WikiLeaks, Part I: Journalism and national secrets

In a nutshell: the Pentagon says that 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist, Bradley Manning leaked 260,000 classified cables to WikiLeaks, and it’s worried that WikiLeaks is going to publish them. Manning, who was stationed in Baghdad, was arrested about three weeks ago and is being held in Kuwait, according to The Daily Beast.  The Pentagon is hunting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is staying away from U.S. soil. Since WikiLeaks hasn’t yet published the cables, Assange isn’t a U.S. citizen, and the operation is based outside the United States, the U.S. government has little leverage and “just wants to talk.”

Meanwhile, the hunt has the blogosphere buzzing and Twitter ticking multiple times each minute. Mainstream media, from the New Yorker to the Guardian to the Columbia Journalism Review have also picked up on the story, which raises issues of freedom of the press, limits, and who counts as press

Does WikiLeaks do journalism?

That’s the question that comes up repeatedly in discussion of the traditional journalism of the Fourth Estate and the new media/alternative media/blogger/citizen journalist universe of the still-emerging Fifth Estate. WikiLeaks lives in cyberspace, something more than a blog and less than, or at least different from, a news site.

Assange created WikiLeaks as a hyper-encrypted safe space for leakers. He told the New Yorker that it would be particularly useful to people in countries with authoritarian governments, especially in countries of China, Russia and Central Eurasia. Targets of its revelations include a British bank, Kenyan politicos, and the Church of Scientology. WikiLeaks has been banned in China, and has won an award from Amnesty International. Its most widely-viewed production is the Collateral Murder video, “a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff.” The New Yorker’s June 7 edition has a fascinating account of the cloak-and-dagger operation in Iceland as Assange and his team double-checked and prepared that footage for release.

On its website, WikiLeaks claims to be “a media organization” and says it “is afforded press protections in countries that have such protections.” If WikiLeaks is part of the press, then it may have substantially more legal protection than, say, a political advocacy group.

WikiLeaks describes its process of testing materials it receives for authenticity:

WikiLeaks staff examine all documents and label any suspicions of inauthenticity based on a forensic analysis of the document, means, motive and opportunity, cost of forgery, what the authoring organization claims and so on. …

WikiLeaks believes that best way to truly determine if a story is authentic, is not just our expertise, but to provide the full source document to the broader community – and particularly the community of interest around the document. …

Journalists and governments are often duped by forged documents. It is hard for most reporters to outsmart the skill of intelligence agency frauds. WikiLeaks, by bringing the collective wisdoms and experiences of thousands to politically important documents will unmask frauds like never before.

In the New Yorker interview, Assange said the mission of WikiLeaks was to expose injustice, but also described what he called its practice of “scientific journalism:”

WikiLeaks receives about thirty submissions a day, and typically posts the ones it deems credible in their raw, unedited state, with commentary alongside. Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.”

The official position

The U.S. government doesn’t think that what WikiLeaks is doing should be called journalism. Wired.com cites a secret, 32-page, 2008 Defense Department report WikiLeaks.org – An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups? The report, which was posted on the WikiLeaks site, appears to be genuine but, said Wired.com, “could not be independently verified.” The report poses the question, “Is it Free Speech or Illegal Speech?” and then answers:

WikiLeaks.org allows anonymous publication of information and records without oversight or accountability; anyone can post information to the Web site, and there is no editorial review, fact checking, or oversight of the posted information. Persons accessing the Web site are encouraged to form their own opinions regarding the accuracy of the information and are allowed to post their own comments.

… The contention by some is that WikiLeaks.org does not qualify as a news organization and thus its staff writers are not journalists. WikiLeaks.org‘s desire to expose alleged wrongdoing by revealing sensitive or classified government or business information, in effect, encourages the theft of sensitive or classified proprietary information or intellectual property.

Aside from the direct conflict in the way that DoD describes WikiLeaks lack of editorial review, and WikiLeaks’ own description of its process, the report never quite answers its own question about free speech and illegal speech. Of course, it’s possible that free speech and illegal speech can occur simultaneously. If the young Army intelligence specialist took an oath of secrecy or was legally prohibited from disclosing classified documents, his revelation of secret information could be “illegal speech” – not because it is speech, but because he has violated a contract or oath.

Those legal constraints, however, do not apply to the media, which often publish classified documents without facing any legal penalty. WikiLeaks claims protection, both for its publications and for its protection of the identity of sources, under the laws of Sweden and Belgium as well as the other countries where it operates. While it’s hardly traditional, WikiLeaks is doing a new kind of journalism.

* * * *

More on the story:

Pentagon Manhunt by Philip Shenon, Blogs & Stories, The Daily Beast

The State Department’s Worst Nightmare by Philip Shenon, Blogs & Stories, The Daily Beast

No Secrets: Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency by Raffi Khatchadourian in the New Yorker

Suspected WikiLeaks Source Describes Crisis of Conscience Leading to Leaks by Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter, Threat Level blog, Columbia Journalism Review

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