While WikiLeaks continues to make strong interventions into the global news cycle, important debates have been simmering between editor Julian Assange and international relations scholars about whether or not the more than 2 million US diplomatic cables and State Department records WikiLeaks began publishing in 2010 (2,325,961 to be exact) are relevant to understanding how the world’s super-power operates and if Anglo-American academic institutions in the international relations discipline are biased toward the interests of US empire.

The debate raises difficult questions. Do the cables provide insight into full-spectrum diplomacy, foreign relations, and concepts of sovereignty? If so, how can the indifference of certain prestigious associations and journals in the international relations discipline to WikiLeaks’ material be explained? Do these powerful institutions prefer to turn a blind eye to evidence that shows their theories wanting? Do they operate to provide a distorted view of the world and help prepare international studies graduates for jobs serving questionable US government interests?

Speaking to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine in July 2015, Assange suggested that institutions within the international relations discipline have failed to understand the intersection between current geopolitical and technological developments. Specifically, Assange charged that the US journal International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), published by the prestigious International Studies Association (ISA), would not accept manuscripts based on WikiLeaks’ material.

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Professor of international politics Daniel W. Drezner hit back on July 30 in The Washington Post, arguing that there were other explanations for why the journal was not publishing WikiLeaks’ material. However, he did concede that it is possible that the “structural forces” opposing WikiLeaks were so powerful that a scholar would eschew WikiLeaks’ publications for “fear of being blackballed”.

For the thousands of undergraduate to PhD students, fellows and academic researchers facing a precarious employment market, self-censorship for fear of freezing one’s career is not unlikely. One publicised incident from November 2010 concerning the office of career services at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), which according to The New York Times “grooms future diplomats”, provides the perfect illustration. That year the office sent an email to students warning them against commenting on or posting WikiLeaks’ documents on social media because “engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government”. The warning came to the office through a SIPA alumnus working at the State Department.

Years later, the tone of the warning continued to reverberate through the halls of one of the most reputable universities in the world. In documenting human rights abuses in June 2013 a Columbia University graduate class produced the anonymous academic paper “WikiLeaks and Iraq Body Count: the sum of parts may not add up to the whole — a comparison of two tallies of Iraqi civilian deaths”. The acknowledgements section of their report refers to the 2010 warning email and states that in light of that email it would be “unwise and perhaps unethical to acknowledge all the participating students by name”.

Others participating in a peer-review process have cited additional factors curtailing their use of comprehensive and illuminating WikiLeaks publications. Former US presidential candidate for the Green Party Cynthia McKinney, for example, says that she was forced to scrub her PhD dissertation from any reference of WikiLeaks material.

However Drezner, who is an ISA member and on the ISQ‘s web advisory board, claims that WikiLeaks’ published diplomatic cables “are not nearly as significant as Assange believes” and that the “academic universe is indifferent to WikiLeaks”. A surprising claim, given that international human rights courts have not been indifferent to evidence derived from WikiLeaks’ published cables, including cables that show the insidious ways in which European officials attempt to conceal CIA torture in secret prisons.

To help address the gap in scholarly analysis of the more than 2 million US diplomatic cables and State Department records published by WikiLeaks since 2010, WikiLeaks has produced a new book, The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire, published September 7, 2015.

The book brings together journalists, researchers and experts on international law and foreign policy to examine the current cables and records. The documents are extensive. They expose US efforts — across Bush and Obama administrations — to use bribes and threats to keep the US protected from facing war crimes allegations, conveying the fading effervescence of concepts such as “international justice” or “rule of law” in the face of a superpower that clearly believes that “might makes right”.

Analysts review the efforts US diplomats take to maintain ties with dictators. They examine the meaning of human rights in the context of a global “War on Terror”. Like the cables they seek to illuminate, the 18 chapters of the book touch upon most major regions of the world.

Experts on US foreign policy such as Robert Naiman, Stephen Zunes and Gareth Porter examine cables that reveal US meddling in Syria, US acceptance of Israeli violations of international law, and how the US dealt with the International Atomic Energy Agency in relation to Iranian nuclear development. The book offers a user guide written by WikiLeaks’ investigations editor Sarah Harrison on how to research WikiLeaks’ cables including meta data and content.

Writing in the book’s introduction, Assange proposes that the diplomatic cables provide “the vivisection of a living empire, showing what substance flowed from which state organ and when”. Assange notes in his introduction that academic disciplines outside international relations, and where career aspirations do not go hand in hand with patronage by government institutions, have voluminous coverage of the cables. But the ISA does not accept submissions citing WikiLeaks’ material. Although ISA executive director Mark Boyer denies that the association has a formal policy against publishing WikiLeaks’ material, he says that journal editors have discussed the implications of publishing material that is legally prohibited by the US government.

According to Gabriel J. Michael, author of the Yale Law School paper Who’s Afraid of WikiLeaks? Missed Opportunities in Political Science Research, the ISQ has adopted a “provisional policy” against handling manuscripts that make use of leaked documents if such use could be interpreted as mishandling “classified” material. According to an ISQ editor quoted in Michael’s paper, this policy prohibits direct quotations as well as data mining, and was developed in consultation with legal counsel. Stating that editors are currently “in an untenable position”. According to the editor, ISQ’s policy will remain in place pending broader action from the ISA, which publishes several other disciplinary journals.

The ISA and ISQ concerns about handling material that the US government forbids — which include WikiLeaks’ cables — amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The cables go into the heart of an empire, and reflect on matters that affect everyone.

Without WikiLeaks, the public would still be in the dark about the Trans-Pacific Partnership “agreement” currently being negotiated. The treaty aims to rewrite the global rules on intellectual property rights and would create spheres of trade which would be protected from judicial oversight. Such agreements have the potential to change the fabric of how states operate, and the leaked cables shed light on how states negotiate significant treaties, aiming to keep citizenship participation in politics out. Where academia bans the use of important leaked documents the public loses out.


Next: A history of government censorship, and how Edward Snowden fits in

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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