2010 cases: WikiLeaks

Ayesha Akbar

1. On July 12th 2007, an American airstrike in Baghdad claimed the lives of civilian Reuters’ journalists and wounded two children sitting in a van. In early 2010, footage of this catastrophe was compiled into a video, titled “Collateral Murder”, and released by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, generating international outcry against the war in Iraq. Just the next month, a US Army intelligence agent, Bradley Manning, was arrested on charges of leaking the video material, along with thousands of Afghan war documents, to Wikileaks.

Although Manning’s legal case regarding confidential footage and war documents has served as the face of the “transparency” controversy, the public recognizes Wikileaks as the mastermind behind this self-proclaimed journalistic crusade. Launched in 2006 by a diverse host of people consisting of journalists, mathematicians, technologists, and “Chinese dissidents”, Wikileaks is an international, non-profit organization that epitomizes the concepts of free speech and freedom of the press (About WikiLeaks). A public-accessible website, Wikileaks aims to release previously unseen, authenticated documents through anonymous sources that are assured that no trace of their identity will be registered by the organization.

Manning, an “anonymous source”, had confided in ex-hacker Adrian Lamo via instant message, implying that he had leaked the confidential and highly controversial footage (Army Leak Suspect is Turned in, By Ex-Hacker). Lamo then reported these revelations to the authorities, and Manning was charged with disclosure of over 150 000 “classified diplomatic cables” (Army Broadens Inquiry into Wikileaks Disclosure). Wikileaks remained supportive of Manning, hiring legal aid to defend him in court. However, the controversy had already assembled. Some criticized both Wikileaks and Manning for endangering the army and “threatening” national security, whereas others applauded their actions as bravery, commending the struggle to alert the public to bloodshed in Iraq. Judgment was split between those that deemed it a heroic step towards journalistic transparency, and those that believed it was one step too far.

Along with the “Collateral Murder” footage, Manning has been regarded as a suspect in the disclosure of over nine hundred thousand confidential war documents titled the “Afghan War Diaries”, released to the public by Wikileaks. The logs document the chaos and violence that followed the United States invasion of Afghanistan, and disclosed the names of all Afghan informants. Wikileaks was thus chided by numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, for inconsiderate inclusion of identifying information. Outcry and rage against Manning and Wikileaks intensified when the Taliban admitted to scouring said documents in order to punish the “accused” Afghans (Taliban Study Wikileaks to Hunt Informants). Although Wikileaks agreed to review its documents regarding “rumors” of explicit identification, the damage was done – and Manning had transformed into the “Wikileaks poster boy”, controversy festering in ethical concerns associated with release of sensitive information.

In some aspects, Wikileaks must filter the information it receives in the same way reporters filtered the Columbine case. Journalists had to decide whether or not to air live calls with students, in fear that the students may unintentionally reveal their location to the attackers. Wikileaks had to make the same kind of decisions when deciding whether to release names – for honesty and transparency’s sake – or whether to eradicate identifying information from the documents Manning allegedly provided. The website’s leaning towards complete publication of documents as they appear, without censorship, has drawn criticism and raised a number of ethical controversies: Firstly, Wikileaks’ authority to release civilian names (as in Columbine, showing dead and/or injured bodies) without consent, and secondly – the public’s right to information as a force that inhibits national security (Pentagon Sees a Threat from Online Muckrakers).

The Wikileaks-Manning controversy surrounding war logs also exhibits the characteristics of the Starr Investigation, in which journalists – much like those employed by Wikileaks – were expected to analyze governmental documents and assess their implications, filtering the bank of official information into a more public-friendly form of news. Though the two cases hold broad similarities, the controversy lies in the fact that the Starr Report (revolving around the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal) was an official report, authorized to be released to the government – it was thus no longer considered classified information. Wikileaks, on the other hand, strives to release information that the government may not want to provide, such as private war logs and death tolls (In Disclosing Secret Documents, WikiLeaks Seeks ‘Transparency’), and is dedicated to the public – a responsibility of accurate journalism.

Wikileaks emphasizes and pursues transparent journalism, claiming that “better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporation, and other organizations.” (About Wikileaks). However, though it continues to pursue its transparency-fueled ideals, its director Julian Assange, and the organization itself are under constant fire from governments and human rights groups alike, regarding claims that the whistleblower website, through their release of confidential war documents, puts lives at risks and skews the public’s perception of conflict as markedly more violent.

