If it wasn’t already obvious that the U.S. government is targeting journalists as part of its ongoing war on leaks, it should be fairly clear now that Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald’s partner has been detained for nine hours in a British airport and had all of his electronics seized by authorities looking for classified documents like the ones Greenwald got from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden. More than anything, this kind of behavior highlights the value of having a stateless, independent media entity such as WikiLeaks.
And if that wasn’t enough, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has written about an almost unprecedented effort by British authorities to force the newspaper to stop reporting on the government’s surveillance of its citizens — including the seizure and destruction of hard drives at the newspaper’s offices and warnings about future action if the reporting continues. Rusbridger said the paper will continue its work, but will do so from the U.S. As he described it:
“And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest.”
A pattern of journalistic harassment
Moving to the U.S. may not be much of an alternative, however, given the American government’s recent behavior. U.S. authorities have said that Britain took the action they did against Greenwald’s partner, Brazilian resident David Miranda, without any direction from the Obama administration — under Britain’s Schedule 7 anti-terrorism law — although the U.S. government did acknowledge that British authorities gave them a “head’s up” about the detention and search. But should we believe this, knowing that senior security officials have routinely lied about their activities?
Given what has happened with Snowden, it’s entirely believable that the Obama administration asked Britain to take such action, or at least suggested that it would be grateful if it occurred. What’s especially depressing is how quick some defenders of the U.S. security apparatus were to argue that it was Greenwald’s own fault his partner was treated in such a way — as though targeting the families of journalists for unreasonable search and seizure should be considered routine:
As the Free Press and others have pointed out, the detention is just part of a much larger pattern of harassment that has been directed at journalists by the U.S. government over the last year — a pattern that includes veiled threats of prosecution against Greenwald and other journalists who have been involved in leaks, as well as the ongoing quasi-legal measures it has been taking against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
WikiLeaks is already a media entity
While the idea of WikiLeaks as a media entity is not universally accepted, I and others have argued that it deserves to be thought of in that way: journalism professor Jay Rosen has called it the “first stateless news organization,” and Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has made a persuasive case — both in his writings and in testimony at the Bradley Manning trial — that WikiLeaks is a crucial part of what he calls “the networked Fourth Estate.”
Even Bill Keller, the former New York Times executive editor who has had a somewhat contentious relationship with both Assange and WikiLeaks, has told me that he believes the WikiLeaks founder should be given the same protections as any journalist, and that the attacks on the organization are a serious threat to freedom of the press.
“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.”
Although WikiLeaks is arguably a media entity in its own right, it also benefits from forming partnerships with existing media players — as it has in the past with The Guardian, the New York Times and others — just as Edward Snowden saw it as valuable to reach out to Greenwald instead of just publishing the NSA documents he had on some random website. Traditional media outlets and journalists not only have a brand value and an existing audience, but they can help put things in context and make their meaning more obvious.
We need Anonymous for journalism
As the U.S. government and others not only put more pressure on the original whistleblowers in such cases — the Bradley Mannings and the Edward Snowdens — but also continue to ratchet up the pressure on the journalists who assist them, it becomes even more important to have some kind of entity like WikiLeaks that can act as a central outlet for such leaks, a place that is theoretically out of reach of U.S. control (if such a thing is even possible).
Even if WikiLeaks isn’t the best candidate for this kind of entity, either because of Assange’s personal behavior or his management style — or both — there arguably needs to be something similar. Perhaps a group like the hacker collective Anonymous — a diffused and leaderless movement that shares a common goal — but for journalistic documents might work. Or a combination of Anonymous and the file-sharing outlet Pirate Bay, where leakers can send their information and know that it will not fall into the wrong hands. Media outlets have tried to create such entities but mostly failed.
Having that kind of stateless, leaderless entity might make it harder for governments to make any headway by attacking individual journalists like Greenwald or even individual leakers. In some ways, it’s unfortunate that such a thing needs to exist at all, but even if we look only at what has happened over the past year, that case has arguably been made. Now all that is required is the motivation and the means to create it.