Thursday, December 30, 2010

WikiLeaks Working With the Media

A big chapter of history is being written right now, as government and big business attempt to control the WikiLeaks story, pitting centralized chains of authority against a distributed system of autonomous agents. It is by far the most interesting news story in our world today, with twisted strands of subtle dynamics and implications.

The media have to be especially careful, because they themselves routinely publicize leaked classified government information (read THIS STORY from back in October), and if they come out too hard against WikiLeaks they will end up creating a backlash that will affect them too, possibly resulting in laws that make investigative reporting a crime. Government authorities are frantic, because the documents WikiLeaks possesses are embarrassing, and the very fact that the leakers can do their business without corporate sponsorship is an embarrassment to the Old Way. WikiLeaks is exactly Todo lifting the hem of the Wizard's curtain.

As such, the media have painted a picture of WikiLeaks as a dangerous loose cannon, leaking hundreds of thousands of documents indiscriminately, endangering secret agents and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Much of what has been said is false, and almost all tellings are incomplete. [Note: NPR has just published a blanket correction of misstatements by staff and guests on its shows HERE -- let's see who follows suit.]

The AP had a pretty good story earlier this month explaining some of the facts about the journalistic process of releasing the leaked documents. Unless you have followed the story closely, you probably don't know this. I will quote the whole thing:
PARIS (AP) — The diplomatic records exposed on the WikiLeaks website this week reveal not only secret government communications, but also an extraordinary collaboration between some of the world's most respected media outlets and the WikiLeaks organization.

Unlike earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government military records, the group is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material.

"They are releasing the documents we selected," Le Monde's managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said in an interview at the newspaper's Paris headquarters.

WikiLeaks turned over all of the classified U.S. State Department cables it obtained to Le Monde, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany. The Guardian shared the material with The New York Times, and the five news organizations have been working together to plan the timing of their reports.

They also have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release publicly and what redactions to make to those documents, Kauffmann and others involved in the arrangement said.

"The cables we have release correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a question-and-answer session on The Guardian's website Friday. "The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working."

Each publication suggested a way to remove names and details considered too sensitive, and "I suppose WikiLeaks chooses the one it likes," El Pais Editor in Chief Javier Moreno said in a telephone interview from his Madrid office.

As stories are published, WikiLeaks uses its website to release the related cables. For example, The Guardian published an article Thursday based on diplomatic cables discussing the assassination of former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning, and WikiLeaks quickly posted three cables on the same subject.

The close arrangement is unusual because it ties the media outlets more closely to WikiLeaks, and reveals an unusual collaboration with a group facing a U.S. criminal investigation.

"In this case, what you have is news organizations partnering with an organization that very clearly has a different set of values," said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics professor at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

But McBride notes that the unique collaboration also forces some degree of journalistic standards on WikiLeaks, which in the past has released documents without removing information considered sensitive.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told readers in an online exchange that the newspaper has suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believes should be withheld.

"We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good," Keller wrote. "Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity."

Days before releasing any of the latest documents, Assange appealed to the U.S. ambassador in London, asking the U.S. government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released. The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange's offer "a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation."

U.S. officials submitted suggestions to The Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish.

"The other news organizations supported these redactions," Keller wrote. "WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do."

While Keller has emphasized to readers that the Times is "not a 'media partner'" of WikiLeaks and that it did not receive the State Department documents from WikiLeaks, his public comments describe a working relationship with the group on the release of the material and decisions to withhold certain information.

Keller told the AP in an e-mail Thursday that advising WikiLeaks about removing names and other sensitive details is the responsible thing to do.

"We have no way of knowing what WikiLeaks will do, no clear idea what they make of our redactions, but if this to any degree prevents WikiLeaks from carelessly getting someone killed, I'm happy to do it," he said. "I'd be interested to hear the arguments in favor of having WikiLeaks post its material unredacted."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week there is "an active, ongoing, criminal investigation" into WikiLeaks' release of the material. He said it jeopardized national security, diplomatic efforts and U.S. relationships around the world. He declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-speech protections.

