite talking points: “the instinct to distrust government may not be an appropriate response to the modern world.”[17]

The interesting thing about deferring to the government about government wrongdoing is that there is an unquestionable conflict of interest involved. No corrupt government will properly investigate itself, and to the extent that the press defers to the government, the public loses its primary watchdog institution. One only need to recall that Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, deferred to Michael Hayden when trying to decide whether to publish the 2004 story about the NSA’s Operation Stellarwind.[18] Not only did Keller allow the American public to re-elect George W. Bush while concealing that his administration was spying on citizens in a manner that directly violated their Constitutional rights, as we later learned from Snowden, Stellarwind was only the telephony tip of the mass surveillance ice berg. As another contributor to WikiLeaking helpfully reminds us, “Professional intelligence officers in clandestine service are trained manipulators, and you must assume you’re being manipulated in your meetings with them” (217).

Following the lead of such intelligence officers, two other contributors attempt to manipulate their readers into doubting the veracity of WikiLeaks’ publications. Christopher Ketcham worries about the so-called “chain of anonymity,” which he imagines inside WikiLeaks. Because the people who submit the documents and the people who authenticate the documents are all anonymous to the public, someone might use the organization to promote some unknown agenda. Echoing this sentiment, Leslie A. Aarons insists, “If WikiLeaks is unable to identify and confirm the sources of the information that it receives, then their entire mission is irredeemably compromised” (159).

These dubious Machiavellian arguments only seem plausible to those who have never read Julian Assange’s works, and Cotton and Arp are counting on that. Throughout his interviews and writings, Assange explains that WikiLeaks represents a new type of journalism: “scientific journalism.”[19] “If you publish a paper on DNA,” Assange notes, “you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well.”[20] He is calling for journalism to be subjected to the same evidentiary standards as academia: “things must be precisely cited with the original source, and as much of the information as possible should be put in the public domain so that people can look at it, just like in science so that you can test to see whether the conclusion follows from the experimental data.”[21]

Scientific journalism means that Assange does not have to play truth games with WikiLeaks material. Completely ignoring the fact that WikiLeaks has never been successfully duped with false documents, Ketcham loftily asks his reader whether they will view WikiLeaks’ publications as “true unless proven otherwise” or “false unless proven otherwise.” Yet it is Assange who poses this question to consumers of corporate media, and it is Assange who provides the means by which the reader decides if something is true. “Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on,” Assange explains. “That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”[22] Like Ketcham, scientific journalism asks the reader to be skeptical, but rather than merely resorting to ad hominem attacks to provoke such skepticism, as Ketcham does against Assange (essentially asking the reader if they would trust someone who has been accused of sexual assault), Assange’s method of journalism lets the documents speak for themselves.[23]

Scientific journalism also has an answer for Aarons’ concern about verifying sources. Aarons implies that journalists who know their sources are less likely to be tricked into promoting a nefarious agenda. In reality, most corporate media journalists spend their entire careers cultivating close relationships with government agents so they can willingly collaborate in producing official state propaganda. Because these same corporate media journalists often cite only “people familiar with the meeting” or “people familiar with the document” (referring of course to anonymous government officials promoting military and intelligence agendas), the public is left with no alternative recourse for verification; they simply have to take the journalist’s word for it.

WikiLeaks, however, is more trustworthy because they provide documentary evidence in the form of authenticated documents, which readers can inspect for themselves. Assange built WikiLeaks with encryption so that sources could circumvent the threat of repressive censorship and retaliation, thus enabling the release of more documents. According to the practice of scientific journalism, such documents provide the only legitimate basis for reporting. As philosopher and media critic John C. O’Day incisively notes, scientific journalism “considerably ups the ante in terms of professional accountability for journalists. While corporate media are content with sourcing ‘people familiar with the documents,’ for WikiLeaks obtaining and publishing those documents is not just a bonus or a lucky break, it is a requirement.”[24]

Journalists knowing but concealing their sources from the public does not prevent abuses, as the case of the Iraq War demonstrates. But the need for blind trust in either journalists or their sources is eliminated by the availability of authentic documents. It is no mystery why the U.S. government wants to silence Assange: if the public had access to the news according to the principles of scientific journalism, it stands to reason that the American people would not have been lied into the Iraq War.

