Monday, November 28, 2011

How WikiLeaks Has Influenced Foreign Policy, Journalism, and the First Amendment

Cablegate One Year Later: How WikiLeaks Has Influenced

Foreign Policy, Journalism, and the First Amendment


by Trevor Timm


Published on Monday, November 28, 2011 by the

Electronic Frontier Foundation


Distributed by Common Dreams


One year ago today, WikiLeaks started publishing a

trove of over 250,000 leaked U.S. State Department

cables, which have since formed the basis of reporting

for newspapers around the globe. The publication has

given the public a window into the inner workings of

government at an unprecedented scale, and in the

process, has transformed journalism in the digital age.


In recognition, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was

just awarded Australia's version of the Pulitzer Prize,

in addition to the Martha Gellhorn journalism prize he

won in the United Kingdom earlier this year. As Salon's

Glenn Greenwald observed, "WikiLeaks easily produced

more newsworthy scoops over the last year than every

other media outlet combined." Yet at the same time, the

Justice Department has been investigating WikiLeaks for

criminal violations for doing what other media

organizations have been doing in the U.S. for

centuries--publishing truthful information in the public interest.


Here is a look at Cablegate's impact on journalism

surrounding six countries central to U.S. foreign

policy, and why it is vital for the media to stand up

for WikiLeaks' First Amendment right to publish

classified information. The WikiLeaks Cables and Their

Contributions to Journalism




This past summer, Senator John McCain was the most

vocal member of Congress cheering for more aggressive

military action to remove Libya's then-leader Muammar

Gaddafi. But a WikiLeaks cable revealed just two years

earlier, Sen. McCain had personally promised to arm

Qaddafi with U.S. military equipment. Yet Gaddafi was

one of the strongest critics of the WikiLeaks

publications. The cables exposed the greed and

corruption of his regime, and, according to some

reports, seemed to drive him crazy. He even accused the

CIA of leaking the documents to undermine him.




Long before U.S forces secretly entered Pakistan to

kill Osama bin laden in August, the cables confirmed

the U.S. military was already covertly operating inside

the country--a fact that the U.S. government had

previously denied for months. Despite public support

for the Pakistani government, the cables also showed

U.S. diplomats have long thought of the Pakistani

intelligence service, the I.S.I., as a "terrorist

organization" that tacitly supports al-Qaeda and the Taliban.




One of the first cables released in 2010 confirmed

reports of another undeclared military action that the

U.S. had previously denied--drones strikes in Yemen. At

the same time, the cables detailed the secret deal the

Yemeni President made with the U.S. to allow the

strikes, which he lied to his people about in the

process. When the C.I.A. extra-judicially killed

alleged al-Qaeda leader and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awaki

with a drone in October 2011, the U.S. publicly

announced the death but refused to officially release

any information about the strike. A cable published by

WikiLeaks provided a blueprint for how the attack was carried out.




During the Egyptian revolution, the cables gave the

rest of the world a stark and unflinching look at the

brutality of Mubarak and his regime, facts of which

Egyptians were already well aware. The cables painted a

"vivid picture" of the U.S.'s close ties with the

regime, but also confirmed to the international

community that police brutality in Egypt was "routine

and pervasive" and that "the use of torture [was] so

widespread that the Egyptian government ha[d] stopped

denying it exists."




The cables have been credited with directly influencing

what came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. In the

early stages of mass political protests in Tunisia,

Nawaat--the influential Tunisian blogging group--set up a

website called Tunileaks and widely distributed the

cables to Tunisian citizens. The cables confirmed that

the U.S. viewed Tunisian President Ben Ali as a corrupt

and brutal tyrant and fanned the flames of the already

smoldering revolution. Amnesty International would

credit WikiLeaks and its media partners as "catalysts"

in the people's successful ouster of Ali.




In what may turn out to be WikiLeaks' most lasting

legacy, CNN reported a month ago that a WikiLeaks cable

played a role in expediting the return of all U.S.

troops from Iraq and ending the decade long war.

Negotiations to keep U.S. troops in Iraq longer than

the original 2011 deadline were strained when Wikileaks

released a cable showing the U.S. tried to cover up an

incident where soldiers knowingly killed innocent women

and children in Iraq. Iraqi negotiators indicated the

cable gave them excuse to refuse to extend the troop presence.


