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WikiLeaks' Afghan War Reports Stir Debates On Journalism, Law

The Australian founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, holds up a copy of "The Guardian" at a press conference in London on July 26.
The Australian founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, holds up a copy of "The Guardian" at a press conference in London on July 26.
By Ron Synovitz
As the Pentagon investigates the potential damage from the leak of more than 91,000 classified U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan, the leak is fueling debate about the role of whistle-blowers as journalistic sources in the age of digital data.

WikiLeaks, a website that tries to foster policy debates by making classified information available to the public, received the cache of documents from sources it will not disclose. Wikileaks then passed the materials on to three media organizations -- "The New York Times," "The Guardian" newspaper in the United Kingdom, and "Der Spiegel" magazine in Germany.

Officials in Washington say they are concerned the leaks pose a national security threat and may endanger people in Afghanistan or Pakistan who have worked against the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

"The State Department joins the White House and [the Department of Defense] in condemning the disclosure of classified information by WikiLeaks," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "The fact that these are in many cases documents that are several years old does not change our concern that this action risks our national security."

Included in the files are disclosures that coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in incidents that went officially unreported.
The U.S. Army announced today that it was opening a criminal investigation aimed at finding the source of the leaks.

'Maximizing Impact'

WikiLeaks has hundreds of unpaid volunteers from around the world who help maintain the website's complicated infrastructure. By running off of an array of Internet servers in many countries, WikiLeaks has been able to prevent any single government from shutting down its website.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told RFE/RL today that he decided to share the documents with "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "Der Spiegel" because those are "the most influential press organizations" within the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Assange explained that his motivation is to reform systems where abuses are covered up by officials who classify documents in order to keep politically sensitive information from becoming public.

"The vision behind [WikiLeaks] is really quite ancient. In order to make any sensible decision, you need to know what actually is going on. In order to make any just decision, you need to understand what abuses or plans for abuse are occurring," Assange said. "As technologists, we can see that big reforms come quickly when the public and decision makers can see what is really going on."

Assange also explained that by sharing the cache of documents with major news organizations, Wikileaks was able to keep its promise to the whistle-blower who provided his organization with the information.

"We make a promise to our sources. One, that we will do everything in our power, technically and legally, to protect them. Two, that we are going to maximize the impact of the submissions that they make to us," Assange said. "And we believe, in this case, [sharing the material with 'The New York Times,' 'The Guardian,' and 'Der Spiegel'] was the way to maximize impact."

Pentagon Papers 2.0

Comparisons are being made to the so-called "Pentagon Papers" case of 1971, when former U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, while employed by the RAND Corporation, released 7,000 pages of a top-secret Pentagon study on the Vietnam conflict to "The New York Times" and other newspapers.

"I do see an analogy to the situation I was in 40 years ago," Ellsberg said during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Show" today.

The administration of then-President Richard Nixon tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, but was defeated in the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post's" right, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to publish the material.

Tom Glaisyer, a Knight media-policy fellow at the New America Foundation, says that the Afghan war reports are a kind of Pentagon Papers case in the age of the Internet.

"There has always been a delicate balance between national security and the public interest, and it's been struck in the Pentagon Papers very much in favor of giving journalists and newspapers the ability to publish all but the most sensitive -- time sensitive -- of data," Glaisyer says.

"The fact of the matter is that we are entering a world where there is an awful lot more digital data around, and there is a great possibility that it can be transferred and shared very quickly. The world is going to change. We have to get used to journalism in a world of digital data."

Assange, for his part, welcomes the comparisons with Ellsberg, saying he has "great respect" for Ellsberg and "the work that he has done -- and has continued to do -- in promoting the importance of the role of whistle-blowers and their role in society."

Brave New Media World

Chris Anderson, who also is a Knight media-policy fellow at the New America Foundation, says WikiLeaks may represent the beginning of a new era in journalism -- an era of Internet whistle-blowers who serve as intermediary sources for investigative reporters.

