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This is why WikiLeaks is important, and why the NYT should be defending it

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Ever since WikiLeaks first emerged on the scene in 2010, there has been a debate about whether the organization should qualify as a media entity, and if so what duty we owe it. Many journalists have preferred to see it as merely an information broker, and a slightly seedy or disreputable one at that, and therefore nothing like a true journalistic entity. But the trial of former U.S. Army private Bradley Manning shows why that difference (if there is one) is largely irrelevant — and why WikiLeaks and Manning deserve the support of journalists and media entities of all kinds.

Manning, who has been in U.S. custody for more than two years, is the government source who allegedly provided WikiLeaks with the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq, as well as tens of thousands of classified government cables, which the organization released in a massive document dump in late 2010. A number of newspapers and other mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and The Guardian, also printed some of the cables and wrote stories on them as part of a partnership arrangement with WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks is a media entity in every way that matters

As Glenn Greenwald points out in a post at The Guardian, the military prosecutor in Manning’s trial has provided one of the best justifications for seeing WikiLeaks as a media entity, and therefore deserving of the same protections as a newspaper. In court on Thursday, Captain Angel Overgaard was asked whether Manning would be on trial if he had delivered the same classified information to the New York Times, and the prosecutor said simply: “Yes ma’am.” In other words, for the purposes of the government, WikiLeaks and the NYT are interchangeable. As Greenwald describes it:

“[The government’s claim against Manning] applies to virtually every leak of classified information to any media organization, thus transforming standard whistle-blowing into the equivalent of treason.”


The conventional wisdom for some time has been that WikiLeaks was simply an intermediary — like the brown envelope that leaked documents come in, or the parking garage that Watergate mole Deep Throat used — and that newspapers and other media have performed the actual journalistic work by filtering through the cables, verifying facts, etc. During a discussion about the media and WikiLeaks in 2010, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said of founder Julian Assange: “I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am.”

Last summer, however, in an email interview with me after I wrote a blog post arguing that WikiLeaks should be thought of as a media entity, Keller admitted that both Assange and the organization deserve the support of all journalists — for the simple reason that an attack on WikiLeaks is effectively an attack on free speech and the free press as a whole (although Keller still didn’t want to call Assange a journalist). As the former NYT editor put it:

“I would regard an attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks’ publication of these documents as an attack on all of us, and I believe the mainstream media should come to his defense. You don’t have to embrace Julian Assange as a kindred spirit to believe that what he did in publishing those cables falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”

The media could be the next target

New York Times

The risk isn’t just that the government will apply the same tactics or rationale to other leakers that it has to Bradley Manning, even if they leak documents to the New York Times — the real risk is that seeing the NYT and other outlets as equivalent to WikiLeaks will encourage the government to try and prosecute them as well, just as the State Department is trying to pursue Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for what it believes to be their acts of espionage.

This is more than just idle speculation: the blog post Bill Keller was responding to when he emailed me was about a discussion that took place in Congress, in which several legislators asked legal experts who were giving testimony to the House judiciary subcommittee whether there was a legal rationale for prosecuting media outlets like the New York Times under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information the way WikiLeaks did.

This may be far-fetched, but identifying the New York Times and WikiLeaks as equivalent is a clear step in that direction. If Manning providing documents to the former counts as treason, because this is defined as “aiding and abetting the enemy,” then how is a someone providing data to the New York Times any different? Or for that matter, a senior member of the national security establishment giving documents to Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, as Greenwald notes in his piece?

The justification for supporting WikiLeaks’ rights as a journalistic entity seems clear: as Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Carolina Georgatou and Charlie Rose and jphilipg

23 Responses to “This is why WikiLeaks is important, and why the NYT should be defending it”

  1. I’m unclear how this forms an argument that would help Manning or WikiLeaks. If the government views them equally and would essentially pursue any leaker/whistleblower and web site/media outlet that exposes secrets that they do not want revealed, as opposed to allowed leaks that are helpful to the government even if they are classified, then there is no benefit to being viewed as a journalistic organization. The difference between the two journalistic enterprises (WikiLeaks and NYT) is only in the NYT’s discretion to sit on sensitive material and their willingness to be a mouthpiece for the government when its favorable.