This brings us to the effect of WikiLeaks on political, economic, and military elites. Robert F.J. Seddon claims that “WikiLeaks demonstrates that our elites are as grubbily ridiculous as everybody else…In a way, it humanizes them” (25). This interpretation, however, trivializes illegal wars, war crimes, economic exploitation, and government lying, for these are the very activities exposed by WikiLeaks, and they are not the kind of activities that we can ascribe to “everybody else.” Kimberly S. Engels, however, offers a better view. Using Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy, she cleverly argues that WikiLeaks changes the existential situation of the elites, for whom leaks impose a constant threat of exposure. “WikiLeaks has changed the existential conditions through which modern people choose their projects and introduced a powerful new mechanism of accountability, a virtual Other,” she writes (145). That Other is the Public.

Only one essay in WikiLeaking comes close to understanding the aim of scientific journalism. Isadora Mosch and L. Brooke Rudow-Abouharb respond to the worry that the limitations we all have in technical and situational knowledge make it impossible for each individual to be able to read, understand, and analyze WikiLeaks documents. But, they observe, WikiLeaks provides documents to the public as such, allowing collaboration, participation, and sharing among enough people to make sense of the information: “even though many of the documents are inaccessible [to the average individual], at least they are there, and accessible to the minority who can bring the tools of analysis to the information. Even though I may not be able to work through the material or read Russian, the community at large can. Thus, there’s a net increase of autonomy for the community” (97-98). Mosch and Rudow-Abouharb elegantly capture Assange’s own understanding of what WikiLeaks does. As he explains, “the flow of information [is not] a matter for single journalists alone, or for individual media organizations, but for societies working together.”[25]

By framing the debate about WikiLeaks’ style of journalism as a choice between security and anarchy, WikiLeaking provides a platform for authoritarian ideology. In the end, it is helpful to remember Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning: “I agree without difficulty that public peace is a great good, but I do not want to forget that it is through good order that all peoples have arrived at tyranny. It assuredly does not follow that peoples should scorn public peace; but it must not be enough for them. A nation that asks of its government only the maintenance of order is already a slave at the bottom of its heart.”[26] By equating democratic oversight of government with chaos, WikiLeaking attempts to imbue its readers with deference to a Machiavellian state.

Whistleblowing and Publishing: Moral Hazard for Whom?

Despite the glaring falsehoods and appalling anti-democratic assumptions found throughout WikiLeaking, a few of the contributors inject some redeeming insights into the collection. Some essays express sympathy for or even outright defend WikiLeaks and whistleblowers, but even these sympathetic takes on WikiLeaks remain largely trapped inside the boundaries of the Machiavellian vituperations treated above.

In an essay titled, “Blind Oversight,” Trip McCrossin and Azeem Chaudry claim that “the most philosophically substantial criticism” of WikiLeaks is the charge that is poses a moral hazard (30). Moral hazard refers to an instance in which someone decides to engage in risky behavior because they are insulated from accountability for and/or harm from such behavior. When applied to WikiLeaks, the argument is that Assange is willing to engage in risky behavior – like publishing document classified documents without redactions – because he will not be harmed by such disclosures.

Like the myth of harm to innocents, the myth of an unharmed Assange cannot be maintained in the face of the facts. “The evidence is overwhelming and clear,” UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer stated in a recent report.“Mr. Assange has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.” Describing the result of his examination, Melzer added, “Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”[27] Thus, it seems strange to apply the moral hazard argument to Assange and WikiLeaks. It is not the case that Assange acts with impunity while innocent people around the world are victimized. Instead, given that no harms have resulted from WikiLeaks publications, a better conclusion to reach is that the primary person victimized as a result of WikiLeaks publications is Assange himself.

To their credit, McCrossin and Chaudry argue that U.S. intelligence agencies should also be subject to criticisms of moral hazard, given that they largely operate without meaningful oversight. Their error, however, lies in their acceptance of the myth of harm to innocents. Having accepted this myth, McCrossin and Chaudry equate the lack of oversight for U.S. intelligence agencies with WikiLeaks publications, even though those intelligence agencies help the U.S. military with a variety of destructive activities, including waging deadly wars, while WikiLeaks has never harmed anyone.

