WikiLeaks Hypocrisy Watch — The Guardian Edition

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Guardian published an editorial by a Republican political operative today blaming WikiLeaks for releasing a State Department cable concerning a meeting between Tsvangirai and Susan Rice in which Tsvangirai discussed the possibility of peacefully removing Mugabe from power:

Now, in the wake of the WikiLeaks’ release, one of the men targeted by US and EU travel and asset freezes, Mugabe’s appointed attorney general, has launched a probe to investigate Tsvangirai’s involvement in sustained western sanctions. If found guilty, Tsvangirai will face the death penalty.

And so, where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency.

Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.

Tsvangirai has not yet been charged, much less convicted, sentenced to death, and executed.  And, of course, Mugabe has been trying to kill or otherwise eliminate Tsvangirai for years — including unsuccessfully prosecuting Tsvangirai for high treason for allegedly hiring assassins to kill Mugabe (a tad worse than the political solutions he advocated to Rice).

What is most interesting, though, is the editorialist’s claim that the release indicates WikiLeaks does not “understand the value of a life.”  WikiLeaks released the cable on 8 December 2010 at 9:09 pm.  The Guardian released the same cable on 8 December 2010 at 9:30 pm — 21 minutes later — along with, also at 9:30 pm, a lengthy accompanying article discussing its contents.  The release was thus obviously orchestrated by WikiLeaks and The Guardian, the latter ensuring that the cable would find a global audience.

But, of course, only WikiLeaks does not “understand the value of a life.”

UPDATE: WikiLeaks has tweeted that, in fact, The Guardian itself chose the cable for publication.

18 Responses

  1. Kevin,

    Do you concede that the publication of the Tsvangirai cable by the Guardian and Wikileaks was improper and harmful to the cause of democracy in Zimbabwe?

    Roger Alford

  2. Roger,

    Not particularly.  The cable may have given Mugabe another reason to harass Tsvangirai, but legal experts in Zimbabwe have already made it clear that the treason charges will go nowhere.  Besides, Mugabe accepted Tsvangirai as PM only because he had no choice, not because he cares about democracy (having, of course, just stolen an election).  The release of the cable will not affect that calculus.

    I imagine we disagree on that score.  So here’s my question: if you believe that the release of the cable was improper and harmful, do you think The Guardian bears as much moral blame as WikiLeaks?

  3. Offering different points of view is sort of the purpose of the Editorial section, isn’t it? Will the Guardian be “fickle” if another writer counters with a Wikileaks-leaning view in tomorrow’s Editorial?

  4. Liz,

    I don’t blame The Guardian for printing something critical of WikiLeaks — even dumb editorials like the one discussed in my post.  I was using the editorial to point out the hypocrisy of those who criticize WikiLeaks while remaining conspicuously silent about the newspapers who have worked with WikiLeaks from the beginning to release the cables.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with my support of WikiLeaks; I do expect people to either blame the media and WikiLeaks equally or explain why what the media has done is morally different.

  5. Well, theoretically, things have been out of WikiLeaks hands for a while, since they supplied much (if not all) of the cable contents to various newspapers.

    Everyone seems to be playing together well, but I don’t believe anything prevents one of the recipients from ignoring WikiLeak’s wishes at this point.

  6. Kevin,

    Both the Guardian and Wikileaks should have shown greater discretion in disclosing harmful information, information that harms democracy, threatens political dissidents, and provides ammunition to those who wish to abuse political power.  This is the sort of incredibly inept filtering that I have been talking about the whole time. 

    Of course, in some countries, like Burma, political dissidents like Aung San Suu Kyi have publicly supported the imposition of sanctions against their country, and it has only enhanced their standing.  But I think she holds out little hope of future political office under the current political structure, whereas Tsvangirai has future political aspirations. 

    The public disclosure of such information should be a decision made by the political dissident, not by the likes of Julian Assange.

    Roger Alford

  7. Roger,

    You had me until the final sentence, which should read: “not by the likes of Julian Assange, Fred Keller, the editors of The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais,” etc.  As has been amply documented by numerous non-partisan sources (i.e., not me), the release of the cables is being driven by the newspapers, who — as with the Tsvangirai cable — are making the decisions about what is newsworthy.  If you really believe releasing the cables is indefensible, your reticence to attack the newspapers with the same vitriol with which you attack Assange is very difficult to understand.

