Wikileaks v. The Pentagon
There's a war of words developing between the Pentagon and the information-sharing website Wikileaks.
The war of words between Wikileaks and the U.S. military over the treasure trove of leaked documents relating to the Afghan War that the website came into possession of last week is heating up. First, the Pentagon issued a strongly worded statement yesterday demanding that Wikileaks return all classified American documents in its possession immediately:
“The only acceptable course is for WikiLeaks to take steps to immediately return all versions of all of those documents to the US government and permanently delete them from its website, computers, and records,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said on Thursday, according to the Guardian.
He added: “If doing the right thing is not good enough for them, then we will figure out what alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing.”
It isn’t exactly clear what the United States can do in this situation, though. The Wikileaks servers are apparently located in Iceland and other locations beyond the jurisdiction of the United States and their spokesman, Julian Assange, seems very adept at keeping his location secret. Presumably, if foreign law enforcement authorities were to cooperate, we might be able to bring the people responsible for publishing the documents — who are actually individuals other than Assange — to justice, but it won’t be easy; and shutting down the website doesn’t seem to be either realistic or proper.
Nonetheless, Wikileaks seems to take the threat seriously enough to engage in what can only be called a game of “chicken” with the Pentagon:
LONDON — Online whistle-blower WikiLeaks has posted a huge encrypted file named “Insurance” to its website, sparking speculation that those behind the organization may be prepared to release more classified information if authorities interfere with them.
At 1.4 gigabytes, the file is 20 times larger than the batch of 77,000 secret U.S. military documents about Afghanistan that WikiLeaks dumped onto the Web last month, and cryptographers say that the file is virtually impossible to crack — unless WikiLeaks releases the key used to encode the material.
“There’s no way that anyone has any chance of figuring out what’s in there,” Paul Kocher, president of US-based Cryptography Research, said Thursday.
That hasn’t stopped bloggers and journalists from speculating. Some say the files could be the 15,000 or so intelligence reports which WikiLeaks says it’s held back for vetting. Others, pointing to its enormous size, say it could be a compilation of the 260,000 classified diplomatic cables allegedly accessed by Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged Thursday that the government suspects that WikiLeaks is sitting on at least some of its message traffic. The organization itself is keeping mum, at least in public.
“We do not discuss security procedures,” WikiLeaks said in an e-mail response to questions about the file.
Editor-in-chief Julian Assange was a bit more expansive — if equally cryptic — in his response to the same line of questioning in a television interview with independent U.S. news network Democracy Now! earlier this week.
“I think it’s better that we don’t comment on that,” Assange said, according to the network’s transcript of the interview. “But, you know, one could imagine in a similar situation that it might be worth ensuring that important parts of history do not disappear.”
Or, more likely they’re using this as a bargaining chip.
Also, while it’s fairly easy to condemn Wikileaks for it’s role in this affair, it’s also worth noting that the organization has played a role in uncovering scandals around the world that the public otherwise would not have known about. One of the first documents made available on the site revealed efforts to assassinate Somali government officials by a Somali religious leader. The site also revealed corruption on the part of the family of the former President of Kenya, released information documenting the bizarre internal procedures of the Church Of Scientology. and, of most interest to conservatives, was one of the sites that leaked the emails that were at the center of the so-called “Climategate” scandal in 2009.
The organization itself describes its purpose as:
WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public. Since July 2007, we have worked across the globe to obtain, publish and defend such materials, and, also, to fight in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which our work is based: the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history.
We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly – in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.
In its landmark ruling on the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” We agree.
We believe that it is not only the people of one country that keep their government honest, but also the people of other countries who are watching that government. That is why the time has come for an anonymous global avenue for disseminating documents the public should see.
It’s a noble sentiment and, even in the United States, probably a correct one since there is surely information that the government classifies on a daily basis not because it is actually an essential state secret, but because it is potentially embarrassing to political officials, or to a policy goal. That is arguably the logic behind the reason that much of the information contained in the Afghan War Diaries was kept secret, after all.
The question is who gets to make the determination that something that’s secret needs to be released. In this case, it was Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who is believed to be behind most, if not all, of the leaking of Afghanistan War information that Wikileaks has published. While some have taken to considering Manning a hero of some kind, it’s fairly clear that he broke the law and, like Jonathan Pollard or Aldrich Ames, he deserves to be prosecuting for revealing classified information.
What about Wikileaks, though ? Should they be targeted by the United States Government ? My gut tells me that the answer is no. Like The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, they are, at heart, journalists. They published information that came into their possession. The fact that laws may have been broken in order by others seems to me to be irrelevant. Like it or not, the information it out there and we simply have to accept that fact.