Where McCrossin and Chaudry fail to debunk the moral hazard charge against WikiLeaks, Joshua Hautala and Adam Barkman succeed, albeit unwittingly. In “Selfless Whistleblowing and Selfish Leaking,” they distinguish between whistleblowers, who act for selfless reasons and often against self-interest, and leakers, who act for selfish reasons. Juxtaposing Julian Assange and James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who leaked several personal memos (one of which inspired the Mueller investigation), Hautala and Barkman note that Assange’s actions “have had tremendous negative personal consequences,” while Comey landed a lucrative book deal. Assange suffers from the negative health and psychological effects of being exiled in an embassy for seven years; he has been separated from family and friends, persecuted by the U.S. and U.K. governments, and had his human rights violated. But Comey lives freely.

Edward Snowden has made a point similar to that of Hautala and Barkman, arguing that leakers are punished if they challenge the allocation of power and rewarded if they reinforce the allocation of power in favor of the state and its agencies. Sometimes government agents leak classified information to justify state power, as they did when they leaked the “conference call of doom,” an intercepted call between member of Al Qaeda. The intelligence officials, Snowden writes, “likely seeking to inflate the threat of terrorism and deflect criticism of mass surveillance, revealed to a neoconservative website extraordinarily detailed accounts of specific communications they had intercepted, including locations of the participating parties and the precise contents of the discussions.” No one was punished because the story provided continued justification for mass surveillance in the face of popular criticism, even though the revelation meant the government could never use the same surveillance method again. As Snowden concludes, it is the challenge to power, not the act of disclosing, that inspires criticism of whistleblowers.[28]

This view can and should be extended to those journalists and whistleblowers who fearlessly stare down powerful institutions and refuse to capitulate to the threat of retaliation. Jennifer Baker uses Henry David Thoreau and Virtue Ethics to explain why whistleblower Reality Winner should be understood as “one who has the courage to follow her conscience” (180). Though Baker’s attempted synthesis of virtue ethics and transcendentalism fails to be fully developed and thus remains somewhat confused, she nevertheless captures a central feature of whistleblowing ethics, namely, the idea that institutional norms are open to ethical challenge from individuals, and that the outcome of such challenges must be decided democratically.

In the most compelling essay in the collection, Miquel Comas Oliver defends whistleblowing more broadly, saying that e-leaking (ethical electronic leaking) is a form of digital civil disobedience justified by a “participatory conception of democracy” (197). Challenging John Rawls’ famous standards for civil disobedience, which require an actor to take legal responsibility for a public and collective breaking of the law, Comas Oliver argues that civil disobedience in the digital age exposes the shortcomings of classical standards such as those offered by Rawls. Unlike the classical conception of civil disobedience, digital civil disobedience is neither collective (because whistleblowers are often solitary individuals) nor public (because cryptology enables whistleblowers to evade the excessive punishments of the state). Likewise, whereas the classical conception of civil disobedience required constitutional loyalty (protestors can oppose individual laws but not the entire legal system) and responsibility (protestors must accept punishment), digital civil disobedience takes place in a post-nation-state age in which the global community is not explicitly governed by a legal system to which individuals are expected to maintain fidelity. Thus, Comas Oliver concludes that new standards for understanding the permissibility of civil disobedience are needed in the digital age.

Although whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have exposed war crimes and illegal government activity, a Machiaveillian collection like WikiLeaking would not be complete without an essay denigrating whistleblowers. Brad Patty, who has “advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade’s involvement in America’s wars,” finger-wags whistleblowers and their supporters, insisting that patriotism – apparently defined as “obedience” – is the highest value. Patty condescendingly instructs his reader to not “rely on the reputation of an outlet that’s known to be hostile to your government” (214), even though WikiLeaks has an unimpeachable record of truth telling and the U.S. government has an extensive record of lying. Even though it is well known that Snowden was on his way to Latin America when the U.S. government revoked his passport, thereby trapping him in Moscow, Patty tells his readers that Snowden “fled to Russia,” implying that he purposefully defected to an enemy nation (211). He also offensively asserts that “Manning’s motivation appears to have been chiefly personal, a passionate sense of victimhood seeking an outlet for revenge” (208), when she has stated repeatedly that her decision was provoked by the United States’ criminal activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as corporate media’s failure to report it. Patty’s attempt to pathologize Snowden, Manning, and WikiLeaks illustrates the sophistic, nationalistic mentality at the heart of this collection.

