President Obama’s emerging strategy to prosecute WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, over the leaked State Department cables amounts to a potentially dangerous assault on freedom of the press. Or so I argue in the Guardian.
My Northeastern colleague Nicholas Daniloff, a former foreign correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and UPI, was interviewed by the university press office earlier this week about the WikiLeaks story.
Daniloff offers some sharp insights, arguing that the document dump was more good than bad, and that the New York Times acted responsibly by giving the White House an opportunity to request redactions — some of which the Times went along with, some of which it didn’t. Daniloff adds:
[O]ver the long run, a great deal of this will be forgotten or swept under the rug, although older diplomats may well tell young diplomats, “Be careful with the Americans. They are so leaky that what you say may eventually come out. Be discreet; after all, you wouldn’t make copies of your love letters would you?”
Governments must finally acknowledge that secrets shared with millions of “cleared” officials, including lowly army clerks, are not secret. They must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make.
Meanwhile, Interpol has heightened its efforts to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on sexual-assault charges. This Times story makes it sound like the agency isn’t trying very hard. It makes you wonder whether Western governments truly want to bring Assange to justice — or are just trying to discredit him.
Northeastern University photo by Lauren McFalls.
The latest WikiLeaks document dump gives us all much to think about. Unlike the earlier materials, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest revelations might actually make it more difficult for the United States to conduct foreign policy.
Is the world safer or less safe today now that we know King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has urged the U.S. to take out Iran’s nuclear-weapons-in-the-making? Or doesn’t it matter? And would the documents be seen in a different light if the New York Times, the Guardian et al. had done nothing and let WikiLeaks release them on its own accord?
Like most journalists, I want to see as much information out there as possible. When government officials talk about the need for secrecy, I’m naturally suspicious. Yet as Timothy Garton Ash observes in the Guardian, secrecy is surely a tool that the State Department needs to use on occasion. He writes:
How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A State Department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are “going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.” The conduct of government is already hampered by fear of leaks. An academic friend of mine who worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice told me that he had once suggested writing a memo posing fundamental questions about U.S. policy in Iraq. “Don’t even think of it,” he was warned — because it would be sure to appear in the next day’s New York Times.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., sounds as though he wants WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be tried and executed. I think we can safely dismiss rants like that while still wondering whether there was a legitimate need to keep these matters secret.
I have not yet come up with an answer to that question. What I do know is that information technology now makes it possible for a group like WikiLeaks to dump far more dangerous documents than these into the public realm. Say what you will about traditional news organizations like the Times, but at least they give the government an opportunity to make a case as to why such documents shouldn’t be released.
One thing’s for sure: if the government is serious about keeping its secrets, it needs to do a much better job of protecting them.
This Wednesday I’ll be moderating a conversation on “Legal Liability in the Age of Wikileaks,” starring two terrific First Amendment lawyers — Rob Bertsche of Prince Lobel and Jon Albano of Bingham McCutcheon.
The program is being sponsored by Hacks/Hackers of Boston, which brings together journalists and technology folks. We’ll schmooze from 6 to 7 p.m. and get down to business from 7 to 8. I hope you’ll join us.
The session will be held in the student lounge at Boston University’s College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, just click here.
Why did WikiLeaks work with traditional news organizations rather than go it alone in releasing the Afghanistan war logs?
In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange learned from the way he handled the Apache helicopter video earlier this year that sometimes it’s better to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee. And that Stephen Colbert was right.
The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.
In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.
I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)
By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.
I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.
I think it’s only right that all of us hold off before offering any judgments on the astonishing video published by WikiLeaks yesterday showing a U.S. Apache helicopter killing 12 Iraqis, including a Reuters photographer and his driver. The U.S. military has confirmed the 2007 video’s authenticity, according to the New York Times.
I watched the entire 17-minute-plus video last night (there is also an unedited, 38-minute version), and my main reaction — other than horror — was one of cognitive dissonance. The audio made it clear that the American crew believed the people on the ground were armed combatants. The video told an entirely different story: men walking around, seemingly not up to much of anything in particular.
And no, I’m not offended by the American crew members’ bantering. If they had good reason to believe they were shooting at a legitimate target, so what? The real question is why they held that belief.
Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of the story. What this calls for is further investigation.
The BBC has some background on WikiLeaks, which is hosted mainly in Sweden.