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The NSA surveillance story reinforces why an entity like WikiLeaks is so important

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WikiLeaks, the secretive repository for government malfeasance, hasn’t been in the news much lately except for occasional updates about founder Julian Assange, who remains in exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain. And neither WikiLeaks nor its supporters had much to do with the latest blockbuster leak of government intelligence, which confirmed that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone-call data from Verizon customers thanks to a secret court order. But despite all that, the NSA story helps to highlight why having an independent repository for high-level leaks is a valuable thing.

The original report on the NSA’s surveillance effort came from Glenn Greenwald, who writes about politics for The Guardian, courtesy of a leaked document that confirmed the existence of an order signed by the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. As the New York Times explains, even the existence of this kind of order is subject to the highest levels of U.S. government secrecy — much higher, in fact, than the diplomatic cables that former Army private Bradley Manning is accused of providing to WikiLeaks.

Update: Both the Guardian and the Washington Post are reporting that the federal government has also been getting personal data from a number of large internet players for years — including Google, Facebook and Apple.

The government is cracking down on leaks

Even without the current Manning trial as a warning, the risks of a leak like the NSA court order would be abundantly obvious by now, given the Obama administration’s ongoing campaign against government leaks — a campaign that some argue has gone too far, with reporters being named as “co-conspirators” by the authorities (a charge that has echoes of the “aiding the enemy” accusations against Manning). Among other things, the government recently seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters.

This kind of cloak-and-dagger activity towards journalists — which some observers (including me, and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller) have been warning might occur in the wake of the government’s pursuit of Manning and Assange — has likely thrown a substantial chill over the U.S. media when it comes to exposing government information. As if to reinforce that, within minutes of the Guardian story appearing online, sources said the Department of Justice would likely be investigating the leak and how it arrived in Greenwald’s inbox.

Assange and Wikileaks

There have always been leaks, of course, and there would no doubt continue to be leaks even if WikiLeaks didn’t exist. The legendary Watergate investigation and the release of the famous Pentagon Papers both happened without WikiLeaks, or even the internet. But there’s also no question that having a repository for such documents that is both anonymous (or as close as it is possible to get) and largely stateless would make it easier for such leaks to occur.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defence Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — and later became part of one of the most ground-breaking First Amendment trials in history — has said that Manning and WikiLeaks are carrying on the same tradition he was a part of: namely, the quest to hold the government accountable for its actions. Since the media seem reluctant to play the role they should in this effort, Ellsberg says, WikiLeaks becomes even more necessary.

WikiLeaks continues to struggle to stay alive

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks itself is struggling — in part because of Assange’s legal issues, as well as a lack of funding that was exacerbated when PayPal, Visa and MasterCard cut off the ability to donate to the organization, despite the fact that WikiLeaks hasn’t been accused of a crime. And viable alternatives have not yet emerged (a splinter group headed by a former WikiLeaks lieutenant tried to set up a competitor called OpenLeaks without much success, and the New Yorker recently launched its own effort called StrongBox).

Greenwald suggested in a comment on Twitter that the Obama administration’s behavior towards government leakers may have actually encouraged sources like his to become even bolder, as a way of defying what they see as an unreasonable attack on freedom of speech and whistle-blowing. But if WikiLeaks were stronger, sources would have another place they could go to reveal important information — and one that would be more difficult to attack.

Greenwald tweet

To that end, a group called Freedom of the Press was formed earlier this year by Ellsberg and a number of other free-speech advocates, including BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin and actor John Cusack, which is designed to help support WikiLeaks and a number of other entities via crowdfunding. Freedom of the Press has also crowdfunded a number of stenographers to take notes about the Manning trial, since very few media organizations were allowed to attend and most have had restrictions placed on what they can and can’t report.

