Neither the Web operation WikiLeaks, nor its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, is a whistle-blower.
Whistle-blowers are people who observe what they believe to be unethical or illegal conduct in the places where they work and report it to the media. In so doing, they put their jobs at risk.
The whistle-blower in this case is Bradley Manning, an United States Army intelligence analyst who downloaded a huge amount of government classified information, which was made public by WikiLeaks. Whether or not Manning’s act serves the greater public interest is a contentious issue, but he has been arrested and charged with unlawful disclosure of classified data.
Some have compared the role of WikiLeaks to that of The New York Times in the publication of the Pentagon Papers several decades ago. WikiLeaks is the publishing platform that leverages the vast and instantaneous distribution capacity of the Internet.
The WikiLeaks data dump challenges a long held belief by many of us who study whistle-blowing — that it is important that the whistle-blower have a name and face so that the disclosures are not considered just anonymous griping, or possibly unethical activity. The public needs to see the human face of someone who stands up and does the right thing when none of his or her colleagues dare.
WikiLeaks’ release of the secret cables seems to have changed all that. There is something about the power of so much raw data that seems to take on a life of its own. One can only imagine that there will be other whistle-blowers using similar strategies. This will depend very little on the survival of WikiLeaks, but rather, the ability of the Web to make public vast amounts of data. For better and worse, this changes whistle-blowing as we’ve known it.
C. Fred Alford is a professor of government at the University of Maryland and the author of “Whistleblowing: Broken Lives and Organizational Power.”