Wednesday, May 4, 2011

WikiLeaks: Leaking Documents with Good Intentions?

Catherine Caldwell

To me, WikiLeaks is a mystery of the modern media world. To be frank, even after visiting the organization’s website and doing a little research on WikiLeaks’ standing, which relies on supporters and Sunshine Press principles, I became even more curious as to who the people behind WikiLeaks are, what they do and where their loyalties lie.

According to WikiLeaks’ website, WikiLeaks a non-profit organization whose goal is to “bring important news and information to the public.” WikiLeaks cites its most important activity as publishing original source material (submitted anonymously via the site’s highly secured electronic drop-box) and posting these documents alongside news stories – therefore, allowing readers to see the evidence of truth.

While I am optimistic about WikiLeaks’ mission of media transparency, this optimism should not lead to naïveté. It is crucial to consider the caliber of one’s source and editorial motivation when analyzing information. Yet, when neither are known, deciphering accuracy and applicability becomes challenging.

It is fitting that a Facebook scam would follow suit of the most tweeted topic in Twitter’s short history: Osama Bin Laden’s death. A video virus claiming to stream live video of Osama’s death was credited to WikiLeaks. Aside from this online scam, according to The New American, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called Facebook “the most appalling spying machine ever invented,” for providing personal information to American intelligence.

Playing the blame game over who leaked or who shared what information seems to be a double-edged sword. There is no question that if Facebook is indeed being paid (or simply used) to provide personal information to the government, there is something wrong. In contrast, one must also question the ethics of sharing classified government documents over the Internet.

On the bright side, credible media outlets such as the New York Times are praising WikiLeaks, saying it “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.” I, too, am a truth advocate who supports referencing the original documents from which reporters produce their articles. I do question, however, the minds behind WikiLeaks’ decision-making. According to their website, WikiLeaks journalists (whoever they may be) “analyze the material, verify it and write a news piece about it, describing its significance to society.”

The Times article “WikiLeaks’ War on Secrecy: Truth’s Consequences,” helps put the power of the journalists posting these leaked documents into perspective: “WikiLeaks' publication starting Nov. 28 of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables was the largest unauthorized release of contemporary classified information in history.” Quite impressive indeed.

Although the article says that President Obama believes there should be fewer government secrets, openness does not mean total exposure. Obama’s focus is rebuilding government clarity: a jaunting obstacle in the midst of secrecy and security precautions.

Perhaps referencing the past will help us gain clarity to what kind of documents ought to be released. "The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system," the Justice Potter Stewart said in the Pentagon papers opinion of 1971, "would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained." Well said.

Although WikiLeaks embodies the core journalism value of truth, breaking stories on censorship, violation and war issues, it does not make the nonprofit immune to scandal and scrutiny. Even if WikiLeaks is a project of the Sunshine Press, one must wonder if an organization founded on confidentiality has an agenda in its publishing decisions. It is necessary to also question: just how ethical is it to reveal government secrets in an era of terrorism?

Benjamin Radford of Discovery News writes, “Despite what conspiracy theorists may think, secrecy is not an inherently bad thing; in fact, it usually keeps us safe. We keep our bank accounts, ATM and Social Security numbers a secret because revealing them could put our finances at risk.” In other words, in order for WikiLeaks to be a valuable tool, it is up to the organization’s journalists to determine what is TMI (too much information) to keep the U.S. out of harm.

New York TimesDavid Carr's tweet about the “asymmetries” of WikiLeaks he said is something that has government officials spooked like a bunch of horses. And yes, officials should be spooked of being held accountable for deceitful or implausible actions.

While one may question the agenda of those who leak the documents, the important thing is that they are being exposed and hopefully, are keeping both officials and journalists on their toes: acting ethically and abiding by the law.

Perhaps WikiLeaks represents a positive new wave of truth, forcing politicians and government officials to think twice before producing ethically questionable documents or making murky decisions. Still, WikiLeaks leaves unanswered questions. So I, too, must continue to ask, “How far is too far?”

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