Down the Rabbit Hole: Finding ‘Evidence’ of WikiLeaks’ Crime—Part I of II

Today and tomorrow I’ll hopefully make peace with my curiosity about WikiLeaks and the accusation that it disclosed the names and locations of Afghan informants serving the U.S. and coalition forces. Evidence supporting the accusation has been scant while the accusation itself has been repeated so often it now has the force of truth. Where does the accusation come from? What implications does the evidence entail? I will answer these questions today and tomorrow.


Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker may be the world’s foremost authority on WikiLeaks seeing as he conducted extensive interviews with its leader, Julian Assange, and other members of the group shortly before its now infamous release of six years worth of secret on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan. Khatchadourian’s summary of WikiLeaks as an Internet startup in this podcast better explains its actions than those who conversely call it a defender of truth or a terrorist organization. Assange acts to a high degree on principle, but seeing WikiLeaks as a startup explains why it threw caution to the wind, admitting that it did not examine the released documents thoroughly enough to rule out the possibility of releasing personal information that could be used against Americans and their allies in the war effort. As a startup, they are tuning their operation, which is young and by no means perfect.

To be sure, this is more ‘with us or against us’ criticism. Neither Assange nor WikiLeaks are wedded to the achievement of that nebulous, ever changing justification for military action: securing the interests of the United States. In as much as the U.S. would punish one of its citizens for treason should it inform an enemy about U.S. war strategy or personnel, the American military and intelligence apparatus pay cash for Afghans to turn coat.

But more to the point: did WikiLeaks release information that put America and its allies in harm’s way? Every major American news organization has operated on that very assumption in its condemnation of the leak. After my post suggesting there was no concrete evidence of such a crime, I nervously checked WikiPedia’s page on ‘The Afghan War Diary’ thinking I had missed something obvious. The first thing you see when you scroll down to ‘Informants Named’ is ‘This section’s citation style may be unclear.’ The section’s citations are very unclear and quotations in the entry are rarely present in the citation referred to, though the accusation is repeated several times in the entry as fact. Oh well. Maybe my college professors weren’t just justifying their paycheck when they warned against citing WikiPedia.

Finally, all the ‘proof’ that WikiLeaks has blood on its hands, such as that presented by NBC, refers to two articles written in The Times of London:

Afghan leaks expose the identities of informants

Man named by WikiLeaks ‘war logs’ already dead

If you’ve got a subscription to The Times of London, which has recently put all its content behind a paywall, you’ll see that it claims that after only two hours of examining the Afghan war logs the newspaper found multiple cases where informant names had been disclosed. If you haven’t got a subscription, sorry, but you’re not privy to review the information that everyone else is claiming as proof positive of wrong doing. The culture of free that now exists around news and news producers poses a serious, albeit principled, democratic problem. If everyone expects news to be free, what happens when a news organization releases exclusive news from behind a paywall? I’m sure the news producer, The Times of London in this case, would like you to pay to read the story. But what about the millions that aren’t going to do that? After The Times put up its paywall, it lost 90% of its traffic. This allows exclusive information to selectively enter the mainstream news cycle, repeated by sources like NBC, but remain immune to democratic criticism. I think people should buy a subscription (I did), but the culture of free has, to an extent, restricted the flow of certain information in a dangerous way. For all our talk of citizen journalism, we are no longer accustomed to reviewing sources that we have to pay for. Journalism isn’t just recording events, after all. It’s getting the events right.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less