Interview With WikiLeaks Go-to Guy, the Nation's Greg Mitchell
We're honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-sixth in the series.
For nearly four months, the Nation’s Greg Mitchell has steadfastly blogged “Cablegate,” the publication of some 250,000 US diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks. What began as basic coverage of a media phenomenon quickly blossomed into the world’s most important clearinghouse for news and analysis concerning the WikiLeaks saga. Other media outlets have attempted similar up-to-the minute coverage, but none have been able to keep up with Mitchell’s one-man tour de force.
Mitchell has not only managed to keep on top of the seemingly never-ending revelations and scandals surrounding the WikiLeaks phenomenon but along the way has also found the time to punch out two books on the subject. The first, The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond), hit the shelves just before an avalanche of other books—largely focused on Assange—came out, and remains the most useful general account of WikiLeaks’ rise from relative obscurity to international prominence. The second book—Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences—just published, looks at the man accused of feeding WikiLeaks the massive trove of embassy cables.
Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Michael Busch spoke with Mitchell—whom Glenn Greenwald calls “one of the nation’s most insightful journalists”—shortly after he celebrated the one hundredth day of his marathon WikiLeaks coverage to discuss the blog, the book, and the future of journalism in the age of WikiLeaks.
MB: First of all, congratulations on one hundred days of blogging Cablegate!
Mitchell: [Laughs.] Thank you.
MB: I hoped to start by asking about the blog. You joke that blogging WikiLeaks has left you feeling like Michael Corleone: just when you think you’re about to wrap it up, it pulls you back in. Where did the blog come from, and did you expect that that one hundred plus days after the initial Cablegate revelations dropped that you’d still be at it?
Mitchell: Well, I started blogging for The Nation last May, a daily blog that covered a wide variety of media subjects. It was kind of a live blog; every morning I’d put up a bunch of links and maybe three times a week I would write a standalone piece. Two or three times a year I would concentrate on live blogging some major media event that was breaking…the election last November, for example. It might be one or two days of concentrated coverage and that would be it.
With WikiLeaks, it was sort of the same thing. I wasn’t up and running when the “Collateral Murder” video was released, but I was when the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs dropped and live-blogged on them for a couple of days when they came out. With Cablegate, I received an alert right before it was about to happen and so when it began I was ready to go. I figured I would blog that first day of cable releases and the next, certainly.
And then it just kept going. With the Afghan and Iraq war log dumps there were things to cover for several days because the newspapers were bringing different angles to the story, there was a lot of analysis and reaction. But the material was all out there in its entirety at the start. It was just a matter of how people were analyzing it. With Cablegate you had all that, of course, because a lot came out immediately, but new information also kept coming. And on top of that there were suddenly more threats against WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange in particular, and there was more reaction from around the world because of all the various countries involved. So at the start, I thought the blogging might be two or three days and if it went a little longer than that, then fine.
I wouldn’t have kept doing it if there hadn’t been a strong reaction to it, if people hadn’t been egging me on. It proved to be very popular at The Nation. The editors originally were telling me that blogging Cablegate would be fine for ten days or even maybe even twenty, but they were also saying that I really should stop at some point because I had better things to do with my time. From day one, though—actually, for a hundred and two days now—it has been the most popular and most frequently viewed site at the Nation. And that popularity has made it acceptable with the editors that I keep going. Now they say, “Yeah, sure, concentrate on this!” So the extended blogging has really been the result of a combination of things: my interest, the fact that new documents keep emerging, and the fact that it is proving so popular around the world. It’s really taken on a life of its own.
MB: After all of this time dedicated to reporting on the cables, what strikes you as the most important lesson learned from the Cablegate scandal, either with specific reference to the documents themselves, or to the broader developments around the “leak” phenomenon that you refer to as the “Age of WikiLeaks”?
Mitchell: Well, that’s the big question in all this. In terms of the world of geopolitics the most dramatic thing that has occurred in the midst of all this is the wave of Middle Eastern and North African revolts. Of course, there are great debates about how big a role WikiLeaks has played. But I think most people would agree that it had a big role in the Tunisian uprising and Tunisia in turn had a big role elsewhere. You can trace [the wave of revolutions] back to Tunisia, and when you ask if WikiLeaks was much of a factor in events there you have to say it was a pretty big factor, in fact.