  8. Umm, sorry but you are failing to distinguish between the typically careful filtering of the mainstream media and the inept and reckless filtering of Julian Assange.  I’ve commented before about the New York Times’ Bill Keller’s opposition to Assange’s filtering approach that led to the disclosure of the names of Afghan insurgents.  (Did anyone besides Wikileaks and the Guardian publish the Tsvangirai cable?  I don’t know the answer, but it would be an interesting test of proper filtering.)

    Incidentally, Newsweek has a great article on precisely this issue:  why have more journalists not come out to defend Assange? 

    One of the suggested reasons is because they oppose his methods.  Columbia journalism professor Sam Freedman, refused to sign the Columbia letter, concluding that “I felt the letter did not adequately criticize the recklessness—the disregard for the consequences of human lives—of a massive dump of confidential info.” 

    A second reason is because they oppose his purpose–the fact that he has an agenda.  On this point, the Newsweek article says it is Australian journalists who are most outspoken in defending Assange. “American journalists, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, have a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship.”  I’d be curious Kevin whether there are many in Australian academic and journalistic circles who are opposing Assange.

    Roger Alford 

  9. Roger,

    No, I’m not.  I’ve previously criticized WikiLeaks for not adequately redacting the war logs — although the US government has admitted that no one was harmed by the inadequate redaction.  My comment was addressed to the State Department cables, as the post and comment make clear.  Their release has been driven by the newspapers, who have worked with WikiLeaks to redact the cables they have chosen to publish. You have consistently criticized the release of the cables — yet you have equally consistently avoided acknowledging the newspaper’s role (and their vastly greater ability to ensure that the cables are read). Your last comment is a perfect example.

  10. With notable exceptions like Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer at The New Yorker and the crew at McClatchy, US journalism is in a state of parlous disgrace. Therefore, I would assign little value to the “sympathies” of most mainstream US pundits and journalists in this matter. Their reaction has been substantially driven by overriding animus against wikileak’s challenge to the secrecy state. They are both alienated by the shift in gravity represented by wikileaks, as well as broader trends in information democratisation, and they deeply resent new players providing unsanctioned scrutiny of the government and elites. They cherish their cosy beltway relationships, which are based on a currency of sympathetic coverage, pre-packaged press releases, access and privilege. That rotten, craven system is being threatened and they are predictably rattling their cages. 

    They have no real concern about danger to Afghan sources or anything like that. It is their exalted position they are worried about. And who can blame them when they are trusted less than politicians and nobody will pay for their content anymore.

  11. Response…Thank you, Kevin, Roger, and others, for a lively conversation of sorts here.   I am wondering if either Kevin, Roger, or both, might provide a recommended read or two to one not trained in the law (such as myself) on the complex topic of state secrecy and the responsible use of free speech/information.

    Thanks very much for your assistance.


  12. In response to Leslie, you could do worse than start here:

    This is a recent CRS report prepared in response to the Wikileaks leak. It focuses on criminal statutes, in particular the Espionage Act. The report’s conclusion:

    “The Espionage Act on its face applies to the receipt and unauthorized dissemination of national defense information, which has been interpreted broadly to cover closely held government materials related to U.S. military operations, facilities, and personnel. It has been interpreted to cover the activities of foreign nationals overseas, at least when they take an active part in seeking out information.  Although cases involving disclosures of classified information to the press have been rare, it seems clear that courts have regarded such disclosures by government employees to be conduct that enjoys no First Amendment protection, regardless of the motives of the divulger or the value the release of such information might impart to public discourse. The Supreme Court has stated, however, that the question remains open whether the publication of unlawfully obtained information by the media can be punished consistent with the First Amendment. Thus, although unlawful acquisition of information might be subject to criminal prosecution with few First Amendment implications, the publication of that information remains protected. Whether the publication of national security information can be punished likely turns on the value of the information to the public weighed against the likelihood of identifiable harm to the national security, arguably a more difficult case for prosecutors to make.”

    Not exactly on point, but some of the references might focus the discussion.

  13. Response…@ Dean   This is the kind of focused orientation piece I am looking for.  Thank you for the kind help, Dean.


  14. I’m puzzled by the claim that the media bears equal responsibility with WikiLeaks for any harms that come out of the infodump, on the grounds that the media has put the information forward to a wider audience than would have used the WikiLeaks website. Do people really believe that there isn’t someone in Mugabe’s government who would be checking the WikiLeaks site for usable information if the news media had all refused to publish anything? They haz the interwebz in Zimbabwe, not just day-late paper copies of The Guardian.

