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Column

Never put your trust in things prefixed ‘Wiki’

A discussion came up recently about Julian Assange and his website, Wikileaks – you know, the anarchistic site that posts thousands of pages of leaked U.S. government drivel.

One of the commenters suggested that Wikileaks is a government conspiracy to drum up support for Internet restrictions. If you want the American people to accept restrictions of their liberties, you have to do it in the name of “national security.”

It’s funny how some of the same people who tell you the government can’t be trusted with health care or other regulations are perfectly fine trusting the government with information, at least when it pertains to national security.

Of course, we don’t know what “national security” means. If we did, it wouldn’t be secured. If you want to throw a rug over something, just mark it “national security” and nobody ever has to know about it.

Then along came this Australian guy, Assange, and he lifted up the rug and showed us what was under it. That’s when we realized that we don’t really care, for the most part.

As the aforementioned conversation continued, a bright, young lad asked me: “As a highly regarded reporter, what do you think of Assange and Wikileaks?”

I was so giddy over being referred to as “highly regarded” that I momentarily forgot the question. I decided that I’d better give the subject more than a cursory thought, which I haven’t done for any subject in more than six years. It kinda hurts my head. So, here goes:

Highly regarded reporters don’t trust anything that has “wiki” in front of it. To be taken seriously, wiki information must be independently verified. “Wiki,” by definition, is something that is edited by virtually anyone. It’s a Swahili word that means, literally, “not to be trusted,” which you can verify on Wikipedia.
I’ve heard complaints that the “mainstream” media hasn’t taken Wikileaks seriously. That’s because they used the prefix “wiki” in their name. If you want people to take notice, you have to use a different phrase, like “naked pictures of Paris Hilton.”

Curiosity got the better of me and I accessed the Wikileaks site, but was severely underwhelmed. Most of it seemed like boring stuff that shouldn’t be classified anyway. The government loves its secrets — from the highest federal offices down to the lowliest townships and school boards.

Some government officials and employees seem to get a special thrill out of possessing secret government information. Most often — and the same with Wikileaks — the secrecy stems from a self-aggrandizing exercise in control and power or a misguided effort to not embarrass somebody. Politicians know that the truth hurts. It hurts them at election time.

That being said, I think Assange should be treated as a war criminal and any Americans who gave him classified documents should be treated as traitors. Regardless of how benign most of the information is, the government/military structure that we have cannot function very well without its protocols. The tail doesn’t wag the dog, so to speak.

Plus, the wholesale, unauthorized release of thousands of government documents is irresponsible and dangerous. It doesn’t matter how useless most of them may be; the effort to harm America through wholesale theft and dissemination of secret information is no less a terrorist act than pressing the remote detonator on a van full of dummy explosives wired up by undercover FBI agents. (Several would-be terrorists have been arrested after trying to blow up buildings with fake bombs supplied by the FBI.)

There may be great value in having “secret” documents exposed within context and with purpose. I could be (and have been) a party to such a whistle-blowing event. But I’m quite certain that Assange, his people and those who leaked the documents, never actually read most of them. There simply are too many documents for the files to have been closely scrutinized by anybody. But you can bet your burka that every terrorist group with an ounce of savvy is scrutinizing them with a fine-tooth comb.

So, were the documents released by the government on purpose? I’m not so naive as to think it couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t be the first time bad guys were lured with tantalizing, but ultimately harmless, information. If the government possessed an algorithm that could tell how long a person stayed on Wikileaks or how often a person accessed the information and cross-referenced that information with other questionable Web traffic, that might help identify radical cells.

People like me, who are curious, will access it, spend a few minutes on the site, and then leave, never to return and not raising red flags. The science is like spotting a bomber in an airport; everybody looks at the departure screen, but a terrorist carrying a weapon will look at it a little differently. It’s those tiny, tell-tale signs that trained agents look for.

Did the government leak the documents to impede Internet freedom? I doubt it. The government is too reactionary for that. Plus, you get into prior restraint issues. The U.S. government is much more likely to go after what you put on the Internet rather than trying to prevent you from putting it there to begin with.

Besides, even if everything on Wikileaks turns out to be 100 percent true and accurate, as well as thorough and meaningful, who’s going to buy into it? There’s not much market for truth these days. Americans much prefer conspiracies, lies, innuendos, mysteries and gossip. Think Area 51, the grassy knoll, Elvis sightings, Fox News, etc.

Copyright 2011 by David Porter, who can be reached at dporter@illinoispress.org. All rights reserved, restricted, hidden and … Shhh! I can’t tell you that!

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