    • Australian

      Wikileaks is stateless, which is brilliant
      For the world, yes we expect little or nothing
      About Ecuadore in the files released.

      The world needs wikileaks (keep the Bastards Honest)

  2. This chain of comment has diverged from the topic of the article, but in light of yesterday’s new postponement of Manning’s trial, I have to add the following point.___6th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution:__”In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . “__Speedy? 3 years from indictment, after multiple postponements by the prosecution? Impartial? Tried solely by members of the very institution which he embarassed, who are pledged to obey their superiors in everything? As for a public trial:__”The army has allowed the publication of not one single motion submitted by the prosecution to the court-martial, nor any prosecution replies to defence motions, not even in redacted form. None of the orders issued by the court have been made public, and no transcripts have been provided of any of the proceedings – not even those that were fully open to the press.”_ a consitutional state, Bradley Manning would now be a free man, on constitutional grounds._

  3. Australian

    the US Government makes 15 million new secrets every year,
    that’s a crime, covering up illegal activities and more,

    The world is changing, (Honesty and Transparency)
    its the future,

  4. Daniël W. Crompton

    I whole heartedly, although there are a number of glaring holes. The most important of which is that although many constitutional lawyers say that the Bill of Rights applies to citizens and non-citizens alike, the US government has ignored this repeatedly and willfully.

  5. EU Brainwashing

    Civil liberties stand as a defence from whatever future holds. To assure an enduringly free society the balance must always be; government is to trust people and not demand legislation that requires the people to trust government.

  6. chbeckett

    I have written a whole book about WikiLeaks defending it as a ‘media entity’ or as I would call it, a journalism organisation.

    To be honest, I don’t find many people questioning that anymore, the real debate is whether the journalism it produces is ‘good’, ethical or sustainable.

    Charlie Beckett
    London School of Economics

  7. Lizard2112

    Manning is a true hero…doing what is right regardless of “orders” from the psychotics in charge of the military…there needs to be a million more like him! Anyone that thinks doing what is right is somehow “wrong” needs their head examined.

  8. Righteous

    Rusty, you’re wrong on a number of levels. When you commit crimes against humanity by mowing down innocent people, the it’s morally and ethically right to bring this out in the open. The fact that management decided to suppress details of this heinous crime forced a man of massive integrity into a position he should never have been put in if the powers that be did their job. Not only was the man with the massive gun and no brain guilty of murder, but those that sought to cover it up are complicit too.

    For those types of crimes, people need to do serious jail time and what happens? They carry on as if nothing has happened while an heroic individual who believes in humanity did the right thing while the cowards stood by doing nothing.

    For you to take your stance is not only acceptable, but you perpetuate an attitude that represents everything that is is wrong with our society. Much like a boil, it’s a sickness that needs lancing good and proper.

    In the meantime, this article is all about the writer’s attempt at raising the moral dilemma of those in the media that sieve through whistle-blowing material and make more brave decisions about putting it in the public domain or otherwise. As he says, there is absolutely no difference between the New York Times and WikiLeaks.

    On this basis, rather than derail the conversation, you’d be wise to stick to the topic at hand as your post ends up turning into a sideshow of stupidity and a smokescreen which is not only necessary, but pointless.

    I trust I’ve made my point.

  9. Nope. Sorry…I won’t support Pvt. Manning. You can’t have an effective military of people can just do as they please. If you can’t take orders, don’t join. Manning was not drafted. He enlisted. Then he turned over a HUGE amount of classified papers to an external entity. That’s wrong on every level. Pvt. Manning is not a civilian and should not expect to be treated as one.

