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State Secrets: Ben Franklin and Wikileaks

by Russ Castronovo

By the eve of the American Revolution, the secret correspondence of the colonial governors of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina had been stolen, and its compromising contents soon turned up in colonial newspapers. As the confidential business of imperial administrators entered the public thoroughfares of print culture, the British Empire’s control over communication seemed fragile and incomplete. More than two hundred years later, state secrets of the American empire have been exposed across digital superhighways, thanks to the insouciant journalism of WikiLeaks. It is perhaps more predictable than ironic that the twenty-first-century nation-state that emerged from those eighteenth- century colonies now finds itself unable to regulate the dumping of confidential cables involving everything from military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to unguarded statements from Tony Blair and Hillary Rodham Clinton. To date, the most damaging material released by WikiLeaks has been decrypted video footage of a US Apache helicopter firing upon and killing a Reuters journalist and several others in a public square in Iraq.

The point of this historical collision is not to make WikiLeaks appear old-fashioned, nor is it to make eighteenth-century correspondents out to be precursors of digital activists. Rather, by drawing together the hand-written letters of mercantilist functionaries and electronic communique's from what Manuel Castells calls “the network society,” this essay seeks to insert a critical wedge in the history of the relationships among media, networks, and revolution….


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