An Optimist's View of WikiLeaks

The panelists at the festival's WikiLeaks discussion seemed to agree on one thing: Julian Assange is creepy. As Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain quipped, the only thing the pale, nihilistic Assange needs to be a James Bond villain is a hairless cat. 

The Ideas ReportBut if the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief is the villain in this story, it's not entirely clear who the hero might be. Certainly not Bradley Manning, the soldier who transferred classified data onto CD-RWs and was charged with "aiding the enemy." And not the State Department, which came off as both careless and Big Brother-ish after a quarter million of its cables were leaked. 

But according to James Fallows, the world press came out of the scandal looking, if not heroic, at least intelligent and valuable. At a time when readers are posting and consuming news through blogs and Twitter feeds, WikiLeaks gave mainstream journalists a chance to prove their worth. It took the experienced writers and editors at The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and three other global newspapers to decide which of Assange's details to reveal and which to redact. 

Meanwhile, Zittrain, who teaches both law and computer science at Harvard, derives a different kind of encouragement from WikiLeaks. True, a U.S. Army private found it possible to steal highly sensitive information from State Department files. But Bradley Manning was literally one in a million. As Zittrain sees it, the fact that no one else has attempted such a thing means the people we've entrusted with security clearance really do take their jobs seriously. "Talk about a glass 999,999 one-millionths full," he says, "rather than one one-millionth empty."

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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