Whether WikiLeaks can survive or prosper given the splintering of the organization (which appears to have been caused at least in part by Assange and his mercurial approach to running WikiLeaks) — remains to be seen. But having some kind of entity that performs the same function is a clear public good.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Mmaxer and Flickr user Carolina Georgatu

16 Responses to “The NSA surveillance story reinforces why an entity like WikiLeaks is so important”

  1. Wikileaks was corrupted almost immediately by J Assange into the soap opera ‘All about Julian’. Whatever good it COULD have done was swiftly and thoroughly invalidated by Assange’s bad behavior. What bad thing was exposed from this huge dump of secret stuff stolen by Manning. War sucks? Soldiers are mean to the enemy? Bad people do bad things, and think their uniform justifies it? One ambassador called another ambassador names in a secret cable? Is anything different because of the loss of 300K documents?
    The only large memory of that episode a few years on is that Julian Assange is an effete jerk, and Bradley Manning will pay the price for being stupid enough to believe that turning over secret documents to a narcissist user like Assange was a good idea. He will get a minimum of 20 years in Leavenworth on the things he has already plead guilty to, and maybe hanged if the gov’t can make the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge stick (I hope and believe they can’t). 20-30 years is just punishment for such blinding stupidity. Violating oaths and laws carry penalties and he should, and likely will, get the full measure of justice.
    That is the problem with vigilante organizations, they invariably fail and turn inward against each other or even against the people that initially supported them. There are lots of neat FICTIONAL vigilantes. The real ones do not fare as well, check out wikipedia on vigilantism.
    A stateless entity in charge of what? Receiving secrets and promptly exposing them? Sooner or later, every hand would be turned against them. Even if their leaders were altruistic angels, not narcissistic, entitled idiots. There is no way that even liberal, Western governments would allow them to exist for long. Their funding would be disrupted, they would be de-legitamized. No gov’t had to do that to WikiLeaks as J Assange had that task quite under control. The next thing would be to sanction the state that allowed them to operate in its borders. These are exactly the things that happened to WikiLeaks and similar fates will await a successful copycat.
    A better idea would be TO PROTECT AND NURTURE A FREE AND RESPONSIBLE PRESS, and FIGHT LAWS or Administrations that TRY TO UNDERMINE THAT. Like for instance, naming journalists as felony co-conspirators. That’s the evil. Stealing secrets and turning them over to anyone outside your nation is not the answer. PROTECT A FREE PRESS, with blood if necessary.

  2. Wikileaks is reckless and without any sort of relevance review. If they are given 100,000 documents, regardless of what they cover, Wikileaks releases all 100,000 documents.

    If Neighbour A finds some sort of “smoking gun” document in a shoebox belonging to Neighbour B–say, about some neighbourhood issue of concern–and that shoebox also has lots of personal love letters and irrelevant bank statements, it doesn’t give Neighbour A the right to share everything with the rest of the neighbourhood.

    Give me journalist-vetted coverage any day over the carelessness and irresponsibility of Wikileaks.

    • ricdesan

      Well if even “some” journalists in this police state of ours would do their job, then vetted leaks would be more valuable than just mass releases. But when these days the only people willing to put it out there arent journalists, then this is what you get!

  3. udora

    Don’t care about wikileaks. Happy that the NSA is trying to figure out the next terrorist attack before it happens. Only hope that they are efficient and successful.

    • Yeah let’s not think about the methods governments are using… that’s a great idea! Because terrorist are everywhere you know! They could be hiding next door, just go spying on your neighbors, you good law abiding citizen …

    • Mcbeese

      Udora, I’m with you. I am a law abiding citizen and am not a threat. I’m fine with the NSA leveraging our technical strengths to keep us safe. In fact, I would object if I learned that they weren’t doing so.

      I’m actually much more surprised by the number of people that didn’t assume this kind of surveillance has been going on for years than I am by the confirmation that it is.

    • Mcbeese

      Agreed. If the citizens feel they need to be more informed, then their elected leaders should work on finding a solution to that requirement. Treasonous leaking of confidential information, done in a way that can put others lives in danger, is not the way to go.

      • johnlabarge

        The problem with that is that the information never gets out. The gov officials keep it secret, the public never gets to debate it. Whee would we be if no one was able to think for themselves to enough of an extent to take the risk to let this info out, our elected officials could continue these overreaches with impunity.

      • ravin dave

        Why do you seem to be one of the government guys telling “citizens” that the people who are perfoming malfeasance will be happy to report to the citizens that they are doing it ?

    • I sure have — another great leak. And I’m aware that both of these went to traditional journalists. My point is that with something like WikiLeaks we could be getting a lot more of the same, or more information about them.

        • Mathew Ingram

          Yes, sorry about that. I had a bunch of other people try to make the point on Twitter that these stories were broken by traditional media and therefore WikiLeaks isn’t necessary, and that carried over into my response