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Barack Obama's presidency

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WikiLeaks and Defining 'Journalism'

By D.H. Kerby
September 2, 2010

Editor’s Note: The mainstream U.S. news media’s shunning of WikiLeaks as not a real journalistic entity and thus not deserving of the legal protections of traditional news outlets raises troubling questions about the principles guiding American journalism today.

That’s because WikiLeaks’ internationalist approach to information parallels the treasured journalistic principle of objectivity – i.e., not taking sides in a dispute and approaching every issue without bias – surely more so than does a nationalistic perspective favoring U.S. interests, as D.H. Kerby notes in this guest essay:

There is a strong intuition among the American people that there is a fundamental difference between publishing a secret for all the world to read and secretly informing an enemy of a secret.

One seems like cutting-edge journalism, the other like espionage.

However, many writers – some in the blogosphere, some in the mainstream press – have been writing that WikiLeaks is not journalism, an opinion which would tend to undermine this intuition.          

Without this intuition, a prosecution of Julian Assange or other WikiLeaks people for alleged violations of the Espionage Act would meet with much less public opposition.

Is the American public mind being brainwashed to regard as unlawful something which has, in reality, added to the amount of information it has? Could it be true that, as German filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote, “The yanks have colonized our unconscious?”

After all, the Pentagon spends an inordinate amount of money every year on public relations.

In a statement to its own personnel warning them not to read material on WikiLeaks, the U. S. military said, “There has been rumor that the information is no longer classified since it resides in the public domain. This is not true.”

So, one could theoretically read something on the Internet and by repeating it to one other person, violate the Espionage Act, a law described by the Project on Government Oversight as so overbroad as to invite misapplication.

The implications of this for the First Amendment are obvious and Orwellian. Simply put, they would shut us all up.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking to students at the University of Denver, declined to offer an opinion about WikiLeaks, saying that the matter “is very likely to come before me,” according to The Guardian of Great Britain, one of the newspapers that received some 92,000 classified documents from WikiLeaks.

Add to this that the traditional press subsists on leaks, often of classified information, but that those higher up in the hierarchy of government are rarely prosecuted for passing sensitive information to the press while people further down carry the full weight.

One could make a good case that people like Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been accused of leaking a classified video of a 2007 U.S. military helicopter attack in Baghdad to WikiLeaks (and who is a suspect in passing on the other material as well), are being selectively prosecuted, as a former FBI attorney has pointed out, because the information they leak is embarrassing, inconvenient, or gets in the way of the war effort.

Meanwhile, leaks that contribute to war-making, like the 2003 outing of former CIA officer Valerie Plame to help discredit her anti-Iraq War husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, result in no prison time for anyone.

(Though Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was convicted of lying about his role in the Plame leak, President George W. Bush then commuted Libby’s sentence, thus sparing him jail time. Others involved in the Plame leak, like Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, escaped prosecution because they acknowledged their roles in disclosing the classified information.)

The sheer spinelessness of so much of the traditional press has been on spectacular display following Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s and Admiral Mike Mullen’s broadsides against WikiLeaks’ publication of “The Afghan War Diaries.”

Recognizing the Pentagon’s generally cordial relations with many in the mainstream news media, Gates has made a distinction between them and those who didn’t play by the rules. “The press is not the enemy,” Gates has said previously.

And the traditional news media appears to enjoy getting patted on the head this way, by implicitly endorsing the “three monkeys” school of thought about how to be a good citizen (“see no evil, hear no evil, and if evil committed by the military comes to light, attack the messenger”).

As the WikiLeaks dispute heated up -- with Pentagon warnings that the posted documents put Afghans who had collaborated with the U.S. military at risk -- much of the traditional U.S. media chose not to stand up for WikiLeaks and for the public’s right to know.

The documents provided powerful details about how the war in Afghanistan is being fought and how the American people have been kept in the dark, and in some cases deliberately deceived, about the extent of civilian casualties and other horrors of contemporary warfare.

Instead, the seemingly endless refrain that Julian Assange is not a journalist and that WikiLeaks is not a real news organization amounts to people, whose bread and butter depend upon free speech, essentially throwing one of their own to the wolves.

Well, one might wonder, if Assange is not a journalist, and if he uses high technology to protect his sources, and if he won’t cooperate with efforts to assess damage to U.S. national security, why can’t we treat him as an enemy spy?

The answer is to be found in the common sense of the American people: spies secretly provide information to a foreign government, whereas Assange shares it with us all.

Regarding that high technology, traditional media has, according to WikiLeaks, been offered encryption with which it could really protect its sources, encryption which Daniel Ellsberg says even the National Security Agency cannot crack, but has turned it down.

The BBC also said recently that Professor Whitfield Diffie of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University, London , believes that this encryption could be beyond the ken of intelligence agencies.

In the mid-1990s, there was an encryption race between the government and private companies which raised the political question: why should the government have the right to private communication to which the people cannot gain access when the people do not have a right to private communication to which the government cannot gain access?

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, raised this issue in congressional hearings.

Perhaps the First Amendment right to “peaceable assembly,” in light of technological developments, should be interpreted as also conveying a right to “privacy of assembly.”

That WikiLeaks and its founder manifest a planetary consciousness rather than a national one, that they put human security above U. S. national security, that they dare to advocate for “justice for the victims of the war in Afghanistan ” seems to make many in America apoplectic.

Yet, considering the profound damage that nationalism has done to the human species as contrasted with the benefit to humanity of a more internationalist, human-centered perspective, WikiLeaks may have the better of the argument.

Still, many Americans seem to be wondering, “How dare these WikiLeaks people not side with us in this war?”

The truth is that WikiLeaks’ philosophy requires that it be committed to the interests of no nation in particular, and to human interests in general.

D. H. Kerby is a journalist and poet in Philadelphia who writes about civil liberties and national security. E-mail [email protected] .

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