December 15, 2010

by Kelly Belton, News Editor

Since the Nov. 28 release of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks has been the subject of both praise and criticism around the world. In the weeks following the release, a cyber war has ensued, with supporters of WikiLeaks attacking the websites of alleged opponents of the organization.

WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing site founded in 2006 by now infamous hacker Julian Assange, has been releasing classified documents since 2007 via the Internet. According to the New York Times, the organization released a manual describing operating procedures at Guantanamo Bay in December 2007.

Relatively little was heard from the media as WikiLeaks continued to release 500,000 page messages from 9/11 last November. In fact, the whirlwind of controversy that now surrounds the organization was relatively unheard of until April 5, 2010, when the site released raw video footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter opening fire on innocents in Baghdad.

The so-called war diaries that included classified documents from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were released July 25 and Oct. 25, respectively.

While some people, such as Daniel Ellsberg, famous for the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, have praised WikiLeaks for providing transparency, many government officials have condemned the organization, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling Assange a terrorist.

“This disclosure is not just an attack on America; it’s an attack on the international community,” she said during a Nov. 29 State Department press conference.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. officials have said some cables most recently released provide terrorists with key information, including a number of international sites the government sees critical for national defense.

The Guardian cites one cable that reveals that the U.S. is running an intelligence campaign aimed at United Nations officials. Another reveals that the U.S. manipulated the Copenhagen climate accord. They are not all detrimental to the U.S., though. One cited the European Union president Herman van Rompuy, who called the accord an “incredible disaster.”

Senator Joe Lieberman, I-CT, has made his stance on the issue clear, as he took credit for getting Amazon to cut off services to WikiLeaks in a Dec. 2 CNN article.

“WikiLeaks’ illegal, outrageous and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world,” he said. “No responsible company, whether American or foreign, should assist WikiLeaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials.”

However, Ellsberg released his own thoughts on the subject on his website Dec. 7.

Ellsberg released a top secret history of U.S. involvement with Vietnam that ultimately revealed that the government had lied to its people and Congress. The information was subsequently published on the front page of the New York Times in 1971.

“The truth is that every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time,” he said in his statement.

Jason Pigg, an associate professor and head of politcal science, cited the Pentagon Papers Supreme Court Case, New York Times v. United States, as the most similar case to compare with WikiLeaks.

“In that case the Court held that the New York Times had the right to publish these documents, even though they were leaked and classified, and that their publication was protected by the First Amendment,” Pigg said. “While the Court has become more conservative over the years, it is difficult to imagine such an ingrained principle – freedom of the press to report even embarrassing, leaked, documents that may have an impact on national security – being read in a way that would not include an organization like WikiLeaks.”

Pigg also said the documents within the Pentagon Papers were more classified than those released by WikiLeaks.

“It’s surprising there’s so much opposition to WikiLeaks given the relative insignificance of them compared to the Pentagon Papers,” he said. “They’re interesting, just not as Earth-shattering as the Pentagon Papers.”

In a Congressional Research Service report released Dec. 6, author and legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea explores the potential laws by which Assange or WikiLeaks could be charged.

She also explains that Assange sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. “to consider any U.S. requests to protect specific information that the government believes could, if published, put any individuals at significant risk of harm.”

The State Department legal adviser responded by sending a letter to Assange’s attorney that said the U.S. would not negotiate with WikiLeaks.

“In light of the foregoing, it seems that there is ample statutory authority for prosecuting induvials who elicit or disseminate most of the documents at issue, as long as the intent element can be satisfied and potential damage to national security can be demonstrated,” reads her analysis. “There is some authority, however, for interpreting [The Espionage Act], which prohibits the communication, transmission, or delivery of protected information to anyone not entitled to possess it, to exclude the ‘publication’ of material by the media.”

The report continues, saying previous rulings show noncitizens could be subject to prosecution if it can be proved that the defendant was active in obtaining the information.

In conclusion, Elsea writes that the outcome will most likely depend on whether the information provided to the public outweighs its potential harms to national security.

Pigg said it is important to remember the original idea the Founding Fathers had when they implemented the First Amendment.

“Many of us, perhaps naturally, are too easy to lose track of the important role that the press can play in our democracy and lose sight of our larger principles when we view disclosures about the government as an unpatriotic attack on our country,” he said. “The Framers of the Constitution were aware of the important role that a free press could play and thus offered it protection under the 1st amendment in a way that many countries do not.”

Pigg suggested that many Americans may see the situation differently if the released documents concerned diplomats from other countries rather than our own.

Meanwhile, Assange was arrested Dec. 7 in the United Kingdom after Sweden issued a European arrest warrant for sexual assault charges in Sweden. He appeared in court Dec. 14 where he appealed for his release.

Regardless of what happens to Assange, Pigg said situations such as the one caused by WikiLeaks are something governments will have to deal with more and more in the Internet age.

“As several analysts have pointed out, the government response to WikiLeaks may not be more openness, as Assage apparently desires, but less. There may be less of a willingness to share government information across agencies and personnel and then the public,” he said. “In general, though, with increased electronic communication it is hard to see how there won’t be more releases of information in the future.”

Assange has asserted his opinion in the way he has released information. According to The New Yorker, Assange edited the Apache helicopter film to include a quote from George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

E-mail comments to keb029@latech.edu.