Redaction Theory


In light of what Assange and WikiLeaks staff are facing it feels really trite to be arguing the finer points of redaction theory.

Yet even at this late stage it is a constant feature of ongoing debate between organisations and journalists and activists who are and/or were allies of WikiLeaks.

Having worked my way through several hundred Snowden documents hosted by The Intercept recently, there are what appears to me to be inconsistencies in the redactions applied. Except there probably aren’t. Because I haven’t got a clue what the caveats are of The Intercept’s redaction practices and therefore what seems to me to be anomalies on the surface may not be at all. So I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t think anyone really has a clue what the finer points of WikiLeaks redaction practices are other than WikiLeaks, either. In fact, the more I look at the redaction agendas of various publications, the less consistency there seems to be across the board.

Usually redaction is talked about as preventing loss of life, limb or liberty. WikiLeaks gets a lot of flack for supposed lack of redaction yet the only people losing life, limb or liberty seem to be WikiLeaks staff and/or affiliates and/or supporters and/or sources. Suggesting that the war on journalism presents a far more grave and present danger than redaction standards for leaked documents.

In Glenn Greenwald’s recent interview with author Naomi Klein about this very topic of redaction, The Intercept’s standards were described as including prevention of embarrassment or career impact for private citizens, specifically, targets of the NSA whose private communications form part of the Snowden archive.

There is a very strong chance given what has recently come to light in my own situation, that I am one of the very targets whose personal communications were being harvested by the NSA in Hawaii in 2012.

This gives me a unique perspective on the whole drama: not the perspective of a publisher, or even of a journalist, or of a WikiLeaks supporter or detractor: but that of a victim of the intelligence agencies.

If this is in fact the case, there is no doubt that the contents of the documents pertaining to me would be humiliating or damaging. They would presumably include me discussing extremely personal facets of the struggles I was going through at that time and in the preceding years.

Just as one hideous example, they would detail how a direct conflict with estranged members of my extended family due to malicious, untrue rumours that were being spread about me caused me to lose my breast milk when I was nursing my then-infant son.

(Yup, I just said it. Breast milk. Welcome to real life. It’s ugly, it’s complex, it’s painful and it’s a whole lot better to talk about it yourself than live in fear that someday someone else will.)

And that is probably the least of it.

In principle, the idea that The Intercept would want to protect me by not releasing such intimate details of my life that they righteously see as not being in the public interest to do so, is noble and I should feel grateful to them for that consideration. I do feel grateful that they want to protect innocent people. I do think their intentions are good. But in practice, the withholding of any knowledge of me having been a victim of the agency has not protected me and the idea that the NSA have been targeting the private communications of young middle class white mothers from the suburbs rather than actual terrorists absolutely is in the public interest.

In fact, until the white, middle class public of the West begins to realise that their intelligence agencies have been inappropriately collecting such emotionally-charged, highly invasive materials, that should be completely irrelevant to the government, let alone the military, and doing it to people just like themselves, rather than to people with Arabic-sounding names, or those of minority groups, then the full impact of the Snowden archives will never really hit home for them. They will remain cloaked in their biases and empowered by their otherisation of the problem, until the day they realise it literally is their communications in play and those of their loved ones.

Therefore some of the redactions being made, some of the documents being withheld, may actually be preventing the change that would naturally occur were the public able to understand that the vast majority of the archives likely contain material that should never have been held by the NSA, on targets that they had no real right to ever be violating the privacy of in the first place.

More, there is a lack of understanding among publishers of the holistic nature of the targeting. If the NSA is collecting your personal information, that isn’t all that’s happening to you. Such targets are attacked in tandem by various agencies from the top all the way down to the local level. Who by and by what methods, has been documented in my film ‘Diary of a Person of Interest.

Therefore the idea that our reputations or feelings remain in tact because information about us has been redacted, is fantasy. Targets like me have already been humiliated, violated, attacked, vilified, sabotaged, isolated, harassed and endangered in so many ways that we get to a point were we are almost beyond embarassment. Where we self-expose as a mechanism of self-protection, just as I did above, because we expect to be attacked by every possible vector anyway.

