Last week, we had a discussion on whether WikiLeaks went too far in their release of hacked emails. It was a topic of discussion that Glen Greenwald (no relation) had on the Intercept with author and activist Naomi Klein, who “believes there are serious threats to personal privacy and other critical political values posed by hacks of this sort, particularly when accompanied by the indiscriminate publication of someone’s personal emails.”
Mr. Greenwald writes, “While the significance of particular stories has been debated, there is no denying that many of those disclosures offer a valuable glimpse into campaign operatives who currently exercise great political power and who, as of January of next year, are likely to be among the most powerful officials on the planet.”
For Ms. Klein, they say, “The fact that the individual whose emails were hacked wields significant power may mitigate some of those concerns, but, she believes, it does not remotely obviate them. She also believes that while a public service has been performed by the reporting on some of these emails, media organizations (including The Intercept) have not sufficiently emphasized the dangers to personal privacy posed by the hacking of someone’s email inbox.”
Glen Greenwald highlighted two points – the actions of the hackers combined with WikiLeaks, and then what happens once those material become available – what is the duty of journalists?
Ms. Klein notes, “I would add that it’s not just that they didn’t curate it and dumped it all. They are dumping it, but they are doling out the dumps to maximize damage.”
She notes, “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.”
She argues that “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.”
Recall, of course, that Glen Greenwald was central to the release of the Snowden papers.
She continues, “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.”
Glen Greenwald pointed out that he has long been a defender of WikiLeaks, dating back to 2010, and part of the reason he did was that it “was not some reckless rogue agent running around sociopathically dumping information on the internet without concern about who might be endangered.” He notes, about the early documents, “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.”
However, he notes, “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.”
When they released 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.”
He adds, “I think WikiLeaks more or less at this point stands alone in believing that these kinds of dumps are ethically — never mind journalistically — just ethically, as a human being, justifiable.”
Ms. Klein notes, and I think correctly, that some of the material leaked by WikiLeaks Hillary Clinton had coming. They should have released the bank speeches early on, and, because they refused to do so, it became more interesting and more newsworthy.
At the same time, she added, “It’s also the way in which it’s being released, to clearly maximize damage, and the recklessness about the implications of that when it comes to electing Trump.” She states that “we have to acknowledge how political WikiLeaks and Julian are being here.”
Ms. Klein later adds, “I’m not comfortable with anybody wielding this much power. I am not comfortable when it’s states, but I’m also not comfortable when it’s individuals or institutions. I don’t like people making decisions based on vendettas because the message it sends is: ‘If you cross me, this could happen to you.’ That’s a menacing message to send.”
Ms. Klein, at the same time, is not defending Hillary Clinton – which is part of why I have focused on this discussion. My concern that I expressed last week is we have WikiLeaks, and I think people can and are reacting to this based on how they feel about Hillary Clinton. What I was trying to do is push the conversation past the election to point out there is a real danger here in how this being done.
Ms. Klein notes, “I think the main thing we’ve learned from these emails is that the folks around Hillary Clinton are just as venal and corrupt as we thought they were, for the most part, with all the conflicts of interest.”
But she makes the point I was trying to make: “We’re getting it reinforced. If the price of having it reinforced, or having more people know it, is this idea that once you go into politics you lose all privacy, my concern is that decent people seeing this who do not have these values and these conflicts of interest will just go, ‘There’s no way I’m going into politics. I will not give up my privacy.’”
Glen Greenwald points out, “The more people start to fear that their emails are going to end up hacked and public, the less they’ll use emails. They’ll just stop using emails for anything beyond cursory transactions, and institutions will become more closed. They’ll be less capable of communicating internally.”
While Julian Assange of WikiLeaks clearly thinks that is a good thing, Glen Greenwald states, “I absolutely agree with you that there are very profound concerns about individual privacy that are being trampled over with these leaks and certainly with the ones to come. And we probably haven’t given that enough thought, primarily because what ends up happening is the leaks happen; journalists like me give lip service to the fact that it’s too bad they weren’t curated, they should have been; and then everyone starts digging into them for newsworthy stories.”
Where does this discussion leave us? Neither Greenwald nor Klein supports the idea of shutting down the hackers or stopping efforts to make institutions more transparent.
While I support the idea of transparency, and agree with those who believe that Ms. Clinton has caused a lot of these problems by being too secretive. I believe there needs to be a space where people can have internal discussions without the worry that people will overhear them.
Does that mean that the next campaigns will take measures to encrypt their communications? Probably. Does that mean they will be reluctant to put incriminating things into email? Definitely.
When the Vanguard first used Public Records for email, we got a treasure trove of information, but after that the local actors avoided putting incriminating conversations on public email servers and, in the end, we ended up with probably less rather than more transparency.
In the end, it seems that this is not going to be fatal to Clinton’s election and that the powerful actors will simply adjust their tactics.
—David M. Greenwald reporting