For those of you with an interest in the current debate about WikiLeaks’ latest data dump, whose latest episode is largely framed by the archive of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, here’s a good discussion between journalists Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald worthy of 32 minutes of your time.
The part of the debate I’m most interested in is in trying to define where, if at all, should the line separating the right to personal privacy from attempts to increase the transparency of government/forces of power be drawn, which is why this particular discussion is useful. If you’re not familiar with them, Greenwald and Klein are definitely not Democratic party partisans; neither would fall on a list of Clinton supporters or family friends.
Greenwald and his colleagues at The Intercept were heavily involved in bringing the Snowden files into the light of day. Klein and her work as an environmental reporter has invited the wrath of neo-liberals like Clinton as well as conservative elements of the Democratic establishments.
Listen in the podcast above and/or read a transcript on The Intercept here.
While my opinion of their work has evolved over the years, I’ve been a general supporter of Wikileaks from the get-go, and don’t find myself bothered by the Podesta email dump. (I also don’t think they contain all that many explosive new revelations, but that’s another topic.)
They do offer more insights into how Hillary Clinton and her team operate and underscore her attitude, oftentimes cynical, towards segments of voters that she’s trying to reach. Suggesting that opponents of fracking need “to get a life” won’t win over Bernie Sanders supporters who may have been considering a Clinton vote. But overall, from what I’ve seen, there’s nothing really that tells us something new about what Hillary Clinton is really like. Nor do they bring to light any scandalous smoking gun, or least not any that haven’t been spun out of control.
The emails do offer an insightful look into how campaigns are run these days and the cynicism that drives them, which, historically speaking, is where I think most of the value in the Podesta emails lies.
That said, I part company with Wikileaks’ all-or-nothing approach, their decision to dump everything they’re given or assist in obtaining, without curation, especially hacked emails from personal email accounts. These are not government or corporate documents which lead, layer by layer, to greater transparency, so some care needs to be taken with what’s released. That’s how the Snowden files were handled, by responsible news organizations and journalists who understood that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed; indeed, crossing it has already caused harm to innocent parties.
Wikileaks admits it doesn’t like that approach, preferring to simply throw everything out there. That’s lazy and potentially dangerous. And doesn’t mesh with how the world, and we in it, operate anymore. So much of our lives are lived online; that shouldn’t open people defined as “powerful” in one way or another or in one sphere or another by one actor or another, as justifiable targets. Even they have a right to privacy.
One exchange from the discussion that begins to define one direction where this debate should go:
Naomi Klein: The other thing I would say is I think there’s a particular responsibility for you as a journalist — and others at The Intercept — because you’re the ones who brought us the Snowden files, and I am one of many people who are tremendously grateful for that line in the sand about our rights to electronic privacy. You are one of three or four people in the world who have done the most to defend that principle for our electronic communications — because we live our lives online, we can’t distinguish that from our right to privacy, period. These leaks are not, in my opinion, in the same category as the Pentagon Papers or previous WikiLeaks releases like the trade documents they continue to leak, which I am tremendously grateful for, because those are government documents that we have a right to, that are central to democracy. There are many things in that category.
But personal emails — and there’s all kinds of personal stuff in these emails — this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from. That’s why I wanted I wanted to talk with you about it, because I think we need to continuously reassert that principle.
As journalists — now that it’s out there — we do have to go through it and talk about the parts that are politically important and newsworthy. But at the same time, we have a tremendous responsibility to say that people do have that right to privacy. I heard you defend [the leak] to some degree on the grounds that these are very powerful people. Certainly Podesta is a very powerful person, and he will be more powerful after Hillary Clinton is elected, if she’s elected, and it looks like she will be. But I’m concerned about the subjectivity of who gets defined as sufficiently powerful to lose their privacy because I am absolutely sure there are plenty of people in the world who believe that you and I are sufficiently powerful to lose our privacy, and I come to this as a journalist and author who has used leaked and declassified documents to do my work. I could never have written “The Shock Doctrine” or “This Changes Everything” without that. But I’m also part of the climate justice movement, and this is a movement that has come under incredible amounts of surveillance by oil industry-funded front groups of various kinds. There are people in the movement now who are being tracked as if they were political candidates, everywhere they go.
So how are we defining powerful? Because once we say this is OK, and I’m not saying you’ve said it — you’ve made that distinction — but I think we need to say it louder. And particularly you, as the guy who brought us the Snowden files, need to say it louder.
Glenn Greenwald: There’s an amazing irony here in some sense because I’ve been defending the news value of the WikiLeaks archives over the past several months, not just the Podesta but also the DNC archive. And I’ve defended WikiLeaks in the past, long prior to the Snowden archive. There are a couple of really fascinating nuances that I think set the stage for the kinds of distinctions that you’re urging be drawn.
When I first started defending WikiLeaks back in 2010, one of my primary arguments was that WikiLeaks, contrary to the way they were being depicted by the U.S. intelligence community and their friends, was not some reckless rogue agent running around sociopathically dumping information on the internet without concern about who might be endangered. And in fact, if you look at how the biggest WikiLeaks releases were handled early on — the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, as well as the State Department cables — not only did they redact huge numbers of documents on the grounds that doing so was necessary to protect the welfare of innocent people, they actually requested that the State Department meet with them to help them figure out what kind of information should be withheld on the grounds that it could endanger innocent people.
So they were very much an ardent and enthusiastic proponent of that model — that when you get tons of information that belongs in the public eye, you have the corresponding responsibility to protect not only people’s physical security but also their privacy. I used to defend them on that all the time.
Somewhere along the way, WikiLeaks and Julian decided, and they’ve said this explicitly, that they changed their mind on that question — they no longer believe in redactions or withholding documents of any kind.
During our reporting on the Snowden material, we did not just take the archive and dump it on the internet, as a lot of people called for. We spent years very carefully curating it and keeping parts of it secret that might endanger individual privacy, harm people’s reputations unjustifiably, or otherwise put them in harm’s way. And WikiLeaks publicly and viciously attacked us for years. They continue to, actually, over the fact that we were the so-called gatekeepers of information. It was always my view — and continues to be — that it would have been incredibly hypocritical for us to say that these documents need to see the light of day because people’s privacy is being compromised, and then in the same breath, release documents that would destroy people’s privacy because they’re too lazy or don’t think it’s justifiable to go through and redact.
Just as the manner and modes of electronic communication continues to evolve, so to should our views on what’s considered within and without limits in the public’s right to know. Greenwald’s opinion seems to have evolved and become more nuanced over the years, as has Klein’s. That of Wikileaks and it’s found Julian Assange hasn’t.
Lead photo: a detail of a street mural by Bogota-based street art collective Toxicomano, snapped in Bogota, Colombia, on 10 June 2015.