Past the ethics of "To publish or not to publish?" there's a second major journalistic issue in the WikiLeaks scandal -- that's the tide of irresponsible reporting on the WikiLeaks and US government response. Eager to find fault with the United States, commentators have leaped to turn government condemnation of the leaks and moves to discourage their promulgation into something sinister, either purposefully neglecting or casually glossing over critical details. The alarmist claim that the U.S. government is attempting to silence WikiLeaks and undermine freedom of expression is uninformed, irresponsible, and dangerous.
It is important to recognize and separate the different agencies and actors that comprise U.S. government. Any combination of "U.S. government" plus verb implies unitary executive action on the part of the Obama administration. Instead, we see the balance of powers in action. The Senate's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the Department of Justice have been the main actors, while the White House has been vocal in condemning the actions of WikiLeaks. Along these lines, the leaked cables don't represent the views of America writ large or of the State Department as a whole; these are the communications of individual diplomats.
Government actors have established clear lines of communication to media and the public and have announced their intentions and actions at each step since the WikiLeaks scandal broke. There's no evidence of illegal or conspiratorial activity on the part of any arm of the U.S. government with respect to WikiLeaks.
In fact, it was WikiLeaks that likely broke U.S. law in the sourcing, retention, and publication of the leaked cables. As a Danish friend asked here in Hong Kong earlier, puzzled by the response, "What did people expect? Of course the U.S. government will oppose the leaks -- we are talking about classified information. It would be a joke if they didn't." Exactly.
The knowing "unauthorized possession of information relating to the national defense" that might harm the United States and its publication is illegal under U.S. law. There is nothing unexpected or outrageous in actions by the American government to honor and enforce U.S. law.
American companies chose to stop facilitating the publication of WikiLeaks after the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee inquired with Amazon regarding its relationship to WikiLeaks -- and said as much publicly. After Amazon terminated its relationship with WikiLeaks, it cited a violation of their terms of service. The relevant clause is likely that giving Amazon the right to boot anyone using the server "for any illegal purpose or in a way that violates the law." Amazon's refusal to continue to host WikiLeaks was not a First Amendment issue. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to internet freedom, agrees on this point.
Critics and reporters have insinuated or claimed that the U.S. government forcibly booted WikiLeaks from Amazon's servers and is attempting to repress freedom of speech. In reality, the United States is acting to enforce long-standing laws and regain public confidence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has addressed the cables publicly, and the U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it will evaluate the basis for legal action against WikiLeaks and its founder in the United States. The site remains up on a Swedish server, licensed in Iceland, out of reach of U.S. law -- and the US has indicated no intention to attempt to shut it down.
While the leaked cables may have precipitated setbacks for the United States, ultimately it could be the frenzy of false claims about the U.S. government and its response that most impedes the US abroad. In many parts of the world, with some details omitted and others lost in translation, what will reach individuals and communities may be only the insinuation of oppression, which evokes vivid, harsh realities -- the tactics of authoritarian regimes denying free speech and expression. It is not simply wrong but offensive and injurious to in any way associate the U.S. response to WikiLeaks with the actions of regimes guilty of true violations of rights of free speech and expression.
As an American who would like to be part of rehabilitating the U.S. image abroad, I am disheartened to see journalists and activists leveling serious accusations of anti-democratic action against the U.S. government carelessly. The public image of the U.S. is fragile; efforts to rebuild its reputation are ongoing. The way that the American government has handled the WikiLeaks scandal is something to be proud of as a demonstration of the health of our laws and democracy -- not something to attack.