More generally, I presume that history will show that the biggest effect of WikiLeaks—even though people don’t all agree on the details of it—will be seen in the way it affected the politics of different countries. That’s what’s most striking to me in all this: we suddenly have a huge mass of information which keeps having ripple effects in different countries all over the world, like most recently in Mexico where the effects of the WikiLeaks cables has been quite dramatic. There are a lot of people in America, pundits, who say that none of this is really a big deal, that we knew most of this stuff already, and ask what’s really changed. And they might be right, in terms of US policy. But they totally ignore what’s been happening in other countries. That’s the most impressive thing, as opposed to the big ticket items.
And then of course, the other thing is how it set in motion the whole discussion and encouragement of a new era of leaking, and how the media has reacted. This has been very revealing, though I must say that the jury is still out on the question of what will happen with all these other “leaking” organizations. Many have been formed, much has been promised, numerous organizations have set up their own portals…and very little has come of it. Even WikiLeaks hasn’t come up with anything new. I just reported on this new group, Quebec Leaks. They sent me word weeks ago when they were originally going to launch, and then they postponed it. Now they’ve just gone through with the launch today and they haven’t received any documents at all! They didn’t even say they were processing anything. Another one, OpenLeaks [started by former WikiLeaks collaborators], doesn’t have anything either. So it goes to show that people may be saying it’s a new era of leaking, but that’s still far from clear. Outside of al Jazeera’s “Palestine Papers,” I’m not sure that anything new has leaked in recent months.
MB: There’s been a lot said about the ways in which WikiLeaks has transformed traditional approaches to journalism. Less remarked upon are the ways in which WikiLeaks itself has changed since its creation, if any. Is there any sense in which you think WikiLeaks has evolved in the period between Collateral Murder and the current flood of cable documents? Have its own methods and standards changed at the same time that it’s been driving changes in the old media establishments?
Mitchell: What’s interesting is that WikiLeaks, at least until “Collateral Murder,” and even afterwards, was not a household name. In some ways, their history is much more varied and interesting in the three years before “Collateral Murder.” They had a lot of different leaks, from the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! email account to Scientology documents, and a bunch of other interesting things. Then suddenly, there was allegedly one gigantic leak—which included the “Collateral Murder” video, the Iraq and Afghan war logs, and of course the Cablegate documents. As a result, this past year has been totally unlike the past three or four years for WikiLeaks. One gigantic leak got them massive attention and partnerships with the New York Times, the Guardian and other leading news outlets. This is most apparent in the way we talk about WikiLeaks itself, in terms of Assange. I presume that before it probably was an organization comprised of a bunch of different people and Assange wasn’t so much of a point man. Whether it’s because of the nature of these recent leaks, or because the backlash, Assange has become WikiLeaks. He seems to be person who’s doing everything. I mean, just go to the WikiLeaks main site, and there you’ll see a big picture of him at the top! Assange can say, “Oh, it’s not just me,” all he likes, but there’s his face on the main page. So I think that’s quite different. Which raises the question of how many people actually are working for the organization, how much money they have, whether they can actually get stuff out. The Bank of America documents, for example, still aren’t out. Rudolph Elmer gave them the CDs and that doesn’t seem close to being released. This creates room for other organizations, but they haven’t been coming out with stuff either.
In terms of working with the media, it’s fascinating to chart the partnerships with these big media groups and particularly how these media establishments eventually turned on them. A lot of people will blame Assange for that and will argue that it didn’t necessarily have to play out in this way. The Guardian, particularly, always seems to emphasize the importance of WikiLeaks even while they have had their problems with Assange, but the New York Times…not so much. The Times keeps slamming Assange, relentlessly, while continuing to quote from the cables in their news coverage. And that’s the thing! On any given day, the Times or the Washington Post will be ripping Assange and the organization on the opinion page but quoting from WikiLeaks on the front page! You’ll have three different stories referring to “diplomatic cables,” routinely. And often crucially. So it makes it interesting to cover. They may want to step away from them, but they can’t resist quoting from this stuff.
MB: That’s what seems to me most important about the book, that it cuts through the sensationalism surrounding WikiLeaks and offers a clear timeline of events.
Mitchell: That’s one of its values. Without any of the fanfare, it just lays out what happened without analyzing it to death: here’s how it started, here’s how it was covered at the time.
MB: There’s been a parade of WikiLeaks books over the past few months but yours was the first. It’s also clear that your book has a much narrower focus than the others, namely the phenomenon of WikiLeaks itself rather than controversies surrounding Assange. How did that idea come about? What did you intend to accomplish? What do you want readers to take away from it?
