This Week in Information Overload
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What Wikileaks Tells Us

Daniel Ellsberg's account of photocopying the Pentagon Papers

from Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Viking, 1972)

Perhaps you don’t quite know what to make of the latest Wikileaks data dump. That’s all right. No one does. It’s TMI.

This Week in Information Overload

In point of fact, I don’t think it has much to tell us about its ostensible subject, American diplomacy. But it is revelatory of the Information Age as it exists in 2010—the new rules and the old rules in collision.

The great newspapers with first dibs on the leaked State Department cables, beginning with the Guardian and the New York Times, used every device in their Cabinets of Special Emphasis: front-page banners, custom logos (“State’s Secrets”; “The US Embassy Cables”), editors’ notes to readers, and vivid teasers (“an extraordinary look at the inner workings …”; “an unprecedented look …”; “a mammoth cache …”; “the unvarnished story”). Understatement was not the order of the day.

In contrast, the most angry opponents of the cables’ publication, right-wing commentators and elected officials, called Wikileaks terrorists and demanded prosecution and execution. At least they agreed that it was important.

In further contrast, on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart riffed scatologically on the word “dump.”  This is perhaps a post-Freudian view of information.

Anyway, his ultimate assessment strikes me as about right: “Most of the shit in there is non-policy chit chat and things we already knew.” Likewise Stephen Colbert’s summary of the first big Wikileaks dumps last summer: “Innocent people have died, Pakistan is not the most trustworthy partner, and Afghanistan is a tough place to wage a war.”

Several news organizations conducted instant public opinion polls. They asked people whether the leaks would hurt the U.S. and whether the white-haired yet boyish Julian Assange should be arrested, but they did not ask a question that I think would be more revealing: What is the most interesting thing you have learned from the mammoth cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables? I suspect many people would find that difficult to answer.

This does not mean, however, that the cables are unimportant, or that the leaks were unimportant. Nor does it mean that the press should simply have walked away. That was never a possibility.

In an alternate universe, perhaps—having spent valuable time poring through raw data, having assessed the news value of the information, having failed to find a smoking gun (the catchphrase that must have been heard many times in newspaper offices last week), editors might have decided to buck the inevitable tide coming on cable television and give the story dignified play below the fold, or even inside the paper. (I know—I’m dreaming.) In our universe, when these troves of leaked government documents arrived in the offices of the Times and other news organizations, an obvious template existed: the Pentagon Papers. The precedent was irresistible. But it was also inappropriate.

The secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam raised a curtain on years of government deception in the escalation of the war, by military and civilian officials up to and including the President. R. W. Apple was able to write in the Times: “They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” Wikileaks, not so much.

Here are some of the other differences—signs of the times:

  • Compared to the 250,000 State Department cables, the Pentagon Papers were modest and concise. The entire product ran a mere 7,000 pages. You can buy it in book form.
  • In 1971, that seemed like a lot. As a first step toward releasing the information into the light, Daniel Ellsberg had to photocopy it one page at a time, several seconds per page, tedious long nights. In 2010 … well, you know.
  • Given the Vietnam archives, a team of Times editors and reporters was able to take three months to study, weigh, and digest it, and they published a small fraction. The editors and reporters handling the Wikileaks data had scarcely the blink of an eye. It was Internet-bound no matter what they did. It is visible to the whole world, in a searchable database, organized by country and keyword, with interactive mouse-over maps.

The moral of this tale? I won’t argue against transparency (another of the relevant catchwords). People in a democracy have a right and a need to know what their government is doing. Nor does that mean secrecy is automatically bad: our diplomats might have a genuine need to dish Angela and Mahmoud in private.

There is the information-age moral to consider as well: More is not always better. There really can be too much information. Faster is not always better. The information can flow too quickly. (In my book is some discussion of the virtues of forgetting.)

One more detail from olden days: one day after publication of the Pentagon Papers began, when the Attorney General, John W. Mitchell, demanded that the Times cease and desist, he did so by means of a telegram, which was first misdelivered to a fish company in Brooklyn.


Postscript: With the passage of days, the coverage in the Times (though still, in my view, overheated in its presentation) has gotten more and more interesting, as its experienced reporters have dug into the material. Others, too; I particularly recommend James Fallows, not only for his insights into China and Google, but for his thoughts on matters of sourcing and confirmation.

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