April 15, 2024

Link by Link: A Wiki Takes Aim at Obama

WikiLeaks suddenly became a household name,” he said, and he thought, “Amid all of this bad behavior, there is a certain genius going on there.”

Last week, in an attempt to tap into that genius, Crossroads began Wikicountability.org, a collaborative Web site intended to create a database of freedom of information requests that scrutinize the actions of the Obama administration.

Many companies and organizations, including the United States Army, have seized on the Wikipedia model to encourage their members to build up information collaboratively. This seems to be an early effort to use the idea behind WikiLeaks, a repository of secretive or difficult-to-obtain documents, for a specific political end.

In much the same way news outlets have tried to harness social networking tools to improve their reports and then popularize them, Crossroads GPS is experimenting with a system of distributed accountability (or distributed opposition research, if you prefer).

“One of the advantages of the wiki platform that led us to want to develop the site,” Mr. Law said, is that you can “crowd-source both the information and analysis of the information.”

Crossroads GPS, or Grassroots Policy Strategies, is a political group conceived in part by Mr. Rove after he left the Bush White House in 2007. Because of its tax designation it is supposed to focus primarily on issues rather than candidates, and Mr. Law described how Wikicountability was concentrating on topics like health care and high speed rail. The organization was the vehicle for millions of dollars of ads during the 2010 Congressional campaign.

The fact that a conservative organization has adopted the wiki brand speaks to the widespread recognition of the collective power of a networked audience, whether for building an encyclopedia or scrutinizing a cabinet secretary’s travel expenses.

Mr. Law said it had not been hard to get people to work on Wikicountability. “Obviously WikiLeaks has a very bad brand among conservatives,” he said, “but Wikipedia is almost as mainstream as Facebook or Twitter.”

The site is clearly a work in progress: while it publishes new articles each day, they come from only a few contributors. It began with some documents that set the tone: a list of union leaders who were met in 2009 by the secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, and the production costs for an advertisement for Medicare featuring Andy Griffith ($404,000).

When it is working as envisioned, Mr. Law said, Wikicountability will have a community “of several dozen groups or participants,” who will either post material they have obtained from their own requests or analyze what others have put up.

Unlike Wikipedia, users must apply for editing privileges. “We would do some vetting” of applicants to become editors, he said, “a balance between complete openness and some management to ensure that the larger purposes don’t get frustrated by those who don’t wish the project well.”

“We have a point of view,” Mr. Law said.

Wikicountability is taking pains to distinguish itself from WikiLeaks, explaining that its policy is “not to solicit or knowingly accept for publication documents which disclose information that is classified, legally privileged or subject to the established statutory exceptions under FOIA.”

For now, Mr. Law said, the site has focused on educating potential contributors about requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“The first hurdle we are spending time overcoming is a lack of understanding of the FOIA process,” he said. “People automatically assume only journalists can file FOIA requests.”

Mr. Law said he hoped the site could draw attention to what he described as the poor record of compliance by the Obama administration; many of the articles on Wikicountability concern as yet unanswered requests for information from the government.

Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute located at George Washington University, said he had questions about how committed Crossroads GPS was to running a site that would bring transparency to government actions. He said he thought its true motive might be to attract donors.

Still, he said, improved transparency required a “constant push to get the government to be accountable, a perfect storm of outsiders, reporters, interest groups (partisan or not), making common cause with inside reformers.”

He said that while he believed the Obama administration was genuinely trying to become more compliant on disclosure issues, the bureaucracy had been hard to move. “There is still huge gap between the really strong message on high and the actual performance of the agencies — that is mixed,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=a52ee3110bedf3db8cd2b1dba4982b5d

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