Still, Anderson warns that journalists need to ensure that intermediaries are reliable. "No one knows what WikiLeaks is," he says. "I mean, they don't fit any of the categories of types of organizations that we are used to thinking about. They're not really journalism. They're not really hackers. They're not really activists. They are something new."

Anderson also cites the example set by Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. "They are both doing the same thing, except one is an organization and one is a person," he says. "We need to trust them, but interrogate them in the same way we would with any person who has got their hands on data that may cause harm or may help serve the public interest."

Anderson insists that the world of "digital data" is creating "a very different world" -- a world where it is much easier for whistle-blowers to leak classified information and remain anonymous, but where traditional journalism will remain relevant.

"WikiLeaks could have very easily just put all these documents up online themselves. I think it actually speaks very highly of the future of some form of institutional professional journalism that they worked with 'The New York Times' and 'The Guardian' on these stories because they technologically didn't need to," Anderson says.

"So I think it actually says more about why traditional institutions are still relevant. But it does show that there is a new ecosystem developing. It isn't simply newspapers having relationships with sources anymore. There are other groups and organizations and layers involved now."

Journalism More Than Just Sources


Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agrees that basic journalism is still necessary to verify and substantiate information provided by groups like WikiLeaks.

"The service that they have been providing up to now is that of a source of documents. But documents are not journalism. Documents can mislead as easily as any other source. The function of journalism still needs to be carried out as carefully and responsibly as possible," Aftergood says.

"That means confirming the accuracy of the content of any particular document. It means placing it in some kind of political or policy context, and it means collecting a range of interpretations of the significance."

Assange said he also agrees, insisting that anyone who reads the Afghan war reports should closely examine the reliability of the original sources, especially for U.S. military reports that are based on information from an informer.

"We need to look at these reports in a subtle way. A lot of material is included," Assange said. "There are 91,000 reports from units in the field, from embassies in relation to Afghanistan, intelligence officers, and from informers. The informers make their reports for money. They are paid by the United States government for making serious allegations. They make reports to knock out a competitor, a detested neighbor or a family enemy -- and they also make reports for legitimate reasons."

Assange told RFE/RL today that he has not been threatened with any court order or legal proceedings because of leaking the Afghan war reports. Assange said he also was not aware of any such threats against "The New York Times," "The Guardian," or "Der Spiegel."

John Attanasio, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University's Deadman School of Law, says he doesn't think charges will be brought against WikiLeaks by the U.S. government because of the Afghan war reports. But Attanasio says the incident is sure to fuel professional and legal debates around the world in the years ahead.

"There are going to be journalists who are going to debate this and how this kind of activity implicates the profession, and I think journalists should debate this," Attanasio says. "But I also think, because of the international nature of the blogosphere, it's going to get debated in more than the American legal system."

contributors to this report include Ladan Nekoomaram of RFE/RL's Radio Farda in Washington and Christopher Schwartz in Prague
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: K Doyle from: California
July 27, 2010 17:20
Assange is a world hero. If the day ever comes when you can shine a light under a rock and find the cockroaches like Cheney and Lieberman aren't there to squirm, that is the day you don't need people like Assange anymore. The True Believers will forge ahead right over a cliff just like the lemmings they are. They'd prefer that the American People (which includes them, BTW) be kept in the dark so that they can't see that they're marching into a wall. If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. I hope the day will come, that attempts to keep secrets always becomes far more of a liability than an advantage-- seems like that day isn't too far off. Government needs the light of day shined on it far more than anyone else, because otherwise they just can't seem to keep their noses clean...
In Response

by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
July 28, 2010 02:31
Dear Sir, I would like to agree with you, but I have a darker view of human nature. My experience has confirmed the quote made by George Orwell, “Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Americans don’t want to have their materialistic and shallow dreams disturbed by the revelations provided by wiki-leaks. We will continue to arm the better part of the planet to preserve these dreams. And hate to break this news to you, but this is a global problem. Most men (regardless of nationality) prefer the darkness of ignorance over enlightenment.

by: locomotivebreath1901 from: Texas
July 28, 2010 00:25
(Ed. Note: Spelling corrected. Use this comment, guys.)