"I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has," Holder said. He did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications.

Although WikiLeaks has said it will ultimately post its trove online, The Times said it intends to publish only about 100 or so of the records. And the other news organizations that have the material said they likely will release only a fraction.

"We are releasing only what is interesting," Le Monde's Kauffmann said. "I couldn't tell you the proportion, but the vast majority of these documents are of no journalistic interest."

She said there was "no written contract" among the organizations and WikiLeaks on the use of the material.

"The conditions were that we could ourselves — that's to say our journalists and those at the other newspapers — do our own selection, our own triage," and select which documents to withhold from public view, Kauffmann said.

The media outlets agreed to work together, with about 120 journalists in total working on the project, at times debating which names of people cited in the documents could be published.

"With this, I really think we have taken all the possible precautions," Kauffmann said. "At times, it comes up that we'll discuss it between us, with the other papers, on some points. One of us struck too much out and another said 'Come on, it's about a high official, we can leave his/her name in. There won't be any reprisals.'"

Le Monde and El Pais came into the media partnership late, about a month ago. The Times, Guardian and Spiegel had already done quite a bit of work on the documents and shared it, El Pais' Moreno said.

Kauffmann declined to say how or when WikiLeaks contacted the publications about the documents. They began sorting through the material after WikiLeaks obtained it.

Some news organizations, including AP and The Washington Post, also have sought access to the documents, but they were denied because of the arrangement between the five media partners.

The Post reported this week that WikiLeaks approached CNN and the Wall Street Journal about receiving the documents and asked them to sign confidentiality agreements that would have entitled WikiLeaks to a payment of around $100,000 if the partner broke the embargo. The two news organizations declined.

Kauffmann of Le Monde said there was no financial agreement with WikiLeaks.

"Never has anyone asked to pay anything, and if they had, we probably — certainly — would not have done so, because we never pay for news." Respected media outlets collaborate with WikiLeaks

We live in incredible times, and the relationships among WikiLeaks, the various governments, business and the financial world (Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and Bank of America have all refused to process donations for the organization), Anonymous and other decentralized hacker coalitions (who have brought down the web sites of the aforementioned financial institutions) (and yesterday 4chan itself was the target of a successful DDoS attack), the federal government's ham-handed announcement that federal workers and contractors must not read any classified documents even if they are published on the Internet or in the newspaper, the horrifying treatment of Bradley Manning and Wired and the Washington Post's coverups of the chat logs with hacker/informant Adrian Lamo that led to his imprisonment and could possibly prove his guilt or innocence, the sordid story of Julian Assange's sex charges in Sweden and the feminist backlash to Michael Moore and Keith Olberman's discussion of it, the many lawless calls for the assassination of Assange and his threat that if he is harmed he will release the encryption key to hundreds of thousands of unredacted documents -- keep your eyes open, this story can blow up along any of these dimensions, or all at once.

Remember, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have not been charged with any crimes in relation to the leaking of documents, which is a journalistic act that is protected by law. Your morning newspaper may not be motivated to convey an unclouded picture of the situation, but it is one of the most fascinating stories in the world today.


Anonymous Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

I'm also concerned that all the media hype accomplishes something potentially more damaging: distracting people from the actual content of the cables and more importantly specific topics they don't address (the CIA issued a press release about this last week, claiming their systems were "leak-proof). Thus far there have been no cables regarding the "strategic" reasons the US is at war with Afghanistan and Pakistan - namely their fierce competition with their main economic rival (China) over Middle East oil and gas resources. There are unclassified Pentagon documents on the Internet regarding their desire to see energy and mineral rich Balochistan secede from Pakistan and become a US client - just like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the other former Soviet republics. Yet there's nothing about this in the cables. Nothing about CIA support for the Baloch separatist movement and their efforts to disrupt operations at the Chinese-built port (to create an energy transit route for Iranian oil and natural gas direct to China )in Gwadar, Pakistan. And nothing about the CIA training young Baloch separatists in bomb-making and other terrorist activities. I blog about this at

December 30, 2010 5:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home