Wikileaks has at most times been a target for both criticism and appraisal. Although having been awarded Amnesty International’s New Media Award in 2009, the website recently faced criticism from Amnesty, asking that it censor out the names of Afghan informants in war diaries (Amnesty International, Human Rights Groups Ask Wikileaks To Censor Civilians’ Names). Additionally, as Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists put it, Wikileaks does not “respect the rule of law” but has a “promising undertaking with a great potential for good.” (Aftergood Goes After Wikileaks)

2. Historically, governments have never voiced extremely favorable views of whistleblower journalism, at least not during the same era as said controversial, journalistic revelation. This can be traced back to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, during which Daniel Ellsburg became instantly notorious for having released confidential information perceived as politically embarrassing for the American government, as it relayed doubts over the success of the highly publicized and highly controversial Vietnam War (Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing US Involvement). The Times proceeded to publish the first set of excerpts on June 13th, 1971 – and was ordered to stem publication by the Nixon Administration. The newspaper was eventually taken to the Supreme Court, and won the right to publish.

Understanding the historical aspect of this case is crucial to framing the Wikileaks’ controversy in the context of war. Bradley Manning may well serve as the modern day Daniel Ellsburg, and Wikileaks a 1971 version of The Times. Both Ellsburg and Assange promote the parallel nature of these classified revelations, with Ellsburg asserting that the Afghan War Diaries are “the largest unauthorized disclosure since the Pentagon Papers.” (Is WikiLeaks The Pentagon Papers, Part 2?) Both leaks created a media sensation. Both leaks instigated heavy chiding and disapproval from the American government. And both leaks were supported by Wikileaks’ desire for journalistic transparency, and Ellsburg and Manning’s dissatisfaction with the war. One might then, learning from historical context, question if today’s governmental mistrust of Wikileaks stems from solely honest concern for national security, or from fear that publicly available classified information might impede the United States’ political interests. Though it is important to draw parallels in order to fully understand and frame the Wikileaks war log controversy in context, it is also imperative to analyze the differences between the two documents.

Critics of Wikileaks assert that the correlation between the phenomenon of the Pentagon Papers and the Afghan War Diaries is weak. The Pentagon Papers proved more significant in their impact because they were a complete, three volume set that documented United States involvement in Vietnam over a period of two decades. The Wikileaks war logs, in comparison, spanned a time frame of six years and are composed of over one hundred thousand documents. Additionally, the Pentagon Papers included the most classified documents possible – including Whitehouse memos and CIA cables. In contrast, the Wikileaks documents are composed mainly of unedited reports by military officials. The existence of such dissimilarities weakens the bond that Afghan war logs claim to hold with the Pentagon Papers.

Critics of the Wikileaks release argue that the war logs could not possibly boast a significantly monumental impact, because of the sheer volume of documents exposed. As Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, explained, “Ninety-two thousand cables is so scattershot . . . that I don’t know what the specific message is.” (Is WikiLeaks The Pentagon Papers, Part 2?) Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which boasted high level Pentagon analysis of the situation (and blatant lies by the Lyndon administration), Wikileaks collection of “ground level” information may, in many cases, fail to provide a “big picture”. Critics thus downplay the war logs’ perceived relation to the Pentagon Papers – they may argue that much like Watergate, the Pentagon Papers exposed governmental deceit, whereas Wikileaks “threatens” national security for the sake of numbers and figures, and no clear message. Learning from history, to what extent then, should the public consider the exposition of classified information as “groundbreaking”? Is the release of sensitive documents enough to make an impact, or must the documents be analyzed to provide a single, clear message (i.e. governmental deceit) to be considered monumental by the public?

Apart from understanding the historical similarities and differences Wikileaks holds to notable instances of journalistic whistle-blowing, it is important to comprehend the role of new media in its endeavors: namely, the internet. An ongoing debate that revolves around Wikileaks concerns its use of the internet to reveal classified information that is generally not meant to be viewed by the public. Once the documents are published online, however, they are viewable by literally anyone holding internet access across the globe. Such expansive new media facilitates both journalistic transparency and the spread of Wikileaks’ message, but at the same time thrusts vulnerable information into potentially dangerous hands.

The spread of internet journalism is under debate. Some journalists and political figures believe it facilitates the flow of information, and see a bright future in online journalism (Germany Looks at Ways to Protect Online Journalism). Others, however, take a stand against its spread, stressing that it increases unnecessary competition amongst newspapers, and violates the laws of copyright. In any case, the internet, for the duration of its existence, has played a substantial role in shaping journalism, as noted by the release of the Starr Report. The internet allows for opinionated blogs, alternative news sources, and politically differing viewpoints. Its “democratic” nature pushes the boundaries of free information access, but the question still arises: should it be allowed, such as in the case of Wikileaks, to make “previously secret information of public interest widely available”? Some may argue that it ensures the public’s right to information, a guaranteed right (Wikileaks and Internet Disclosures). Others, however may chide the democratic internet’s facilitation of such whistleblower websites – claiming that such journalistic organizations promote vulnerability (Taliban Study Wikileaks to Hunt Informants).

