Wikileaks publishes information that FoI laws cannot reach

The recent furore surrounding the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic communications  serves to highlight the shortcomings of our freedom of information laws. 

Does FoI really lead to a more open society with more transparent and accountable government? Not on the evidence so far (MPs' expenses, political interference by the royal family, what governments are doing behind our backs and in our names). 

Or are formal FoI laws just an extension of the state - providing scraps of information to present the illusion of openness while ensuring the most important information stays secret and citizens remain in the dark? 

A thought-provoking article from the American news service The Inwell (part of the College Media Network) is presented below - it's a valuable insight into the key issues surrounding Wikileaks and Julian Assange. 

In the weeks since Thanksgiving, Julian Assange has been cast as public enemy No. 1. Outcry against the Australian national erupted after his whistle-blowing organization, WikiLeaks, published a slew of classified State Department cables shedding light on questionable foreign policy issues.

The documents, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, included directives asking U.S. diplomats and other State Department employees to gather personal information about foreign dignitaries.

Included in the documents were insulting comments made about foreign heads of state and the revelation of treaty-violating – and law-breaking – practices, such as spying on diplomats at meetings of the United Nations in New York.

Since publishing the cables late last month, Assange has been in the figurative crosshairs of prominent politicians and the American public.

On Tuesday, the embattled WikiLeaks founder was arrested in England on a Swedish extradition warrant pertaining to alleged sex offenses. Assange's lawyers maintain the charges are an attempt to discredit his character.

Whether the charges stick is yet to be seen, but the notion that powers-at-be are trying to mar Assange's public image isn't that far-fetched.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Assange deserved to be hunted like Osama Bin Laden, and The Washington Times published an editorial calling for his assassination.

Even the President, who campaigned ardently on government transparency, decried WikiLeaks' publishing of "classified" State Department cables.

The American public, for the most part, seems to have jumped on the witch-hunting bandwagon.

And truly, that anger isn't entirely misdirected. The publication of the leaked cables compromised the security of individual persons and, to a certain degree, put national security at risk.

Nonetheless, Assange broke a story.

Diplomatic gossip aside, WikiLeaks exposed a massive security flaw in the way the United States government transmits top-secret information. This was a legitimate act of journalism. It was not story created from spite but a desire for accountability.

When criminals break the law, we expect them to be sent to prison.

When nations break the law, we expect them to reform.

The State Department cables were supposedly pulled from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SPIRNET, a hypothetically secure private internet used by the military and the State Department.

In an "All Things Considered" story on Nov. 29, NPR News correspondent Martin Kaste reported that clearance to SPIRNET was expanded after 9/11 on the belief that inter-agency information sharing would abet the detection of terrorist activity. It's now estimated, Kaste said, that more than two million military and civilian personnel have access to SPIRNET.

A network accessible by two million people is not secure. There's no feasible way to police the flow of information through so many eyes. It was inevitable that this "top secret" conduit would spring a leak, and the government's failure to recognize such a security crater is nothing short of irresponsible.

It's not believed that Assange and crew hacked into SPIRNET, but rather that the cables were provided to WikiLeaks by someone who had access to the network.

That shouldn't happen. We trust our government to keep us safe, and allowing for such damning documents to fall into the hands of a trigger-happy publisher like Assange endangered American lives.

That's a story that deserves breaking.

But our government attempts to sway public opinion away from that revelation. Last week, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee called for Assange's prosecution under the Espionage Act. To successfully do so would require proof that Assange aimed to deliberately harm the United States by publishing the State Department cables.

If this scenario sounds somewhat familiar, it's because our nation has been down this road before.

Nearly 40 years ago, The New York Times began printing portions of classified government documents detailing American policy in Vietnam. The press dubbed the documents the Pentagon Papers, and they shed light on government deception regarding the Vietnam War. Other newspapers followed suit, and the Nixon Administration lobbied the Supreme Court to put a stop to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds of national security.

The Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment, ruling that the government had no authority to halt the publication of state secrets barring that information would have direct and irreparable damage to the United States or its citizens.

The court did, however, opine that journalists could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act after the publication of state secrets.

The journalists who published the Pentagon Papers were never prosecuted. And so far, the U.S. Government has brought no such charges against Assange – perhaps because no such merit exists.

A reader recently asked Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, how the press can print state secrets.

He candidly answered: "Why do we get to decide? And why did we decide to publish these articles and selected cables? We get to decide because America is cursed with a free press."

It's the job of journalists to hold the feet of government officials to the fire – it's bedrock of the free press. So too is using editorial discretion when it comes to publishing sensitive information. In that, Assange failed miserably. Whether he will be brought to answer for this oversight remains to be seen.

We, the American people, owe it to ourselves to think subjectively. In channeling public attention at ostracizing Assange, we are, in effect, shooting the messenger. We simply help our government quietly bury its security failings – presumably to Washington's delight.

Freedom of information needed in free society (The Inkwell, 9 December 2010)