From FOIA to WikiLeaks


In October 2002, reason took stock of government transparency in the post-9/11 world. At the time, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeared to be under attack. In "Closing the Books," Jeffrey Benner wrote that restrictions on the kind of information obtainable through FOIA had "watchdog groups from all shades of the political spectrum up in arms. Most of these groups, interested in preserving integrity and good practice in government, rely heavily on FOIA requests to uncover government waste and misconduct."

Since then, America has experienced six years of an anti-transparency president and two years of an ostensibly pro-transparency president who has failed to deliver on his promises. As the state continued to block legal means for the public to obtain information about government activities, especially concerning national security, a new model for transparency emerged: WikiLeaks, a website that solicits and hosts leaked documents of all kinds, aims to acquire troves of data from the world's governments and other institutions, then dumps the information online for anyone to paw through.

In July, WikiLeaks Editor Julian Assange released tens of thousands of documents related to the war in Afghanistan, followed by a similar trove of nearly 400,000 log entries from the war in Iraq. The documents were released in unredacted form, leading to accusations that WikiLeaks had compromised national security and put Afghan informants in danger. In November and December the site followed up by releasing nearly 2,000 American diplomatic cables. On November 29, the U.S. government launched a criminal investigation of Assange, an Australian citizen, reportedly under the Espionage Act.

The most dramatic WikiLeaks revelation to date was a 17-minute video titled Collateral Murder that the site released in April. It depicted a 2007 incident in which U.S. forces fired on Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists, mistaking them for insurgents. Because two Reuters staffers were involved in the incident, the wire service had filed a series of FOIA requests over the years to obtain the information in the video, to no avail.

In an environment where legally approved avenues to information about the government have been closed off, it's no wonder that efforts like WikiLeaks would emerge. Regardless of what happens to Assange, a world where fewer FOIA requests are granted is a world with more WikiLeaks.