To finally see what it is these agencies have collected about us is in fact the only hope for closure, the only way to begin to obtain any justice and the most meaningful way for people in our lives to really begin to understand the gravity of what has been done to us.

The data is ours. It belongs to us.

It matters little to me whether it is the NSA or the GCSB or Snowden or The Intercept or whoever else, that obtains and pours over it if they continue to withhold my own data from me. What is the difference? It is the same violation regardless of the varying motives of the parties involved. To merely refrain from publishing it is not enough. In my opinion, any data that has been deemed not in the public interest and not fair game for publishing, should be returned to its rightful owner, who should get to call the shots on what happens to it from that point on. But that’s just my two cents worth.

As Julian famously said “You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way we can get anywhere.”

The legal considerations are another kettle of fish. More than once, I engaged in debate with Stanley Cohen, about the establishment and conduct of The Intercept. I took a position in its defence. Stanley wanted the Snowden archives to be open for potential use in lawsuits by clients who were potentially affected, and took umbrage at various aspects of the way the archives were handled along with the establishment and financial backing of The Intercept itself.

I had assessed the position Greenwald and co would likely have been in, in possession of the archives and trying to balance how to get the best exposure for the content against the clear and present danger of being associated with the most wanted man in the world at that time.

The truth is, there are pluses and minuses to both The Intercept and WikiLeaks’ redaction practices.

The strength of WikiLeaks is that the document dumps allow affected parties including lawyers to trawl through relevant information and act on it immediately. As both Julian Assange and Sarah Harrison have repeatedly pointed out, there are countless instances of case law, successful prosecutions and even exonerations that have arisen directly from information published by WikiLeaks. The drawback is that the minimalist redaction practices draw criticism of callousness, whether real or imagined. Also, the dumps can be too soon forgotten. Such as the GIFiles, from which the TrapWire revelations came. That release alone is a treasure trove that is yet to ever be fully explored or appreciated. Hot on the heels of Barrett Brown’s incarceration, the files became all but… I want to say, documenta non grata to invent yet another new term. It was like TrapWire burned so many of us so badly that it was simply set aside. I remain convinced that we have barely scratched the surface of what lies within the Stratfor files. If the dumps are too frequent or if there are not enough hands on deck there is a real risk that too much goes unnoticed. But that is where we need to train journalists to better use the archives and encourage them to do so, and where we can hope that in the future decades if not centuries, this monolithic library that WikiLeaks has created will remain accessible and valuable to generations yet to come.

The strength of The Intercept’s approach is that they have prolonged the interest and relevance of the Snowden archive and thus increased its impact. The drip-drip-drip approach is the stuff of nightmares for the US administration. In fact, the dripfeed approach was practised by WikiLeaks to amazing effect during the recent U.S. election. The downside to The Intercept’s approach is that the information simply isn’t available to those who are personally impacted by it. The Intercept have become the gatekeepers of the data, for better or worse.

I still stand by the arguments I made in defence of The Intercept in 2013/2014 and I still respect Stanley’s as well. It is doubly interesting to me to re-read the points I made and realise that back then, I felt that the release of any targeting information on me could have become a mortal danger to me at that time, when I was still in New Zealand and being actively targeted daily. I trust my then-self to have made that call accurately. I was pretty far up shit creek myself and given that I’ve recently become the first New Zealand journalist to seek temporary asylum in Russia, still am. Now, with nearly another three year’s water under the bridge, I’m so sick of the whole thing I just want to know once and for all what happened to me so I can have peace of mind and move on.

For those who are familiar with my work and have seen my documentary it must seem that the things I do know are pretty horrific. But actually it’s the things I still don’t know for sure that really hurt.

Written by Suzie Dawson

Twitter: @Suzi3D

Official Website:

Journalists who write truth pay a high price to do so. Suzie certainly has. If you respect and value this work, please consider supporting Suzie’s efforts via credit card or Bitcoin donation at this link. Thank you!