Mitchell: By the time Cablegate was way under way, WikiLeaks was getting a lot of attention, Assange was getting a lot of attention, God help us, but people still didn’t really know what had happened over the previous year. In some ways, Cablegate is actually a little less interesting to me, because I’ve always had an interest in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars and the media have always been my primary subject of interest, so it was natural that I was really interested in everything WikiLeaks did before Cablegate. I felt that people had forgotten what happened before Cablegate, and that it was criminal that all this incredible stuff came out about the wars, and the media just turned the page. So I wanted to tell a story of the whole year, not just Cablegate but the other three quarters of the year as well, which meant that I myself had to go back and look at the coverage, what had been written. It was good for me because I had an opportunity to brush up on it all.
I sensed that there would be a bunch of books coming out, but that they would largely focus on Assange, his legal case, and his dealings with the newspapers. But I didn’t think there was going to be clear history. So it seemed to me that a clear laying-out of everything that had happened would be valuable, and especially if it came out quickly so people could have it ready as more and more coverage of the situation piled up.
MB: You close the book on a hopeful note by discussing the convergence between new and old media, and the expectation that this will create a stronger journalistic project in the future. If you had to guess, how would you sketch out the contours of this new journalistic project? In other words, do you think that recent efforts by the NYT and others to create in-house drop boxes for leaked documents will ultimately be successful, or will independent leakers always attract the juiciest stuff, or both?
Mitchell: It’s hard to say. It’s unclear whether this supposed deluge of leaks is actually going to happen. The assumption has been, like we discussed before, that we would be seeing leaks from all these different quarters. It’s also unclear whether the mainstream media is going to try to control the flow of information. We’ve seen some of this with the New York Times which announced that it is studying possibilities for their own portal, which would put them back in the role of gatekeepers. Cablegate has been educational for a lot of people, that’s for sure. Even for WikiLeaks: they were willing to give up their old way of doing business which was to dump out there whatever it was they had and then let the media cover those things it wanted to cover. This time, they held back and let the paper do the dissemination. So in this way, the papers are still the gatekeepers. They choose what they will focus on, what comes out and when, how much time they are willing to devote to it, how many people they will put on it. They also divvied up between themselves what each paper was doing. In a telling moment, it was either Bill Keller or one of his top people who was asking [the Times staff] “Why didn’t we have any cables on Egypt?” And they were told, “Well, we were working on other things and didn’t have time to search the Egypt cables.” So all this stuff is coming out about [Omar] Suleiman and torture and other damning cables and they just hadn’t gotten to it. They had a list of important areas: Egypt probably shouldn’t have been at the top of it, but couldn’t they have gone and done a search through the Egypt cables? Nobody did, apparently.
In any event, they media have still been the gatekeepers. It’s the role they have traditionally played, and it’s the role I think they would still like to play in the future. The idea of working with leaks is still very appealing to them. Having their own portals might be also appealing, but I’m sure they also see the work involved in that. They would probably rather take someone else’s leak and pick and choose, and vet what would be released, what wouldn’t and so on. If there hadn’t been such a falling out between Assange and the Guardian and the Times, I think a lot more people would be saying that this is the model, that as far out as WikiLeaks might seem, they’ve managed to work with these mainstream giants for most of the year in a mutually beneficial relationship. Similarly, we saw the Guardian do it again with al Jazeera in releasing the Palestine Papers. Speaking of which, the Palestine Papers was this gigantic thing for about a week, but then…whatever happened to that? What came out of that? How did that shake things up? See what I mean?
It seems like the new era is still very unclear. I don’t know if places like Huffington Post plan to do much with leaks, if this is in fact the model for the future, or whether the model will be blogging, link aggregators, or whatever. Will we have organizations with enough resources to really plunge into these things? So the real question is how are leaks going to come out in the future, if they come out at all? Dealing with leaks is massively complicated, and the payoff is unclear. We’ve had things that were rolled out—like the war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq—by the New York Times and the impact proved to be not that significant. So are other organizations going to feel it’s worth it to present important information that might not ultimately be reader-friendly? On the other hand, if they could get a list of every woman Charlie Sheen has ever slept with, or proof of all the drugs he’s ever taken, or better, both, that might be one thing. But if the information is going to be about chasing loose nukes and materials around the world—which involves a lot of technical explanation and countries most Americans have never heard of—then it is probably going to be another.