The Ethics of WikiLeaks: Setting the ?Agenda??

By: Shawn Moynihan

It was the Leak Heard ’Round the World. This summer the independent Website WikiLeaks published six years’ worth of classified military information on the war in Afghanistan — tens of thousands of classified military field reports about the war, detailing thousands of events in the ongoing conflict.

The New York Times, along with The Guardian newspaper of London and German magazine Der Spiegel, were given access to the material several weeks prior. The Gray Lady spent a month poring through the data for disclosures and verifying the information for what would become “The War Logs,” a series of stories it touted as “a real-time history of the war reported from one important vantage point — that of the soldiers and officers actually doing the fighting and reconstruction.”

Overnight, WikiLeaks rocketed from obscurity to a major topic of media debate. Its editor-in-chief and public face, Julian Assange, was thrust into the national spotlight, and once his take-down-the-bastards political intentions received more scrutiny he became hailed by some as a champion of anti-secrecy and derided by others as an anti-war crusader with a clear and, depending upon your perspective, dangerous agenda. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused him of “having blood on his hands.”

In the weeks that followed, the site that once barely registered on the media radar became both a hot topic for ethical debate and a new media force to be reckoned with.

In an opinion piece for CNN’s Website titled “We Should be Thankful for Wikileaks,” Roy Greenslade — professor of journalism at City University in London and a veteran U.K. editor at the Daily Mirror, Sunday Times and The Sun — called the reporting of the exposed documents a triumph for what he calls “data journalism,” or the science of sifting through information to deliver informative reports. He says the newspapers had an ethical obligation not to identify anyone in their reporting, but “the publishing of the material in the papers and on the ’Net — as long as it safeguarded the identities of people in harm’s way — can be justified as being in the public interest.”

Some, however, spoke out against the very idea of publishing such information, and others questioned WikiLeaks’ motives.

“This is the kind of information that can get people killed. It also raises the data release to a new level of criminality,” a Washington Times editorial read. “These secret reports have the greatest possibility of causing deadly consequences, which under the American legal tradition is why those who leaked them should be held accountable.”

Stars and Stripes Senior Managing Editor Howard Witt, in an opinion piece first published on E&P Online, railed against WikiLeaks and the way the mainstream media “breathlessly fanned” the story.

“We didn’t pursue the Wikileaks wares because we didn’t see much new or particularly revelatory that we and many others haven’t already been reporting for months,” Witt wrote. “WikiLeaks is no different than scores of other highly politicized Websites peddling activist agendas, even if many WikiLeaks acolytes in the media try to persuade us otherwise.”

Others questioned whether the documents should even have been classified to start with. “The most important lesson from the release of tens of thousands of pages of classified information about the war in Afghanistan seems to be getting lost: Far too much information is classified, often simply because it is embarrassing to the government,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law, wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

“I think that the publications should have published the information,” says Chemerinsky. “So long as they believed it was accurate and newsworthy and had no reason to believe that it would endanger national security, they did the right thing by publishing.”

Floyd Abrams, the renowned expert on First Amendment law who argued the Pentagon Papers case for the New York Times and is now a partner at New York law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, also voiced his support for the decision to publish.

“I think the three newspapers acted correctly — morally and journalistically — in publishing some of the materials they received from WikiLeaks,” Abrams tells E&P. “While the only one of the three that I read was the Times, it made clear that it took steps to seek to check the material for authenticity and accuracy as well as assuring that what it published would not threaten the safety of our troops.”

He adds, “I do not know and cannot know if that is true of WikiLeaks itself, and I do have concern that its posting of the tens of thousands of classified e-mails and the like may well have been done without any serious effort at vetting them for potential harm.”

When asked if WikiLeaks could conceivably be called before a judicial tribunal and asked to reveal its sources, Abrams says, “Sure, but that’s easier said than done.” As Wikileaks is supposedly based in Iceland but has no set location, “It’s hard, very hard, to find them.”

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