Concluding Remarks

Only those who find no irony in the fact that the U.S. government – which builds more weapons of war than any military power in history and then uses those weapons to kill millions of people in decades-long wars of aggression – has the temerity to accuse WikiLeaks of endangering innocent people by publishing documents will find value in Cotton and Arp’s WikiLeaking. Only those who find no irony in the fact that corporate journalists – who have a demonstrated track record of lying to the public about U.S. wars of aggression and regime change campaigns – have the audacity to accuse Assange of harming people will appreciate this anthology. While this book is ostensibly for the public in general, it appears to have two specific audiences in mind: those who are already resolute in their hatred of Assange and their opposition to WikiLeaks, and those who are genuinely curious about WikiLeaks but vulnerable to Machiavellian state propaganda.

As one contributor, Louis Colombo, notes, the problem is not WikiLeaks’ publications but the sad state of democracy in the United States. What we need most is the cultivation of a citizenry that is able to read WikiLeaks documents and participate in political reform. Readers interested in learning more about WikiLeaks are better off simply consulting Assange’s own writings, and teachers looking for classroom material on whistleblowing or journalism ethics are better off looking to essays by and interviews with Ralph Nader, Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning – or consulting Candace Delmas’s fantastic article “The Ethics of Government Whistleblowing.” And those who are curious enough to pick up WikiLeaking should also consider checking out In Defense of Julian Assange, a forthcoming collection from OR Books, edited by Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler.

Cotton and Arp’s WikiLeaking represents how low philosophy has sunk since the days of Socrates, for Julian Assange is a far better representative of the Socratic tradition than this volume. In fact, there is a distinct parallel between Assange and Socrates. At trial, Socrates was confronted by three accusers: Anytus, representing the powerful politicians and craftsmen; Meletus, who did most of the arguing, representing the poets; and Lycon, who associated Socrates with the pro-Spartan oligarchy that killed his son and perhaps sought revenge.[29] Today, Assange faces a similar triumvirate: powerful political and economic elites (U.S. imperialists and the Trump administration), the intellectuals who do the arguing (philosophers and other academics), and those who want revenge (Democrats who associate Assange with the Russian oligarchy who supposedly killed Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid). One might think the practitioners of a discipline that traces its origins back to Socrates – who had no reservations about challenging either received wisdom or powerful elites – would see the similarities between Assange and the father of Western philosophy. After all, both of them have been pursued by powerful states for disturbing the “natural” order of things. Instead of choosing to play the role of philosopher and question the powerful, however, most of the contributors to WikiLeaking – including the editors – have chosen to play the role of Meletus and defend the imperial aristocracy.

Long gone are the days of COINTELPRO, when the U.S. government pursued their opponents in secret. These days, philosophers perform that task in plain sight.


1. The collection’s main resource is Laura Poitras’ Risk (2017), which has been called a “confused, superficial documentary” presenting a “disjointed and superficial treatment” of WikiLeaks and Assange. To be sure, the film is quite good, but it is just as much about Poitras’ relationship to her subjects as it is about the subjects themselves. As a result of her disapproval of WikiLeaks’ publication of the DNC and Podesta emails in 2016, her concern about the redaction of documents, and her short relationship with Jacob Appelbaum, a colleague of Julian’s who appears in the film, the director recut the film immediately prior to its official release. The film therefore offers a fascinating look into the life of a filmmaker who was intimately involved with not only WikiLeaks but also the Edward Snowden revelations (see her 2014 film Citizenfour), but it is hardly appropriate to use the film as the basis for volume on WikiLeaks and moral philosophy. If the editors insisted on using documentary films as the basis for a discussion of WikiLeaks’ publication practices, a much better (and much more appropriate) documentary would be Mediastan (Journeyman Pictures, 2013, directed by Johannes Wahlström), which follows a small group of Wikileaks journalists through Central Asia in an effort to establish publishing partnerships with local media outlets and then to London and New York to meet with editors of The Guardian and The New Your Times. For the commentary on Poitras’s film, see David Walsh and Joanne Laurier, “Risk: Laura Poitras’ confused, superficial documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,” World Socialist Web Site, 11 May 2017.

2. These two myths could be considered the two components   of what Assange calls “the myth of WikiLeaks’ recklessness,” which refers to the supposed dangers posed to innocents and to government operations by publishing secret state documents. See Julian Assange, Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011), 223.

