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Sep 26, 2011

WikiLeaks: 'the redacted' and what it means to them

They have been called spies, collaborators and lackeys, their lives have been threatened and some have had their careers destroyed. They are "the redacted", write Grahame Bowland and Luke Miller.

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They have been called spies, collaborators and lackeys, their lives have been threatened and some have had their careers destroyed. They are “the redacted”, the third parties that supplied local information to US diplomatic outposts that was deemed sensitive enough that the US State Department co-operated with its bête noire, WikiLeaks, to censor the names of the informers as the cables were being published.

Censored, that is, until last month when the full collection of unedited cables, including the names of the redacted, was made publicly available.

But what does it really mean to be redacted? Crikey tracked down and spoke to one source working in a war-torn country whose conversation with the US embassy was initially hidden then revealed by WikiLeaks.

Our contact was the first this person, a journalist, had heard of their appearance in the cables.

Far from meeting with the diplomat for the purposes of keeping the US informed on local issues, as the cable contents have often been cast, in this case the journalist had in fact approached the embassy to “seek reaction” for a story. Noting that they had an “on-the-record interview” and that “I played it for a US diplomat to seek reaction for the story I was writing based on my interview”, the journalist adds that the interview they took to the US embassy was “on tape for public consumption; if it had been off the record, I wouldn’t have shared it”.

When asked why the US might have wanted to protect the name of the journalist (one of 10,000 redactions) and whether their life was now endangered, the source is circumspect: “I can’t speak to why the US requested my name be redacted. The issue isn’t particularly sensitive any more. I don’t feel my life is threatened — but I also have no plans to head back to [that country] any time soon. If I did, I might feel differently.”

While at least one journalist, Wadah Khanfar from Al Jazeera, has apparently lost his job due to appearances in the cables, our source was unconcerned about professional repercussions of appearing in a secret US diplomatic cable.

“I don’t think the cable’s publication should cause me any professional problems,” he told Crikey. “Relaying on-the-record comments in an effort to seek reaction to them is fairly standard practice.”

Many of the people mentioned in the cables are caught in the cross-fire between the global super power and the world’s free press. The vast majority of the redacted are, as one former WikiLeaks staffer summarised, “activists, opposition politicians, bloggers in autocratic regimes and their real identities, victims of crime and political coercion”, with a healthy number of local and expatriate business people and journalists in the mix.

What percentage of them were unaware that the US was collating their information into a database? Has the US helped these people by trying to hide their names, or will the tinge of subterfuge cause them more problems? Are redactions an effective tool or wasted effort in the information age? These are questions not just for governments but for journalists. With such large datasets to handle, can organisations such as WikiLeaks scale their methods to match their ideals?

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