We are in the middle of a multi-lateral war. Coalition soldier's lives are in jeopardy, and this Assange clown is publishing secret info for propaganda purposes.

Ol' Joe Goebbels could've used a guy like Assange.

Julian Assange is a war criminal. He should be arrested and prosecuted accordingly for aiding and abetting the enemies of coalition soldiers; Cowardly enemies who have no qualms about hiding behind women and children.

Ask the Taliban how many civilian deaths are the tragic consequence of THEIR collateral damage. (hint: it's much, much higher than death from coalition forces) Then ask the Taliban if it gives a steamy pile of dog squeeze about those civilian deaths! (right before they blow YOUR head off)

Ain't it strange how Wiki Licks proudly publishes ONLY classified info from the U.S. of A., but none from brutal thug-o-cracies like Iran, or N. Korea, or Cuba, or Sudan?

Julian Assange is a war criminal. He should be arrested and prosecuted accordingly.

In Response

by: Seyran from: Armenia
July 28, 2010 07:12
"Ain't it strange how Wiki Licks proudly publishes ONLY classified info from the U.S. of A., but none from brutal thug-o-cracies like Iran, or N. Korea, or Cuba, or Sudan?"

The USA has been occupying of that since the very beginning of all its conflicts with other countries. Releasing propaganda for nothing more than propaganda purposes has been No. 1 top priority of the USA since well, forever.

I don't see anything wrong here, it is a good deuce. Why? Well, we every single day hear about how bad is Fidel Castro, how much of a bad guy is Ahmadinejad, how many crimes the Taliban and practically every single military group in the Middle East does. You have picked up every single thing that has shown opposition or question USA in the world and made it as evil and horrible as Satan himself. We all know that story, it is always the same story, it is just different "bad guys".

Yet, where is the other part of the story? We all know the quantity of war crimes and related atrocities the USA and its backed forces have committed pretty much since WWII. Now don't get me wrong, the "Commies" and their allies also committed many war crimes, atrocities, and horrible things which we all know now, and the Arabs and Muslim have committed many atrocities as well and keep doing so, many against their own people...so I am being equal.

But reality is, in your "War on Terror", which any intelligent person can see its real objective through, there are no "bad guy" Taliban/Arabs/Muslims and "good guys" USA and allies....to me, to any regular person, and to any normal folk living in the war zones...you all can be put in one single bag: "persons who have done damage [to us] and keep doing it".

We know what your "bringing democracy" to Afghanistan and Iraq means, and we know what their "Death to America" means as well. We have all been fed your American propaganda, it's a good time now to hear the other side of the story, and if there can be a single place in this world where we can see what you are really doing there, that is WikiLeaks.

So, blame no one of being a war criminal, Mr. Texan. For any normal person, you are no better than the "bad guys" you're fighting to, and for any normal person, who are as war criminals as them.



In Response

by: locomotivebreath1901 from: Texas
July 28, 2010 14:38
Seyran from: Armenia,

I appreciate your comments and understand what you are saying, although I find your comments (and others from your kind) frightening in their moral relativism, and political ignorance.

The Taliban are not tolerant. The Taliban are not open minded. The Taliban do not champion open societies and democratic government. The U.S. of A. has its flaws, but I can guarantee you that when the Taliban comes to your town, people like you will be the first ones they line up and shoot - after they rape your women and enslave your children.

It's the Taliban's proven standard operating procedure for waging war.

Personally, I'd rather take refuge with American and coalition forces. And my guess is - if you were honest - that you'd rather see the Red, White and Blue defending your home rather than the islamo-fascists infesting your country.

by: vytautasba from: vilnius
July 28, 2010 10:18
If the goal is to have a democracy then the people need to be infomed as much as possible. If not the government can take advantage and lead its people by the nose into believing and doing anything. Think about how the US Govt. convinced its people that S. Husseins Iraq was a clear and present danger to the US (responsible for 911, etc.).

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