    • I believe that Dr. Ellsberg held several posts with the Department of Defense, as well as embassy postings in foreign lands and the famous Pentagon Papers undertaken at the behest of the Secretary of Defense. Dr. Ellsberg’s familiarity with and access to classified material far exceeded that of Bradley Manning.

      But, alas, the confused, scared, working-class kid, and not the Cranbrook School and Harvard-trained PHD is the one who is going to get really nailed for blowing the whistle.

      What a surprise.

      • I think Mr Manning probably would be treated as a criminal whichever media entity he provided this information to (once caught in the act) if the military is responsible for deciding how he is treated. He clearly did help expose military wrongdoing, but I wouldn’t expect the military to behave with kindness towards him for doing that.

        That is separate from whether or not wikileaks should be treated as a media entity however – why should it not be treated as such? It disseminates information and reports on scandals, just like every other media entity, only it is geographically and politically mobile so it cannot be censored effectively. Therefore if you stand for free press, I do not see how you can stand against wikileaks.

        As to Rusty’s comment – I agree that orders must be followed, but equally one should have a sense of basic ethics, wrongdoing should be exposed, and the responsible military officers should be held accountable. If you are part of a unit that is ordered to commit genocide, should you just proceed and keep your mouth shut?

    • The US doesn’t have an effective military anyway. Other than killing a lot of civilians, what worthwhile enemy have you defeated in the last 50 years? You do have a gullible public though….how’s the hunt for wmd’s going?

    • Just because he enlisted doesn’t means he has to follow whatever the orders are coming up from above.He saw a wrong thing and when nobody did anything about it he took the courage to take a step few have guts to take.

      Take this scenario for instance, you work as a clerk for XYZ Environmental Services, a small toxic-waste disposal company. 

      The company has a contract to dispose of medical waste from a local hospital. During the course of your work, you come across documents that suggest that XYZ has actually been disposing of some of this medical waste in a local municipal landfill. You are shocked. You know this practice is illegal. And even though only a small portion of the medical waste that XYZ handles is being disposed of this way, any amount at all seems a worrisome threat to public health. 

      You gather together the appropriate documents and takes them to your immediate superior, Dave Smith. Dave says, “Look, I don’t think that sort of thing is your concern, or mine. We’re in charge of record-keeping, not making decisions about where this stuff gets dumped. I suggest you drop it.” 

      The next day, you decides to go one step further, and talk to Angela Mathews, the company’s Operations Manager. Angela is clearly irritated. Angela says, “This isn’t your concern. Look, these are the sorts of cost-cutting moves that let a little company like ours compete with our giant competitors. Besides, everyone knows that the regulations in this area are overly cautious. There’s no real danger to anyone from the tiny amount of medical waste that ‘slips’ into the municipal dump. I consider this matter closed.” 

      You considers your situation. The message from your superiors was loud and clear. You strongly suspect that making further noises about this issue could jeopardize your job. Further, you generally have faith in the company’s management. They’ve always seemed like honest, trustworthy people. But you are troubled by this apparent disregard for public safety.

      Here are some questions for you:
      What would you do?
      What are the reasonable limits on loyalty to one’s employer?
      Would it make a difference if you had a position of greater authority?

    • Hey Rusty,

      enlightened humanity agrees for a long time now that “I have my orders” is no excuse for criminal activity. Every soldier, police officer or otherwise employed person has a DUTY to report criminal or otherwise immoral activity and to disobey immoral orders.

      If you see no good in exposing war crimes, you are not part of enlightened humanity.

    • EU Brainwashing

      Hi Rusty. So if you are in the military and you are instructed to load civilians into cattle trucks that will be OK too. Keep your trap shut! And bulldoze children’s corpses into burial pit in the wood – you may not like it but, hey ho, instructions are instructions.

      You think those examples extreme? You think nothing like that is going on with the good old USA? Well the best check and default, to make sure it can never happen, is when people legitimately do call ‘foul’ they should be allowed not incarcerated.

      The call of foul is legitimate. The conduct of the USA is foul.