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Is Wikileaks Relevant to Us?

Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 11:25 AM

The process of publishing may never have come under such intense scrutiny before.

By William Dunkerley

For most publishers, the dilemmas faced by Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange probably seem quite remote. Certainly Assange himself is a controversial figure. Opinions of him range from criminal to hero. But a number of publishing-related concepts have come up in coverage of the scandal that deserve analysis and clarification.

If some kind of counterpart situation had arisen in your field of publication, how do you think your editor would have handled it? Editors Only conducted an anecdotal survey posing the situation, "Let's say someone approached you with content that's sure to interest your readers. But it was leaked and a foreign government considers it to be confidential." The survey then asked the question, "What would be your editorial decision?"

Of the survey respondents, about half said they would publish the information. Around one-quarter said they wouldn't, and the remainder were uncertain.

Some respondents believe it would be their duty to publish, while others consider publication irresponsible. One publishing expert took a pragmatic view: "I'd bring in a lawyer or two to tell me what kind of consequences publication would have. If it is not going to be a criminal offense in my country, and if I have proof that papers are not faked, forged, or the like, I'd publish them. Definitely. Keeping a foreign country's state secrets is none of my business."

According to Columbia Journalism Review, twenty faculty members of the Columbia University graduate school of journalism wrote to President Obama and Attorney General Holder about Wikileaks. They warned that prosecuting Wikileaks would establish a dangerous precedent. Their view is that Wikileaks is engaging in a journalistic activity that is entitled to First Amendment protection.

At the same time, the Pentagon was asking news organizations not to publish the questionable information carried by Wikileaks. According to the Associated Press, Pentagon spokesman Dave Lappen warned against disseminating Wikileaks' "stolen" information, even if already published elsewhere.

CNN further editorialized on the matter. National political correspondent Jessica Yellin said, "We would draw a distinction between publishing information that comes to you by, [sic] and publishing information that is stolen by somebody." CNN national security contributor Frances Townsend disparagingly commented, "Is [Assange] profiting from the commission of a crime? And the answer to that is yes."

In December, I attended a World Affairs Council public discussion of the Wikileaks scandal held in Hartford, Connecticut. As you can imagine, there were comments both pro and con. But, what I found most interesting is that in the audience of around 30 people, there were two FBI agents who so identified themselves. They actively participated in the discussion. Among their comments were the suggestions that (a) one can't trust the Wikileaks information since the chain of custody is unclear, (b) China is somehow involved, and (c) decoupling the databases of the various US intelligence agencies could help avert future leaks. After the meeting, I asked a World Affairs Council official what the story was behind the attendance of the FBI agents, and was told that "they came because they were interested in the program."

Here are a few takeaway points from the Wikileaks scandal:

1. It is abundantly clear that when considering the publication of something as controversial as the leaked cables, it is worth doing a risk/benefit analysis. Would you really want to subject yourself to possible criminal prosecution (even if you believe it would be unfounded), and to a powerful government dispatching security agents into the field to speak out against you?

2. The claim by CNN's Jessica Yellin and the Pentagon's Dave Lapan that the Wikileaks information was stolen appears to be specious. For something to be stolen, there must be someone who has property rights to that which is stolen. Copyright law is the mechanism that establishes property rights for content such as the allegedly-stolen cables. However, according to my layman's understanding of US copyright law, the federal government is explicitly excluded from eligibility for copyright protection for its own work. That would mean that anything authored by an employee of the federal government is essentially "unowned," and thus unable to be stolen. The actions of the US Army intelligence analyst who was Wikileaks' source are another story, however. He has been charged with unauthorized disclosure of US classified information, which is not directly a publishing matter.

3. Similarly, CNN's Frances Townsend's comment about "profiting from the commission of a crime" seems off-base. Perhaps Townsend is thinking of the "Son of Sam" laws. They are intended to prevent a convicted criminal from profiting from his or her own crime. Why, if Townsend's apparent contention were true, the authors of books about the JFK assassination would be guilty, since they presumably profited from Oswald's commission of a crime!

4. A participant at the WAC discussion reasoned that if someone received a stolen television and then sold it, that person would be guilty of trafficking in stolen merchandise. He asked why wouldn't the same concept apply to Wikileaks. However, as pointed out above, the cables in question do not appear to be stolen property.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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