  15. WikiLeaks has released slightly more than 2,000 of the 250,000 State Department cables in its possession.  It released the Zimbabwe cable because The Guardian wanted to publish it, not vice-versa.  So it would not have been available on the WikiLeaks website without The Guardian’s interest.  So yes, they share responsibility.  Indeed, The Guardian seems to shoulder more of the blame than WikiLeaks.  Who knows when the Zimbabwe cable would have been released by WikiLeaks of its own accord?

    Perhaps one day critics of WikiLeaks will bother to get their facts straight. Especially those that haz the interwebz and presumably knowz howz to use Google.

  16. Kevin,

    There’s a great article in Vanity Fair showing how incredibly different Wikileaks is from The Guardian and other mainstream media outlets.  It supports everything I have been saying about the deep divide between the anarchist tactics of Julian Assange and the careful approach of reputable news organizations.  Here’s a taste:

    “The biggest gulf between WikiLeaks and the traditional news outlets lay in their approaches to editing. Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one. “Neither us nor Der Spiegel nor The New York Times was ever going to print names of people who were going to get reprisals, anymore than we would do on any other occasion,” says David Leigh. “We were starting from: ‘Here’s a document. How much of it shall we print?’ Whereas Julian’s ideology was: ‘I shall dump everything out and then you have to try and persuade me to cross a few things out.’ We were coming at it from opposite poles….  The Guardian and WikiLeaks can be seen as the matter and anti-matter of modern journalism—each represents a pole at the farthest extreme, with the journalistic enterprise as a whole being torn between them. The Guardian sees itself as a mediating institution, one that applies knowledge and judgment to the gathering of facts. It believes mediation is necessary for understanding, and it knows that institutions must be built and tended with care…. In contrast, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks disdain the notion that anything should come between the public and the vast universe of ostensible information you can evaluate for yourself, if only someone will let you. The ideal role of a journalistic outlet, in Assange’s view, is to be a passive conduit for reality, or at least for slivers of reality, with as little intervention as possible—no editing, no contextualizing, no explanations, no thinking, no weighing of one person’s claims against another’s, no regard for consequences. The technology that Assange has worked on for most of his career possesses immense capabilities, and cannot be controlled by a single institution or voice. It is perhaps for this reason that WikiLeaks—ultimately replaceable by the next technologically savvy anarchist—is so disturbing to so many.”

    Roger Alford

  17. “In contrast, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks disdain the notion that anything should come between the public and the vast universe of ostensible information you can evaluate for yourself, if only someone will let you.”

    I have no doubt that Assange’s motivations are more radical than those of the editors at the newspapers.  But the fact remains that WikiLeaks has released less than 1% of the State Department Cables in its possession and has let the newspapers largely determine which cables should be released — actions that are impossible to reconcile with statements like the one you quoted.

    In short, the article may support everything you are saying. But the facts don’t.

  18. It’s also worth pointing out some passages from the article that you didn’t quote:

    “[S]omeone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at
    The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange—that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission.”

    “But The Guardian was the lead organization from the outset: it came up with the idea of a collaboration with WikiLeaks, and it made the arrangement work.”

    “Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.”

    “Davies started contacting anyone he thought might be able to put him in touch with Assange.”

    “Davies made the case to Assange that the documents would effectively evaporate if they were put up as raw data on the Web—no one could make sense of so much material. Both he and Assange agreed that the Times would be a good, and protective, addition to the project.”

    “On Saturday, July 24, the day before release, Davies received a call from someone he knew at the television network Channel 4. “You’ll never guess who I’m with,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “I’m with Julian Assange. He’s just given me the entire Afghan database.” Davies was livid.”

    “Assange summoned David Leigh to the Frontline Club, in London. Assange said he wanted the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit group, to work with Channel 4 and Al Jazeera as well on this second batch of material, and asked that Leigh delay publication to give the other outlets time to prepare programs.  Leigh said he could arrange for a six-week delay—but only if Assange gave him the third batch of documents, the so-called “package three,” potentially the most tantalizing of them all. According to Leigh, Assange said, “You can have package three tonight, but you have to give me a letter signed by the Guardian editor saying you won’t publish package three until I say so.” Assange got his letter.”

    “Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish.”

    Yep, those newspapers really are different than WikiLeaks.

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