Wikileaks and ‘cablegate’ – a threat to national security or a step forward for transparency?

7 December, 2010 — Editors Weblog

[How the media sees itself. WB]

With its latest release, Wikileaks has attracted an unprecedented amount of attention, sparking international debate and sharply dividing commentators, both political and media. The 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables were shared with the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais, and the Guardian passed them on to the New York Times. Some of the stories that have come out of them are fascinating and well within what would usually be seen as the public interest, others are more gossipy and merely embarrassing. Wikileaks’ three major leaks earlier this year placed it in international consciousness, but cables have taken its fame, or notoriety, sky high.

On one side there are those who condemn Wikileaks’ actions as highly irresponsible and putting US national security at risk. Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange is already being sought for charges of rape, and many in the US are now calling for his prosecution for espionage. It has even been suggested that espionage laws be updated so that what Wikileaks has done becomes a crime. Assange’s assets in Switzerland have been frozen.

US government employees have been banned from using work computers to look at the latest material, and Columbia University students have been warned against downloading the cables, if they want a chance at employment with the state department.

The site has encountered numerous attacks and has been moved from server to server in multiple countries, after Amazon and other hosting services came under pressure from the US Senate to cease hosting the site. Wikileaks is currently online out of Switzerland and on hundreds of mirror sites. The material is available to anyone to download as a bit torrent, and containing the site seems an insurmountable challenge.

On the other side are those who believe the cables, none of which kept at the highest levels of secrecy, represent a step forward for government transparency and provide information that the public has a right to know, and that efforts to suppress them constitute a significant threat to freedom of expression. The level of secrecy at which the documents were classified means they were available to several million people – nothing truly sensitive would have been stored at this level.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the “blocking, cyber-attacks and political pressure” directed at the cables’ website from all over the world, and expressed concern at comments made by American authorities “concerning Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange.”

“This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency,” RSF said.

What is extremely interesting is the level to which Wikileaks has made its latest release a joint project with news organisations. It has been steadily increasing its interaction with journalistic outlets since the release of the Afghan War Diaries, before which Assange reportedly met with Nick Davies, a senior investigative reporter at the Guardian, who suggested that it would be constructive to allow journalists access to some material
before its release so as to increase that material’s impact. On that occasion, Wikileaks shared its material with three publications which Assange felt carried out admirable investigative journalism: The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. For the release of the Iraq War Logs, these original partners plus a few others were given the material under embargo, and on both occasions there was a coordinated release of stories and a ‘dump’ of data by Wikileaks.

This time, Wikileaks gave the cables to its partner publications and claims to be only publishing those which are relevant to these news organisations’ stories, and have respected the editors’ redactions. Presumably this is being done partly to increase the impact and legitimacy of the material, and possibly to associate the organisation more closely with journalism.

Although some of Wikileaks’ work has been described as journalism, it is not a news site. Wikileaks is a mediator between sources and the public, and between sources and news organisations. It is easy to imagine a not-so-hidden political agenda lying behind its latter releases, and this may indeed be the case, but it is necessary to remember that it was not Assange himself who hacked into the US’s diplomatic systems and extracted this information. Wikileaks’ raison d’être is to provide the utmost protection to whistleblowers looking to leak information, and once this leak was in its hands, it arguably had an obligation to release it. Maybe it could have analysed the material and only pulled out what was really story-worthy and would not threaten US or any other national interests, but that is not in its mandate.

Maybe the newspaper editors could have further edited the cables, but again, once they had the information, it would have been hard. NYT executive editor Bill Keller explained at the time of the release, “As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

“Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets,” wrote the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins.

And as Jeff Jarvis notes on his blog BuzzMachine, the revelations in the cables have not (at least as yet) led to any devastating results. “So perhaps the lesson of Wikileaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought. That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.” However, it seems the reverse has happened.

It is essential to keep in mind that Wikileaks’ actions are reflective of the wider society in which it functions, where vast amounts of information are more accessible than ever before, and the Internet has broken down barriers between the powerful elite and the public. As the Guardian’s John Naughton puts it, the reaction to the leaks represents the first “really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.” And besides, it appears that Wikileaks may soon be seeing competition in the field, and if the organisation and its founder are taken down, it will undoubtedly be replaced.

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