3. Two essays in the collection that I do not discuss below are Marlene Clark’ “On WikiLeaks and Bullshit” and Peter Ludlow’s “Conspiracies and the Power of WikiLeaks.” I do not address Clark’s contribution simply because I do not know what the argument is supposed to be. I do not address Ludlow’s contribution because his work on Assange’s theory of conspiracy is available online. I have archived it here: However, readers are just as well off reading Assange’s work itself, found here:

4. There are some curiosities about the anthology’s emphasis on the myth of harm to innocents. On the one hand, one contributor, Christopher Ketcham, actually provides an accurate description of WikiLeaks’ publishing practices: “In the beginning, WikiLeaks released data directly to the public. As WikiLeaks became inundated with data, they began to hoard it and then send small batches to select news organizations who redact information that might get the news organization in trouble or might ‘out’ innocent parties” (118). If this is true (and it is), then one of the underlying premises for the collection (the myth of harm to innocents) is false. On the other hand, Cotton acknowledges that WikiLeaks’ publications have never resulted in harm (xii). So why all this handwringing about possible harm? I suppose it is easier to secure a book contract when you have something controversial to write about, even if the controversy is completely fabricated. Ultimately, this whole myth is built upon the notion that WikiLeaks publishes through so-called “data dumps,” the frequent, careless, and indiscriminate posts of hundreds of thousands of underacted documents to the Internet. While the concept “data dump” is used to associate WikiLeaks with criminal hackers who dump private consumer information on dark web, the idea that WikiLeaks publishes in “dumps” was debunked long ago by Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler. See his “A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 46 (2011): 311-397.

5. Ed Pilkington, “Bradley Manning leak did not result in deaths by enemy forces, court hears,” The Guardian, 31 July 2013.

6. Assange, The Unauthorized Autobiography, 217-220.

7. There are so many problems with Dan Miori’s article the fact that it passed review single-handedly disqualifies Cotton and Arp as competent editors of this project. In addition to falsifying evidence – a serious scholarly offense – he also demonstrates his utter lack of knowledge of WikiLeaks by getting even basic but important facts wrong. In a discussion of WikiLeaks’ 2010 publications of the Afghanistan War Logs and Iraq War Logs, Miori writes, “The ‘data dump’ included the names of Iraqi civilians who co-operated with the US government. Assange made no effort to remove information which would identify them, which left those civilians open to reprisals by insurgent groups” (42). There might be a modicum of truth to this statement if Miori had gotten the country right, for this was a controversy not over the Iraq War Logs but the Afghanistan War Logs, which were the first of the two to be published. Wiki Rebels, the documentary that Miori relies on to make his claim, is so clear about this fact that even the most casual observer should have understood the situation. Immediately after Assange’s comment about the value of the publications (see next note), the film’s narrator says: “WikiLeaks now takes steps to avoid making the same mistake again. Their next publication, 400,000 military reports form the Iraq War, are painstakingly edited and names removed. They also start reinforcing their network of experienced journalists” (at 36:02). One would think that someone so ostensibly concerned about the harm that WikiLeaks might have caused would at least get the nationality of the supposed victims correct, yet Miori does not even succeed in that. The fact that Miori made such an amateur mistake in the facts when the one source he was using so clearly got the facts right, and the fact that Cotton and Arp were not competent enough to correct Miroi’s error, reveals the how little expertise was involved in producing WikiLeaking.

8. The documentary is available at and Assange’s comment appears at 35:40.

9. Julian Assange, When Google Met WikiLeaks (New York: OR Books, 2016), 93.

10. Assange, When Google Met WikiLeaks, 147-148.

11. “US ‘war on terror’ has killed over half a million people: study,” Al Jazeera, 9 November 2018.; Joe Emersberger, “Study Linking US Sanctions to Venezuelan Deaths Buried by Reuters for Over a Month,” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 14 June 2019.

12. Glenn Greenwald, “Facts and myths in the WikiLeaks/Guardian saga,” Salon, 2 September 2011.

13. Assange, The Unauthorized Autobiography, 195, 220.

14. Assange, When Google Met WikiLeaks, 166.

15. Julian Assange, “Introduction: WikiLeaks and Empire,” in The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire (New York: Verso, 2015), 11.

16. For an analysis of Assange’s theory of scientific journalism, see Lisa Lynch, “‘That’s Not Leaking, It’s Pure Editorial’: Wikileaks, Scientific Journalism, and Journalistic Expertise,” Canadian Journal of Media Studies (2012): 40-69.

