Wikileaks, once the darling of liberals everywhere and now the subject of wacko conspiracy theories about blackmail and flipped Kremlin assets, has once again ruffled feathers on Twitter by calling out some questionably-sourced reporting by NBC.
On Friday, NBC reported that an anonymous intelligence official told its reporters that US intelligence has identified the Russian source of the hacked DNC emails that were distributed by Wikileaks and arguably sunk Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Importantly, NBC also reported that the anonymous official confirmed that “senior Russian officials [celebrated] Donald Trump's win,” although the chatter was “subject to interpretation."
Whose interpretation—the anonymous official’s?
Wikileaks’ response called out the anonymous official for leaking information to NBC “for political reasons” before Trump gets to read it. It’s understandable that the deference to Trump would make people angry, especially given Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s apparent support of Trump, saying that his election presented “opportunities for change.” But the response on Twitter didn’t focus on Wikileaks’ Trump fawning and instead can be summed up as: “What, Wikileaks is against leaks now?”
Wikileaks has major, major problems. Take, for example, a Friday tweet by the official account of the Wikileaks “task force” that floated the idea of creating a database of verified tweeters and their familial ties and housing information. That is twisted.
Still, the aforementioned response misses the point because it assumes the NBC report is true. It may very well be, but the fact is that reporting based on the word of an anonymous official without evidence, like NBC’s story, is tantamount to astroturfing by the intelligence community. That is bad, and ill will towards Wikileaks shouldn’t obscure that.
There are numerous examples to back this up stretching back throughout the history of the American press.
"There is no guarantee that anything an anonymous official tells the press is true, and should always be regarded with high suspicion"
One such example just happened. On Saturday, The Washington Post ran a story claiming that Russians had hacked the Vermont power grid—dastardly, sensational stuff—on the word of anonymous US intelligence officials. But the affected power company released information about the breach contradicting what the officials had told the Post, and the thrust of the original story turned out to be false.
In 2015, the US bombed an Afghan hospital being run by Doctors Without Borders, killing patients inside, some of them children. While Doctors Without Borders unwaveringly contended that the US had dropped the bombs, anonymous officials spread misleading and conflicting reports about the incident to the media.
Perhaps the most impactful example of this practice goes all the way back to the early 2000s, when papers like the New York Times were pushing a narrative that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t, but the anonymous US intelligence officials cited by the Times reporters said so. The public editor at the time, Daniel Okrent, wrote in a scathing 2004 analysis of the paper’s failure that blithely reporting the whispered word of anonymous officials is essentially “a license granted to liars.”
In short, there is no guarantee that anything an anonymous official tells the press is true, and should always be regarded with high suspicion—especially if no documentation or records are provided to back up the claim.
I concede that it may very well be true that US intelligence has identified the Wikileaks source, but the addendum that Russian officials “celebrated” Trump’s win, with the caveat that the information is open to interpretation no less, smacks of political spin. It would be far more valuable if the intelligence official provided specific language, some sort of document, or other record to prove their claim.
Wikileaks has its own organizational and perhaps even political agenda, and the organization’s behaviour appears to enable Trump’s attacks on the press. But if you’re going to call out Wikileaks, call them out on something that matters, and in a way that doesn’t indirectly lend credence to the word of shadowy intelligence officials.
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Correction: This piece originally incorrectly referred to a hospital in Afghanistan as “Afghani,” which is the name of the currency. We’ve since updated it to the correct term “Afghan,” and regret the error.
from Wikileaks Is Bad, Anonymous Intelligence Officials Are Worse