This thing with Wikileaks hits close to home.
As you may know, Julian Assange and Wikileaks have published hundreds of thousands of documents that reveal often embarrassing information about the behind-the-scenes activities of governments and global non-governmental organizations.
We have learned details about Israeli requests for U.S. to consider military action against Iranian nuke plants. Other leaks indicate what U.S. leaders really thought about Mideast peace efforts, which were different than what the leaders were telling the U.S. public. We learned that the Vatican directly pressured the Irish government to grant immunity to church officials involved in sex abuses. We learned of the possibility of a Saudi plan to invade Lebanon to remove the Iranian-backed government. We learned how cash continues to flow to terrorists despite decades of supposed multi-national efforts to stop the flow. We learned that the royal family in Saudi Arabia, our supposed top Mideast ally in the fight against terrorism, is less than aggressive in their efforts to stop efforts in their country to fund terrorist groups.
The list of revelations goes on and on and on.
However, the biggest concern is not what the leaks reveal, it is how our federal government (and overseas governments) have responded. Congress was outraged, and joined with conservative groups and news organizations to suggest that Mr. Assange has, among other things, jeopardized the lives of thousands of U.S. troops.
The response is a classic and unfortunate case of killing the messenger. What we see is a Congress and federal government focused on punishing Assange and stopping the flow of information rather than investigating how millions of classified documents slipped through the system.
Assange made note of the kill-the-messenger response, saying: “There is a legitimate role for secrecy, and there is a legitimate role for openness. Unfortunately, those who commit abuses against humanity or against the law find abusing legitimate secrecy to conceal their abuse all too easy. People of good conscience have always revealed abuses by ignoring abusive strictures.”
A reasonable fear is that the government will react by squashing the means of information delivery rather than fixing the real national security problems. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism faculty and officers recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General that expressed this reasonable fear. They wrote that Wikileaks is a legitimate news organization protected by the First Amendment. Also, they noted that “as a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.”
Writing at Poynter.org, Steve Myers noted that traditional media groups also fear Wikileaks. He noted: “In inserting itself between source and publisher, WikiLeaks has shifted power away from the monoliths that once determined what is news and toward the people who, before the Web, would have been stopped in the newspaper lobby before they could see a reporter.”
To a large extent, we have the U.S. government and some mainstream media groups fearful of Wikileaks — which is to say Wikileaks threatens to reveal their weaknesses.
Jay Rosen, with New York University, notes that Wikileaks and other emerging Internet news sources changes the balance of power between what was a comfortable relationship between governments and powerful media companies.
“In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors,” Rosen noted.
If you think us Internet trolls are paranoid and that our government would never directly or blatantly trample basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, please Google the two phrases: “Japanese American internment,” and “Alien and Sedition Acts.”
As noted earlier, this thing with Wikileaks hits close to home. And that’s a good thing, because it should serve as a reminder of our sometimes uncomfortable but always necessary civic duty to keep tabs on what our government is up to.
More importantly, when your federal government says it is doing something for your protection or fairness, please remember that exchanging liberties for security almost often results in less of each.