WikiLeaks, Part II: Put up or shut up?

A eccentric, secretive hacker-turned-journalist, with a super-encrypted computer network based on secret servers in several countries does battle with the FBI, the Pentagon, international bankers, and the Chinese government – it sounds like this fall’s best new TV series, but it’s playing this summer, in the real world just outside the box. Even as attention focuses on the real-time drama of the Pentagon hunt for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a deeper question remains. If WikiLeaks really has the text of 260,000 classified State Department cables (or some lesser number), should some, all or none be published?

Because WikiLeaks is a Fifth Estate operation, outside the shrinking mainstream of journalism, Assange can do pretty much whatever he wants to do. The question of what WikiLeaks should do with these, or any other, leaked documents that are sent its way, however, is a question that mainstream media also have to answer.

Take, for example, the Pentagon Papers leaked to the New York Times and other newspapers by Daniel Ellsberg, with excerpts first published on June 13, 1971. Ellsberg was an military intelligence analyst employed by the Rand Corporation, and he characterized his disclosure as “7,000 pages of top secret documents that demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents.”

The Nixon administration sued for injunctions to stop publication, getting initial injunctions against the Times and other newspapers, but eventually losing in a 6-3 Supreme Court decision.

Looking back to the historic Pentagon Papers case helps to clarify what’s at stake in the WikiLeaks case now unfolding.

First of all, 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist Barry Manning, who says he leaked the Collateral Murder videos and the 260,000 classified cables to WikiLeaks stands in the position of Daniel Ellsberg. Neither is a journalist and neither makes a claim to be a journalist. Both were arrested for their leaks. Ellsberg’s story of why he leaked the Pentagon Papers has been told repeatedly. Manning’s story of his own motivation is told in the lengthy transcript of his online discussion with the hacker who eventually turned him in:

i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything … was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…

Second, WikiLeaks is in a position similar to that of the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and other newspapers that received leaked documents and had to decide whether to publish them. What are the factors to consider in making such a decision?

The government position

Just by classifying the cables as secret, the U.S. government weighs in against any disclosure. The cables in question go back several years and relate to U.S. diplomatic and intelligence activity in relation to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Disclosure would embarrass officials in other governments who may be frankly and negatively characterized. Disclosure might reveal U.S. policy decisions or motives that would put U.S. officials in a bad light.

In a June 7 briefing, State Department assistant secretary Philip J. Crowley said publishing the cables would result in “compromising our ability to provide government leaders with the kind of analysis that they need to make informed decisions.”

The traditional Fourth Estate

The criteria for disclosing secret information are not always clear, but the mainstream media does publish classified documents. In January, the New York Times published leaked cables from the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, detailing serious criticism of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Back in 2007, Anthony Lewis, a former Times columnist, wrote:

The most important press disclosures in our time have had to do with what the government claims is national security … The government is always quick to claim that the national security sky will fall if a story is published.

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Stephen Colbert that he is committed to publishing all information, along with WikiLeaks’ analysis and interpretation:

Free speech is what regulates government and regulates law. … The promise we make to our sources … We will try and get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us …Our promise to the public is that we will release the full source material … So if people have a different opinion, the full material is there for them to analyze and assess …

In a telling interchange, Assange told New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian that his “harm-minimization policy” would warn some people named in documents before publication, but that WikiLeaks might also get “blood on our hands.”

That’s where Assange parts company with other notable anti-secrecy advocates. Daniel Ellsberg, who has obviously given these matters a lot of thought, told The Daily Beast that he disagrees with Assange’s talk about publishing everything, but, “Frankly, I don’t know whether he would really act on that.”

Whether to put up all of the information on the internet or to shut up, when it comes to classified information, is the threshold question. After the decision on what and how much to publish, the work of journalism continues with editorial decisions, by WikiLeaks and also by all the rest of the Fourth and Fifth Estates, on what to write about the cables, which ones to emphasize, how to analyze their significance and impact, and how to find an audience that cares about any of it.

