As the Pentagon investigates the potential damage from the leak of more
than 91,000 classified U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan,
the leak is fueling debate about the role of whistle-blowers as
journalistic sources in the age of digital data.
website that tries to foster policy debates by making classified
information available to the public, received the cache of documents
from sources it will not disclose. Wikileaks then passed the materials
on to three media organizations -- "The New York Times," "The Guardian"
newspaper in the United Kingdom, and "Der Spiegel" magazine in Germany.
in Washington say they are concerned the leaks pose a national security
threat and may endanger people in Afghanistan or Pakistan who have
worked against the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
"The State Department
joins the White House and [the Department of Defense] in condemning the
disclosure of classified information by Wikileaks," U.S. State
Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "The fact that these are in
many cases documents that are several years old does not change our
concern that this action risks our national security."
Included in the files are disclosures that coalition forces have killed hundreds
of civilians in incidents that went officially unreported.
The U.S. Army announced today that it was opening a criminal investigation aimed at finding the source of the leaks. 'Maximizing Impact'
Wikileaks has hundreds of unpaid volunteers from around the world who help
maintain the website's complicated infrastructure. By running off of an
array of Internet servers in many countries, Wikileaks has been able to
prevent any single government from shutting down its website.
founder Julian Assange told RFE/RL today that he decided to share the
documents with "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "Der Spiegel"
because those are "the most influential press organizations" within the
United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
that his motivation is to reform systems where abuses are covered up by
officials who classify documents in order to keep politically sensitive
information from becoming public.
"The vision behind [Wikileaks]
is really quite ancient. In order to make any sensible decision, you
need to know what actually is going on. In order to make any just
decision, you need to understand what abuses or plans for abuse are
occurring," Assange said. "As technologists, we can see that big reforms
come quickly when the public and decision makers can see what is really
Assange also explained that by sharing the cache of
documents with major news organizations, Wikileaks was able to keep its
promise to the whistle-blower who provided his organization with the
"We make a promise to our sources. One, that we will
do everything in our power, technically and legally, to protect them.
Two, that we are going to maximize the impact of the submissions that
they make to us," Assange said. "And we believe, in this case, [sharing
the material with 'The New York Times,' 'The Guardian,' and 'Der
Spiegel'] was the way to maximize impact."Pentagon Papers 2.0
are being made to the so-called "Pentagon Papers" case of 1971, when
former U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, while employed by the RAND
Corporation, released 7,000 pages of a top-secret Pentagon study on the
Vietnam conflict to "The New York Times" and other newspapers.
do see an analogy to the situation I was in 40 years ago," Ellsberg
said during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Show" today.
administration of then-President Richard Nixon tried to block
publication of the Pentagon Papers, but was defeated in the Supreme
Court, which ruled in favor of "The New York Times" and "The Washington
Post's" right, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to
publish the material.
Tom Glaisyer, a Knight media-policy fellow
at the New America Foundation, says that the Afghan war reports are a
kind of Pentagon Papers case in the age of the Internet.
has always been a delicate balance between national security and the
public interest, and it's been struck in the Pentagon Papers very much
in favor of giving journalists and newspapers the ability to publish all
but the most sensitive -- time sensitive -- of data," Glaisyer says.
fact of the matter is that we are entering a world where there is an
awful lot more digital data around, and there is a great possibility
that it can be transferred and shared very quickly. The world is going
to change. We have to get used to journalism in a world of digital
Assange, for his part, welcomes the comparisons with
Ellsberg, saying he has "great respect" for Ellsberg and "the work that
he has done -- and has continued to do -- in promoting the importance of
the role of whistle-blowers and their role in society."Brave New Media World
Anderson, who also is a Knight media-policy fellow at the New America
Foundation, says Wikileaks may represent the beginning of a new era in
journalism -- an era of Internet whistle-blowers who serve as
intermediary sources for investigative reporters.
Anderson warns that journalists need to ensure that intermediaries are
reliable. "No one knows what Wikileaks is," he says. "I mean, they don't
fit any of the categories of types of organizations that we are used to
thinking about. They're not really journalism. They're not really
hackers. They're not really activists. They are something new."
also cites the example set by Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. "They
are both doing the same thing, except one is an organization and one is a
person," he says. "We need to trust them, but interrogate them in the
same way we would with any person who has got their hands on data that
may cause harm or may help serve the public interest."
insists that the world of "digital data" is creating "a very different
world" -- a world where it is much easier for whistle-blowers to leak
classified information and remain anonymous, but where traditional
journalism will remain relevant.
"Wikileaks could have very
easily just put all these documents up online themselves. I think it
actually speaks very highly of the future of some form of institutional
professional journalism that they worked with 'The New York Times' and
'The Guardian' on these stories because they technologically didn't need
to," Anderson says.
"So I think it actually says more about why
traditional institutions are still relevant. But it does show that there
is a new ecosystem developing. It isn't simply newspapers having
relationships with sources anymore. There are other groups and
organizations and layers involved now."
Journalism More Than Just Sources
Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation
of American Scientists, agrees that basic journalism is still necessary
to verify and substantiate information provided by groups like
"The service that they have been providing up to now
is that of a source of documents. But documents are not journalism.
Documents can mislead as easily as any other source. The function of
journalism still needs to be carried out as carefully and responsibly as
possible," Aftergood says.
"That means confirming the accuracy
of the content of any particular document. It means placing it in some
kind of political or policy context, and it means collecting a range of
interpretations of the significance."
Assange said he also
agrees, insisting that anyone who reads the Afghan war reports should
closely examine the reliability of the original sources, especially for
U.S. military reports that are based on information from an informer.
need to look at these reports in a subtle way. A lot of material is
included," Assange said. "There are 91,000 reports from units in the
field, from embassies in relation to Afghanistan, intelligence officers,
and from informers. The informers make their reports for money. They
are paid by the United States government for making serious allegations.
They make reports to knock out a competitor, a detested neighbor or a
family enemy -- and they also make reports for legitimate reasons."
told RFE/RL today that he has not been threatened with any court order
or legal proceedings because of leaking the Afghan war reports. Assange
said he also was not aware of any such threats against "The New York
Times," "The Guardian," or "Der Spiegel."
John Attanasio, a
professor of law at Southern Methodist University's Deadman School of
Law, says he doesn't think charges will be brought against Wikileaks by
the U.S. government because of the Afghan war reports. But Attanasio
says the incident is sure to fuel professional and legal debates around
the world in the years ahead.
"There are going to be journalists
who are going to debate this and how this kind of activity implicates
the profession, and I think journalists should debate this," Attanasio
says. "But I also think, because of the international nature of the
blogosphere, it's going to get debated in more than the American legal
system."contributors to this report include Ladan Nekoomaram of RFE/RL's Radio Farda in Washington and Christopher Schwartz in Prague