War secrets, WikiLeaks and journalism

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. WikiLeaks has released more than 90,000 secret U.S. documents to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. In exchange for the information, the three newspapers have now published their stories, simultaneously, at the same time that WikiLeaks made its archive public.

The documents show what the Guardian calls a blow-by-blow account of the war in Afghanistan from 2004-2009, including:

• How a secret “black” unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

• How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

The New York Times leads with

deep suspicions among American officials that Pakistan’s military spy service has for years guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants.

The Guardian’s Afghanistan: The War Logs and the New York Times’ The War Logs feature numerous articles, video, texts of some of the documents, and interactive features.

Meanwhile, the alleged source of the documents, 22-year-old intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, sits in a military jail somewhere in Kuwait, facing trial by court martial.

Classified documents: Put up or shut up?

The U.S. government strongly condemned the publication of secret documents, called the leaks “irresponsible,” and said the publication would not affect U.S. policy.

The White House was not alone in criticizing WikiLeaks. Back in June, Steven Aftergood condemned WikiLeaks on the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy News website as “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.”

The journalistic question remains: What are the criteria for publishing secret documents and for judging the publication? This question remains highly relevant, as WikiLeaks has more documents, as yet unreleased, and may obtain still more in the future. The Guardian explains:

Washington fears it may have lost even more highly sensitive material including an archive of tens of thousands of cable messages sent by US embassies around the world, reflecting arms deals, trade talks, secret meetings and uncensored opinion of other governments.

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 leaked documents 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 a 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 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 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.

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.”

According to the Guardian, WikiLeaks “says it has been careful to weed out material which could jeopardise human sources.”

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.

While Ellsberg may have reservations about WikiLeaks, he “has described Manning as ‘a new hero of mine,'” according to the Guardian.

Does WikiLeaks do journalism?

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 is what constitutes journalism. 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 story is far from over, reports the Guardian:

Wikileaks‘ founder, Julian Assange, says that in the last two months they have received yet another huge batch of “high-quality material” from military sources and that officers from the Pentagon’s criminal investigations department have asked him to meet them on neutral territory to help them plug the sequence of leaks. He has not agreed to do so.

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