17. Michael Hayden, Alan Dershowitz, Glenn Greenwald, and Alexis Ohanian, Does State Spying Make Us Safer? The Munk Debate on Mass Surveillance (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2014).

18. James Risen, “The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror,” The Intercept, 3 January 2018.

19. Again, Dan Miori reveals his complete disregard for the facts by claiming that Assange denies being a journalist. He writes: “Journalism involves gathering and analyzing information, putting that information into context in a readable form, and making it available for consumption by the public. Part of Julian Assange’s argument to avoid responsibility for harm from his release of confidential information involves the fact that he’s not a journalist, and truly by the letter of this or any other definition of journalism, he isn’t” (48). Now let’s unpack this. First, this definition of journalism is so shallow that it barely meets the minimum criteria of what a democratic public should expect of journalists. There is no mention of holding powerful political and economic actors accountable. More importantly, there is no requirement that the information gathered and presented by the journalists be true. In other words, Miori fails to understand the tradition of the Fourth Estate. Second, Assange does not eschew the label “journalist”; rather, he wears it proudly, as the discussion of scientific journalism shows. Notwithstanding the lack of expertise and rigor put into his contribution to WikiLeaking, I am sure that Miori considers himself a scholar of some kind. Yet we might paraphrase his commentary on Assange and say that scholarship involves rigorous and truthful research, clear and honest writing, and peer-checked publication. Part of Dan Miori’s argument to avoid responsibility for knowing anything about the ethics of WikiLeaks involves the fact that he’s not a scholar, and truly by the letter of this or any other definition of scholarship, he isn’t.

20. Raffi Khatchadourian, “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency,” New Yorker, 7 June 2010.

21. Assange, When Google Met WikiLeaks, 130.

22. Julian Assange, “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths,” The Australian, 7 December 2010.

23. The story of WikiLeaks is muddled in misinformation, but the story of Assange is even worse, especially his situation regarding sexual assault accusations coming from Sweden. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the media has reported on this story in the most incompetent way possible, obfuscating the legal and factual particulars of the case. It should come as no surprise that WikiLeaking consistently gets this wrong, too, starting in the very first pages (see Cotton’s “About”). For a concise an clear overview of the sexual assault accusations, see Andrew Fowler’s Sex, Lies, and Julian Assange (Journeyman Pictures, 2012) and Jonathan Cook, “Endless Procedural Abuses Show Julian Assange Case Was Never About Law: From the Start, Assange Faced Political Persecution,” Common Dreams, 29 May 2019.

24. John C. O’Day, “Corporate Media Have Second Thoughts About Exiling Julian Assange From Journalism,” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 5 June 2019.

25. Assange, The Unauthorized Autobiography, 114.

26. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Available online:

27. “UN expert says ‘collective persecution’ of Julian Assange must end now,” United Nations Human Rights Council, 31 May 2019.

28. Edward Snowden, “Whistleblowing Is Not Just Leaking — It’s an Act of Political Resistance,” The Intercept, 3 May 2016.

29. This gloss on the trial of Socrates is based on Plato’s Apology (translated by G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 17-36) and the account of Socrates’ accusers in Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002).

Patrick D. Anderson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University. His research specializations include Social-Political Philosophy, Africana Philosophy, Film Studies, and Applied Ethics, especially the ethics of digital technologies. In addition to academic publications, he also contributes to Black Agenda Report.



Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Rohini Hensman: Rolling Back the Global Advance of the Far Right

By Zillah Eisenstein: Why Democracy and Socialism Need Anti-Racist Socialist Feminism

By Denise Lynn: Claudia Jones and the Emancipatory Promise of Socialism

By Melissa Farley: Prostitution, the Sex Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ninotchka Rosca: The Dutertefly Effect and the Philippine Stub Universe

By Paola Cavalieri: On the Poverty of Philosophy or the Black Hole of Factory Farming

By Robert Lacey: The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun

By Patrick D. Anderson: Christian Cotton and Robert Arp (editors), WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Chicago: Open Court, 2019).

By Erik Grayson: Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

By Warren Leming: Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

By Iain Ferguson: The Unconscious in Social and Political Life, (London: Phoenix Publishing House 2019)

By Ben Shepard: Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

By Michael Karadjis: Andy Heintz, Dissidents of the International Left: New Internationalist Publications, (Oxford, University Press, 2019)