The Importance of WikiLeaks

(This post originally appeared at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Watchdog Blog.)

There has been much conversation about the newest set of documents published by WikiLeaks. Unfortunately, most of the conversations are focusing on the wrong thing.

There has been great hand-wringing over the issue of these documents revealing secrets, and when that happens it’s a serious issue.  Bradley Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst, is suspected of being the source of the leak, and he faces a court martial and up to 52 years in prison for his alleged role.

It’s easy to make Manning the villain. However, if you’re truly concerned about protecting secrets, you ought to ask how a 23-year old private first class was able to access, copy, and re-distribute hundreds of thousands of documents without being stopped, caught, or detected.

Even worse are the hysterical calls for WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to be charged with espionage, declared an enemy combatant, or even to be assassinated. Anyone who doesn’t see the difference between Julian Assange and Osama Bin Laden is dangerously uninformed.

It’s important to understand that most of these diplomatic cables released weren’t classified at all.  They may have contained sensitive information, even embarrassing comments about other world leaders, but none of them had been categorized as “Top Secret.”  None of the documents released so far reveal the identity of undercover agents, nuclear launch codes, or details about embassy security.  And the cables aren’t private conversations between ambassadors and the Secretary of State.  They’re messages with general information that were meant to be shared with a broad audience of diplomats and military staff.

What the release of these diplomatic cables does is shed light on the inner workings of the U.S. State Department. They reveal our assessment of key political figures around the world and the way in which our foreign policy is being implemented. In many cases, they seem to show a stark disconnect between what has been said publicly and what is actually said behind closed doors.

That brings to mind a similar leak of documents forty years ago, the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had asked for a series of reports to document the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.  Daniel Elsberg, a military analyst who helped prepare the reports, gave a copy of these documents to the New York Times, which published excerpts in June of 1971.

The Pentagon Papers revealed, among other things, that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to the American public and to the Congress about the way the war was being conducted.  Elsberg said “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”  He was vilified by critics, targeted by Richard Nixon’s goon squad, and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Those charges were eventually dropped, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the New York Times and other papers had a right to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers. In his written opinion, Justice Hugo Black said that the need for a free press as a check on government prevents any governmental restraint on the press.

That ruling helped to affirm the rights granted to the press in the First Amendment, and as journalists, we have an obligation to use those rights to hold our government and our elected officials accountable.  We have an obligation to identify conflicts between what they say and what they do, to examine the legality of their conduct, and to shed light on the business they conduct in secret on our behalf.

When there is a reason to keep things secret, journalists have an obligation to do that as well.  Reporters at the Democrat and Chronicle often withhold information that might jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation, and as a matter of policy, we don’t publish the names of juvenile defendants or the victims of sexual assault.  But there needs to be a reason for information to be withheld from the public.  Too often, government wants to make everything secret by default.  There is a fundamental difference between revealing secrets that put people’s lives in danger and revealing secrets that are embarrassing or even damning.

In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a major policy speech about Internet freedom, widely interpreted as a rebuke to China’s cyber-attack on Google. “Even in authoritarian countries,” she said, “information networks are helping people to discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”  But when that accountability was brought to bear on her own work, she called it “an attack on the international community.”  The international community to which she refers doesn’t seem to agree.

The emergence of WikiLeaks is about more than just shining light on American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s about something much more important.  The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web make it possible to share large amounts of information, to make them accessible to virtually everyone, and to add value to content with the use of digital tools.

Ultimately, that’s what’s so important about WikiLeaks… not the specific things that they have revealed about assassination attempts, government blocking of websites, or the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, but its role in advancing the concept of providing open access to information.  It moves us towards a world where individuals have access to original source material, where they’re no longer reliant on a middle man to offer up an interpretation of what’s going on. Rather, individuals can look at those sources for themselves.

Julian Assange wrote an Op-ed piece for the Australian on Tuesday, in which he outlined his view of this development.

“We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”

That’s a philosophy that we’re working hard to embrace here at the Democrat and Chronicle.  When reporter Brian Sharp wrote about pension padding in the Rochester Fire Department, we backed that with a database of firefighter pay and overtime that we obtained from the city.  We did the same thing when we wrote about the skyrocketing cost of New York State’s employee pension fund, and we’re constantly posting PDF versions of documents relating to stories that we cover.

What do you think? Do you believe this sort of openness makes it more difficult for governments to do their jobs, or do you believe that, in the words of Louis Brandeis, sunshine is the best disinfectant?