3. 1. When analyzing journalistic actions, what factors determine the line between blatant breach of law and adherence to the public’s right to know? This question points toward one of the most prominent controversies regarding Wikileaks: should the organization be legally prosecuted for releasing confidential, sensitive information, or applauded for relaying the truth to the public?

2. Branching out from the first question, a second question may ask: Is journalistic transparency ethically pursuable to such an extent that confidential, often personal information be released to the entire public?

3. If such unabashed transparency is indeed ethical, where must it draw the line? For instance, is it moral to release the names of civilians, as was done to the Afghan informants, for the sake of transparency? Should such identifying documents be presented in their entirety, or censored? Would censorship defeat the purpose of complete and unadulterated transparency?

4. How does the government usually react to such revelatory information? Might a government’s personal interests cause them to apprehend unnecessarily whistleblowers such as Wikileaks? This question is important because it relates to both past and present governmental and public criticism of figures such as Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, and the infamous “Deepthroat”.

5. Should Wikileaks’ informant Bradley Manning be legally prosecuted for releasing sensitive documents and video footage that potentially “endangered” the US military, or should he be applauded for revealing the bloodshed prominent in Iraq and Afghanistan?

4. Because the case of Wikileaks’ war logs is such a controversy-loaded case, it is important for students to focus on the two broader debates surrounding it: the potential breach of national security, and the importance of journalistic transparency, as coupled with the public’s right to know. Should Bradley Manning be charged for disclosing information? What defines him as a hero or a criminal? Does the validity of the information he provided justify his actions, or does the action itself deserve legal prosecution? These questions focus broadly on ethics: to what extent does the public have the right to know? And to what extent must documents facilitating the “right to know” be tailored? For example, should identifying information be wiped off of the confidential documents? Would that defeat the purpose of complete transparency? Try to get the students to weigh both sides of the issue instead of taking an instant “pro” or “anti” Wikileaks side. Help them find a balance between complete transparency (the public’s right to know) and careful censorship (the individual’s right to privacy). I believe a balance can be found: organizations like Wikileaks should censor civilian names when revealing classified documents, stating explicitly that names have been censored to maintain privacy.

The class should then focus on Question 4, regarding the Pentagon’s reaction to the Wikileaks revelations. Might the government chide the website solely for threatening national security, or are such chidings more infringed with denouncing Wikileaks and protecting political interests? Historically, how has the government treated whistleblowers? Discuss governmental reaction to the Pentagon Papers.

5. Assignment #3 References

“About Wikileaks.” Wikileaks Iraq War Diaries. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://wikileaks.org/media/about.html&gt;.

Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Army Broadens Inquiry Into WikiLeaks Disclosure.” New York Times. 30 July 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/31/world/31wiki.html?_r=1&gt;.

Farhi, Paul. “Is WikiLeaks The Pentagon Papers, Part 2?” Washington Post – Politics, National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines – Washingtonpost.com. 27 July 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

Gearan, Anne. “Amnesty International, Human Rights Groups Ask Wikileaks To Censor Civilians’ Names.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. 10 Aug. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/10/amnesty-international-hum_n_677048.html&gt;.

Pfanner, Eric. “Germany Looks at Ways to Protect Online Journalism.” New York Times. 28 Oct. 2009. Web.

Sheehan, Neil. “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing US Involvement.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 13 June 1971. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.

Assignment #2 References

Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Army Leak Suspect Is Turned In, by Ex-Hacker.” New York Times. 7 June 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

Hendler, By Clint. “Aftergood Goes after WikiLeaks : CJR.” Columbia Journalism Review. 28 June 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.cjr.org/the_kicker/aftergood_goes_after_wikileaks.php&gt;.

Mackey, Robert. “Taliban Study WikiLeaks to Hunt Informants.” The New York Times. 30 July 2010. Web.

Schmitt, Eric. “In Disclosing Secret Documents, WikiLeaks Seeks ‘Transparency’.” New York Times 25 July 2010. Web.

Strom, Stephanie. “Pentagon Sees a Threat From Online Muckrakers.” New York Times 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

6. Other Resources

“Times Topics: Wikileaks.” The New York Times. Web. <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/w/wikileaks/index.html?scp=1-spot&sq=wikileaks%20&st=cse&gt;.

This is an extremely helpful collection of articles surrounding the Wikileaks controversy; links to analytical blogs may also be found. The New York Times has done a thorough job chronicling this issue.


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