Experts: WikiLeaks highlights security, journalistic concerns

BY HALEY GLATTHORN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 8, 2010

Since WikiLeaks released more than 250,000 classified U.S. government cables on Nov. 28, controversy over the documents and the decision to release them has continued to grow.

The exposure of private cables detailing the thoughts and activities of U.S. officials stationed internationally has created what some consider to be a serious security threat and others simply an embarrassing roadblock in foreign affairs. Since the cables were released, pundits and experts have also raised questions about the extent to which journalistic freedom is protected amid national security concerns.

Communication Studies Prof. Anthony Collings — who worked as a reporter or editor for The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Newsweek and CNN — said he has mixed feelings about the release of the documents.

“On one hand, it’s good that the public learns more information about our relations with other countries … (for) countries where there are problems in our relationships, we get a more truthful picture of where things are going badly,” Collings said. “On the other hand, I’m not quite sure what (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s) intention is. I’m a little concerned that his intentions may be harmful.”

Many of those who believe Assange is anti-American cite as evidence the recent release of cables specifying sites around the world that officials believe are critical to U.S. security. However, in a recent New York Times article, Assange said the goal of WikiLeaks isn’t to purport an anti-American agenda, but rather to push institutions to change in order to see progress.

Communication Studies Prof. Graham Griffith, who was at the British newspaper The Guardian when WikiLeaks released an earlier set of confidential documents about the war in Afghanistan in July, said editors use a thorough process to decide which documents to release to the public.

The Guardian was one of the four European newspapers that recently received the U.S. cables from WikiLeaks.

“I left (in July) feeling very positive about the process that The Guardian editors and journalists went through in weighing what they should release to the public,” Griffith said. “This is one of those things that I think has been misrepresented. What I can see the process being is that WikiLeaks is releasing documents on its website after the editors at some of these papers have looked at (them).”

“I’ve seen a quote from the Le Monde editor about how (editors and journalists) are seeing their work up on the website, so what editors have deemed to redact is also carrying through to (the) WikiLeaks site in many cases,” he said.

Though reporters and editors are taking precautions with the documents, government officials have been critical of Assange and hackers have been attacking WikiLeaks since the site started releasing the documents.

Collings said officials might start becoming more cautious about future communication methods and protection of information. The cables that were released were considered “classified” — a relatively low level of confidentiality that may prompt the government to alter the system in the coming months.

Although Assange has suggested that the documents show U.S. embassy officials engaged in espionage for their country, there has also been talk of trying Assange for espionage against the U.S.

Griffith said the possibility that Assange will be punished for his decision to release the cables threatens journalistic freedom.

“I’m not going to defend Julian Assange, but the bluster about trying him for espionage is something that journalists have to find somewhat chilling,” Graham said. “I think if that’s the case, then what would stop administrations from trying New York Times reporters? (Journalists) should be a little more concerned about it than I think a lot of them are.”

Currently, WikiLeaks has released only about 1,000 of the 250,000 cables Assange has access to, and news sources around the world continue to report the content of the cables.

Arbor Networks, an Ann Arbor-based company, was able to track the WikiLeaks site’s movement as it bounced to different domains to resist efforts to shut down the site.

“We have a system that monitors Internet traffic on a global basis,” said Kevin Whalen, Arbor’s director of corporate communications. “What WikiLeaks has been doing is just changing the (site’s) hosting providers to more robust providers capable of handling (the) attacks.”

In addition to garnering national attention, the leaks have also hit closer to home at some colleges across the country. The career services office at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs advised students last week not to discuss the leak on social networking sites because it could lower their chances of future government employment, according to an article in The Huffington Post. The career office later backtracked and reiterated the school’s commitment to student free speech.

Promoting open discussion on the issue, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University “believe(s) a vigorous, informed discussion of important, current topics is good for all of us.”