Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
December 7, 2010
So let’s talk about this Wikileaks thing – but, please, don’t tell anyone. Let’s keep this just between us.
Just you, me … and whatever government agency happens to be listening in right now.
So, first off, let’s be clear that this isn’t a discussion of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy. He’s getting called all kinds of names – from hero to creep, from “girly-man” to rapist – but none of that matters. The point isn’t who he is, it’s what he’s done.
Second, let’s get clear about what he’s actually done, because a lot of the ranting is wildly incorrect.
He has not – repeat: not – indiscriminately dumped more than 250,000 highly sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables onto the Internet.
Despite what you might read – and read and read – that hasn’t happened.
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Wikileaks has claimed that it has all those cables, but according to the Wikileaks website, it has so far released (as of 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7) exactly 1,027 cables.
That leaves another 250,260 yet to go. So it’s been a trickle, not a dump.
Perhaps more to the point, the release has not been “indiscriminate.”
Wikileaks has been guided in its process by five major newspapers, which Assange has referred to as “our mainstream media partners”: Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain, Der Spiegel in Germany and The New York Times.
As reported by The Associated Press last week, Wikileaks released its full archive of the cables to those organizations and they, in turn, are reading and evaluating the cables and deciding which ones they consider appropriate to publish.
And, according to the AP story, the papers have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release and what should be removed from those documents before they are released.
In short, Wikileaks has been acting in a pretty responsible fashion, asking for and accepting guidance on what to publish and what to keep secret.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some serious embarrassment about the contents of some cables that have been released.
And it’s not to say that there hasn’t been some damage from those cables.
But it has not been a mindless, destructive act of terrorism, as many have called it.
But still, let’s take a deeper look at the essential issue here: government secrecy.
Governments keep secrets. That’s part of what they do. Sometimes, it’s a vital part of what they do: protecting the nation from its enemies. Sometimes, it’s a thoroughly evil (yes, I said “evil”) part of what they do: protecting the government from its own citizens by covering up government lies.
I think we all know that our government often classifies documents “secret” or “top secret” simply to cover up its own misdeeds.
When someone takes on the risk of releasing those documents, it’s an act of heroism.
Not to waste too much time on something that should be obvious to anyone who cares, but here’s just one example: The “Pentagon Papers” were thousands of pages of documents about the Vietnam War, classified “top secret.” They were leaked to and ultimately published by The New York Times in 1971. Those papers, according to the Times, “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
Just because the government says something is “secret,” that doesn’t mean that it should be secret.
And if keeping secrets is something that the government does, digging out the truth about those secrets is something reporters do.
It’s their job.
Those opposing interests make up part of the system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution.
Now, being a former newspaper editor, I have to insist that the editor is a vital part of that checks-and-balances equation.
It’s the reporter’s job to dig out the truth regardless of who wants to keep it secret – or why they want to keep it secret.
And then it’s the editor’s job to decide whether that nugget of truth ought to be published.
Dividing the responsibilities and assigning those roles – the reporter digs, the editor decides – is part of the newspaper’s own internal system of checks and balances.
And, for what it’s worth, I know that I, as editor of The Aspen Times, more than once published stories that should not have seen the light of day. I screwed up.
That’s unfortunately part of the process. Reporters make mistakes; editors make mistakes; but the more people you have sifting things along the way, the more likely you are to get the right result.
And sometimes, in the end, you wind up with the courts making the final decision on right and wrong.
The leak of the Pentagon Papers resulted in a charge of treason against Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave those documents to The New York Times. That case was thrown out of court. A story I once stupidly allowed to be published resulted in a libel suit against The Aspen Times. That, too, was thrown out of court.
I’m not trying to claim any equivalence between Daniel Ellsberg’s courage and my stupidity. I’m just pointing out that it’s checks and balances all down the line.
And that’s the crucial point for making up our minds about Wikileaks.
For now, at least, they are acting in a responsible fashion: trying to decide what should and what should not be released.
In the long run, of course, there’s no guarantee that Wikileaks will continue to be responsible
I could throw in a plug for newspapers here, endangered as we are in the age of the Internet, but I think it’s more important to give my vote to the principle of responsibility.
Wikileaks needs to be responsible – and so far, they have.
But the people calling, loudly and publicly, for the immediate killing of Julian Assange also need to be responsible – and, so far, they most certainly have not.
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