This, of course, only scratches the surface, as the

cables have shed light on almost every major foreign

policy story of 2011. In April, Atlantic Wire reported

that nearly half of 2011's New York Times issues relied

on WikiLeaks documents. And while all of the cables

have now been released, the impact is still

reverberating. Zimbabwe's notorious dictator Robert

Mugabe may be next to feel the effects. The BBC

recently reported that WikiLeaks revelations may force

him to step down from power, a notion that was

previously "unthinkable." Long Term Impact: WikiLeaks

and Threats to the First Amendment


As we look back at how the WikiLeaks cables have

enriched and colored our understanding of recent

history, it's impossible to ignore that the Justice

Department is currently investigating individuals

allegedly associated with WikiLeaks, reportedly for

possible violations of the Espionage Act of 1917--an

outdated relic of World War I--which has recently been

used to punish government leakers.


No media organization has ever been indicted, much less

convicted, under the Espionage Act. Constitutional

scholars almost uniformly agree that a prosecution of a

media organization would be devastating for press

freedom and violate the First Amendment. The Justice

Department has reportedly tried to avoid this

constitutional problem by trying to craft charges

against Wikileaks leader Julian Assange for soliciting

or inducing classified information from his source

under "conspiracy to commit espionage" theory.


Of course, asking sources for information is part of

the normal news gathering process for any reporter,

which is why Yale law professor Jack Balkin said the

Justice Department's strategy "threatens traditional

journalists as well." Secrecy expert Steven Aftergood

argued that a prosecution under this theory could

criminalize "ordinary conventions of national security

reporting." And former New York Times general counsel

James Goodale remarked the Justice Department might as

well be investigating WikiLeaks for "conspiracy to

commit journalism."


Yet the mainstream press, most notably the New York

Times, has done little to defend WikiLeaks' right to

publish, despite the fact that legal observers on both

the left and right have said it's impossible to

distinguish WikiLeaks and the Times under the letter of the law.


Assange's rocky relationship with the Times and other

media partners may be the reason for the Times'

silence. But, no matter what one thinks of Assange,

failing to defend WikiLeaks' right to publish

government secrets is dangerously short sighted. With

all the attention WikiLeaks has received, it's easy to

forget that newspapers have been publishing secret

information for decades. In fact, in the past year,

stories based on non-WikiLeaks classified information

about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Yemen, Somalia,

Libya, Iran, China have graced the pages of the

country's most established publications. And much of

the information on which those stories were based is of

a higher classification level than anything WikiLeaks published.


The New York Times may feel safe in the Justice

Department's indication that they are not the target of

any investigation, but the "trust us" argument will

only last until the next big scoop. It was less than a

decade ago that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

repeatedly claimed he would like to investigate the New

York Times under the Espionage Act for its NSA

warrantless wiretapping investigation. New York Times

reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won a Pulitzer

Prize for exposing gross constitutional violations that

also happened to be classified "Top Secret." But with a

successful WikiLeaks prosecution, a threat like

Gonzales' could force a paper to kill such a story, or

worse: the next Pulitzer Prize winner may be forced to

accept his or her prize from a jail cell.


The mainstream American press has the most to lose from

a WikiLeaks prosecution. Whether or not Julian Assange

is indicted can't extinguish the idea WikiLeaks

represents. We now know the technology and expertise

exists to create anonymously driven whistleblower

platforms that can advocate for government transparency

by publishing all over the world. As the Economist

said, "Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have

darkened the night." And despite the established

press's unwillingness to defend WikiLeaks, they are

also trying to copy WikiLeaks' model.


As the media look back on the WikiLeaks cables'

wide-ranging impact on journalism this week, it's

important they also defend the idea behind WikiLeaks.

Because if they do not stand up for WikiLeaks' right to

publish, in the end, it will only be harder to preserve

the publication rights of mainstream organizations like

the New York Times. The real casualty in a Wikileaks

prosecution will not be Julian Assange; it will be the

death of a free press and the First Amendment itself.


Trevor Timm is an Activist at the Electronic Frontier

Foundation. He specializes in free speech issues and

government transparency.




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