Classified documents: Put up or shut up?

A eccentric, secretive hacker-turned-journalist, with a super-encrypted computer network based on secret servers in several countries does battle with the FBI, the Pentagon, international bankers, and the Chinese government – it sounds like this fall’s best new TV series, but it’s playing this summer, in the real world just outside the box. Even as attention focuses on the real-time drama of the Pentagon hunt for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a deeper question remains. If WikiLeaks really has the text of 260,000 classified State Department cables (or some lesser number), should some, all or none be published?

Because WikiLeaks is a Fifth Estate operation, outside the shrinking mainstream of journalism, Assange can do pretty much whatever he wants to do. The question of what WikiLeaks should do with these, or any other, leaked documents that are sent its way, however, is a question that mainstream media also have to answer.

Take, for example, the Pentagon Papers leaked to the New York Times and other newspapers by Daniel Ellsberg, with excerpts first published on June 13, 1971. Ellsberg was an military intelligence analyst employed by the Rand Corporation, and he characterized his disclosure as “7,000 pages of top secret documents that demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents.”

The Nixon administration sued for injunctions to stop publication, getting initial injunctions against the Times and other newspapers, but eventually losing in a 6-3 Supreme Court decision.

Looking back to the historic Pentagon Papers case helps to clarify what’s at stake in the WikiLeaks case now unfolding.

First of all, 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist Barry Manning, who says he leaked the Collateral Murder videos and the 260,000 classified cables to WikiLeaks stands in the position of Daniel Ellsberg. Neither is a journalist and neither makes a claim to be a journalist. Both were arrested for their leaks. Ellsberg’s story of why he leaked the Pentagon Papers has been told repeatedly. Manning’s story of his own motivation is told in the lengthy transcript of his online discussion with the hacker who eventually turned him in:

i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything … was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…

Second, WikiLeaks is in a position similar to that of the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and other newspapers that received leaked documents and had to decide whether to publish them. What are the factors to consider in making such a decision?

The government position

Just by classifying the cables as secret, the U.S. government weighs in against any disclosure. The cables in question go back several years and relate to U.S. diplomatic and intelligence activity in relation to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Disclosure would embarrass officials in other governments who may be frankly and negatively characterized. Disclosure might reveal U.S. policy decisions or motives that would put U.S. officials in a bad light.

In a June 7 briefing, State Department assistant secretary Philip J. Crowley said publishing the cables would result in “compromising our ability to provide government leaders with the kind of analysis that they need to make informed decisions.”

The traditional Fourth Estate

The criteria for disclosing secret information are not always clear, but the mainstream media does publish classified documents. In January, the New York Times published leaked cables from the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, detailing serious criticism of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Back in 2007, Anthony Lewis, a former Times columnist, wrote:

The most important press disclosures in our time have had to do with what the government claims is national security … The government is always quick to claim that the national security sky will fall if a story is published.

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Stephen Colbert that he is committed to publishing all information, along with WikiLeaks’ analysis and interpretation:

Free speech is what regulates government and regulates law. … The promise we make to our sources … We will try and get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us …Our promise to the public is that we will release the full source material … So if people have a different opinion, the full material is there for them to analyze and assess …

In a telling interchange, Assange told New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian that his “harm-minimization policy” would warn some people named in documents before publication, but that WikiLeaks might also get “blood on our hands.”

That’s where Assange parts company with other notable anti-secrecy advocates. Daniel Ellsberg, who has obviously given these matters a lot of thought, told The Daily Beast that he disagrees with Assange’s talk about publishing everything, but, “Frankly, I don’t know whether he would really act on that.”

Whether to put up all of the information on the internet or to shut up, when it comes to classified information, is the threshold question. After the decision on what and how much to publish, the work of journalism continues with editorial decisions, by WikiLeaks and also by all the rest of the Fourth and Fifth Estates, on what to write about the cables, which ones to emphasize, how to analyze their significance and impact, and how to find an audience that cares about any of it.

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