Now that Wikileaks has devolved into a glorified travel agency for Edward Snowden, it's easy to forget the actual value it demonstrated from about 2006-2010, before Julian Assange drove it into a brick wall. Today, the defense's star witness in Pfc. Bradley Manning's trial, Harvard professor Yochai Benkler offered a powerful argument for why Wikileaks mattered, and why we still need something like it.
Bradley Manning has already pleaded guilty to the lesser of the charges against him over leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, including thousands of classified State Department cables and the Collateral murder video. His lawyers are fighting to have the more serious charges of aiding the enemy dropped. For this they must prove Manning did not knowingly give intelligence to America's enemy by leaking to Wikileaks. Which hinges on them proving that Wikileaks is a legitimate news organization that Manning believed would help him inform the public—not a terrorist information portal. (Aiding the enemy is a capital offense, but the prosecution has said they won't seek the death penatly, so Manning faces life in prison without parole if convicted.)
Clearly, Wikileaks is a news organization even in its crippled state. It published newsworthy information, had editors, and scored some of the biggest journalistic scoops of the past few years. But more interesting than the question of Wikileaks' legitimacy is the unique place it occupied in what Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler calls the "networked fourth estate." This is the media ecosystem we live in, where the traditional functions of journalism—most notably investigative journalism—are performed in a more distributed and collaborative way.
Key bits of what might have once happened in a single, well-stocked newsroom are now spread throughout the network, as outlets proliferate, old news organizations wither, and the data journalists must sift through explodes. On the stand at Ft. Meade today, Benkler compared what is happening to journalism to changes in software industry in the 90s, where development moved from a couple key companies—IBM and Microsoft—to many different organizations, including open source communities. "What happened with networked production is you got a decomposition of the functions," he said.
And in a world so distributed, something like Wikileaks is needed to do the arduous work of exposing secret information that underpins the most important kinds of investigative journalism. Wikileaks mattered because it was able to facilitate the leak and distribution of this information in a way that no old organization could. (Remember, Manning approached both the Washington Post and the New York Times in vain before turning to Wikileaks.)
It's a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points, where journalists are able to come in and say, here's a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public and now we're able to shine the light. That's what Wikileaks showed how to do for the Networked public sphere.
Wikileaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that's going to survive and somebody else will build it.
But Wikileaks played a critical role of that particular critical component of what muck-raking and investigative journalism has always done.
Let's hope the next Wikileaks is more up to the task.