Feb 1 2011

When Journalism Becomes ‘Terrorism’

The dangerous sport of calling WikiLeaks names

Julian Assange“Let me be very clear,” declared Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.), “WikiLeaks is not a whistleblower website and [Julian] Assange is not a journalist.”

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin concurred: “Assange is not a ‘journalist,’ any more than the ‘editor’ of Al-Qaeda’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a ‘journalist,’” she wrote on her Facebook page, adding that the WikiLeaks founder was “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands” who should be “pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Meet the Press, 12/5/10) likewise dubbed Assange a “high-tech terrorist”—a designation endorsed by Vice President Joe Biden (Meet the Press, 12/19/10).

Pundits spelled out the implication of this labeling. FoxNews.com commentator Christian Whiton (10/25/10), a State Department official in the Bush administration, urged Obama to “designate WikiLeaks and its officers as enemy combatants, paving the way for non-judicial actions against them.” Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner (12/2/10) asserted: “We are beyond indictments and courts…. We should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets.”

Or as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 11/30/10) put it: “That’s what I would like to see, a little drone here to Assange.” Columnist Jonah Goldberg (Chicago Tribune, 10/29/10) was more graphic: “Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?”

Other media figures thought prosecution rather than murder the appropriate governmental response. “If a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’ stands as a human disaster,” wrote Joe Klein on Time’s Swampland blog (12/1/10). “Assange is a criminal. He’s the one who should be in jail.”

Actually, it’s far from clear that what WikiLeaks does with classified information is illegal, let alone terroristic. Although the distinction is often blurred in commentary, WikiLeaks has not actually “leaked” anything; instead, it receives leaks and makes them available to the world, both directly and through other media partners.

The official who discloses secrets is in a very different legal position from the person who publicizes those leaks. As a Congressional Research Service report (12/6/10; Secrecy News, 12/8/10) stated:

We are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult.

Contrary to the protestations of Ensign, Palin et al., WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization. It’s not the objective voice, the five Ws or the inverted pyramid style that make one a journalist; it’s the activity of providing factual information about matters of public concern. As Reporters Without Borders (12/17/10) said in an open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:

We regard the publication of classified information by WikiLeaks and five associated newspapers as a journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment. Prosecuting WikiLeaks’ founders and other people linked to the website would seriously damage media freedom in the United States and impede the work of journalists who cover sensitive subjects.

The job of journalists is to inform the public, not to protect secrets, and there is a general presumption that they will share knowledge they possess unless disclosure would cause specific foreseeable harms. It would be strange if any credible news outlet, provided with the same mother lode of classified documents that WikiLeaks received, would not do what WikiLeaks did and publish the most newsworthy of them.

If the government can declare Assange to be a spy or a terrorist because he’s published classified documents, every investigative journalist who does the same thing is in deep trouble. As I.F. Stone (Nation, 1/16/45; TheNation.com, 12/13/10) pointed out, “letting ‘confidential’ information leak out” is “the favorite Washington pastime. If this is a crime, all but a hopelessly inefficient minority of Washington officials and newspapermen ought to be put in jail.”