WikiLeaks Rips the Blogger-Reporter Ethics Gap Wide Open

I love bloggers. I love amateur journalists. I really do. On more than one occasion (and still too few,) each has played a vital role in keeping larger media outlets honest. And on more than one occasion each has answered the call when major or minor print publications have been too afraid to break a vitally important story.

So it is difficult for me to look across the blogosphere today and see one show of support after another for a man who has consistently shown himself to have no ethical standards as a journalist, blogger or human being.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has certainly broken his share of hard news: Kenyan corruption, human rights violations at Gitmo, toxic dumping on the Ivory Coast and banking corruption have all been revealed by the site, and for that, he should be applauded.

But Assange's site has also repeatedly shown a wildly irresponsible disregard for the rights and safety of human beings around the world. And for all the hype surrounding it, what I find most disturbing about the latest WikiLeaks document dump is the resulting exposure of a broad divide between the ethics of responsible journalists and crusading poseurs like Assange.

When given a membership list of the far right British National Party, a responsible news organization would have exposed the police officers, solicitors, clergy and teachers involved in the organization. WikiLeaks posted the entire list of 13,500 members -- complete with home addresses.

When given the contents of Sarah Palin's private email account, a responsible journalist would have detailed the work-related emails that had been sent via that account in violation of the law. WikiLeaks posted full screenshots of personal emails from within the account, including email addresses of Palin's friends and family. (It's worth noting that the hacker himself reported finding "nothing incriminating, nothing that would derail her campaign as I hoped.") WikiLeaks showed itself capable of protecting at least some sensitive information... by concealing the identity of the hacker.

When given the contents of pager intercepts between Pentagon officials and the NYPD from September 11, 2001, a responsible news organization might have reported compelling exchanges or failures in the response system, leaving out details that might aid those planning future attacks. WikiLeaks saw no need to do all that reading, and just posted them all.

When given the names of Afghan civilians aiding the US, a responsible news organization would never have printed them. WikiLeaks didn't think twice about it. When Amnesty International complained, Assange denied responsibility, arguing that he is not a journalist. He suggested that Amnesty provide staff to redact the names from the already-published documents. When they asked for a meeting, he replied, "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses," before threatening to issue a press release condemning Amnesty for not giving him staff to redact the information he had already posted on his website.

Finally, when given a series of cables that detailed the surprisingly alright state of world diplomacy, The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel worked together, vetting the most sensitive material through the US State Department to redact information that might pose a security risk to US personnel. Behaving as responsibly as was possible (given that the full documents were going to be posted by WikiLeaks anyway,) they were still able to cover the most intriguing stories: The US is spying on UN diplomats in ultra-creepy ways. (The UN's response? Yawn.) More and more of the Arab world would like to see strikes on Iran that the US doesn't want to be responsible for. The US is bargaining for safe releases places for Gitmo prisoners. China was behind a scary-as-hell global hacking effort. The Afghan government is corrupt. Syria is supplying arms to Hezbollah. The biggest bombshell? China is ready to accept a reunified Korea under South Korean rule. Interesting and important (if not earth-shattering) stuff, and a portrait of US diplomacy in its finest hour in a long, long time. And, look -- they did it without giving the Taliban a list of double-agents!

It is possible, you know, to break stories like this without endangering the lives of good people around the world. One does not have to print every line of every page of every document to report even the most important news. All it takes is a bit of that hard work and common sense that seems so popular with "elitist overlords" and so unpopular with bloggers this week. Those who leap to the defense of WikiLeaks' indiscretion seem hopelessly, fanatically and chillingly blind to that rather obvious point. The question is not, as so many seem to believe, government corruption or WikiLeaks. The question is responsible coverage of legitimate government wrongdoing or lives lost on a megalomaniac's whim. And all of the good work of those three publications becomes of little use once the documents are published in their entirety by a man who lacks the average person's regard for the safety and security of actual human beings.

Arguably the most egregious example of WikiLeaks' undercutting of diplomacy (in this latest dump) comes in cable 10SANAA4, relating a conversation between General Petraeus and President Saleh of Yemen. In it, it is made clear that President Saleh is allowing the US to use fixed-wing bombers (rather than inaccurate cruise missiles) to strike al Qaeda targets in his country, then reporting to the people and Parliament that the attacks are carried out by Yemen with US weapons. Petraeus and Saleh are both revealed to be concerned about preventing civilian casualties while making effective strikes on al Qaeda. The arrangement is better for the security of both nations, but would cause a huge backlash if known in Yemen. In short: this is what we call a "good lie," boys and girls.

There are many other examples of diplomatic confidence violated by the release of the cables -- some important, some unimportant but all adding up to less open communication and more secrecy between nations who will now have to worry about their private conversations becoming front page news.

By publishing these cables as they were obtained, Assange has once again proved himself a fanatic incapable of distinguishing between newsworthy content and details that will endanger people working to make the world safer. That is, if he even read them. (Given his repeated use of the "I'm not a journalist" defense, one must wonder if he had.) One also must wonder if any of the adorably naïve people out there insisting that governments should never lie to the folks back home while secretly working toward peace recall how well the compromise thing worked out for Fatah.

Remember a few weeks back, when that video surfaced of Christine O'Donnell saying that if she was hiding Jews in her attic, she wouldn't lie to Nazis? Yes, we all had a good laugh at that one. Yet, here we all are now, many of us just as incapable of distinguishing lies that save human lives from lies that cost them.

It seems that there is no such thing as a "good lie" to fanatics who believe that all state secrets are bad on principle. They believe in transparency not as a means to just government but as an end itself. Why, to not publish the names of Afghan civilians aiding in the fight against the Taliban would have been so elitist, and Assange's right to feel cool surely trumps their right to, you know, live. Read the comments below, I'm sure you'll find examples of that very same non-argument.

So here I sit, shocked and profoundly disturbed by the knee-jerk reaction of many bloggers and Internet commentators to the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Many are even volunteering to donate subdomains to keep the documents up, so that they can continue the good work of endangering the lives of Afghan civilians, British citizens, peace-minded world leaders and American military personnel all in the name of some preschool reading of what constitutes government transparency.

Here's a thought: If you're a blogger who cares about getting the newsworthy information out, why not download the documents, redact the sensitive information, and post the results or relevant details on your own blog? Oh, right -- that would be big boy reporter work, which is elitist and so very 1999.

Perhaps my perception of Internet journalism is colored by a few experiences I've had working with amateur reporters on the web (not, it should be noted, on this site, which employs seasoned and fantastic reporters). Still, even without the benefit of that experience, it would be difficult to look out at a sea of pro-Assange solidarity and shake the feeling that many of the armchair muckrakers out there are all muck and no rake.

Assange describes the thought process behind his indiscriminate dissemination of state secrets:

"Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough to carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity."

If your idea of a position of "clarity" is a belief that all pieces of obtainable information are fair game for worldwide distribution, and what you wanted to change or remove is the ability of peace-minded governments to work together while simultaneously keeping warmongers out of power... bravo, Assange. You've made a very beneficial move-not just for the martyr image you've cultivated, but for all the future Hamas governments out there.


To address a number of the comments, which have invoked the "give one example of someone who's been hurt" defense of the leaks:

1. People suspected of collaborat­ing with the US in Afghanista­n, for instance, are routinely harmed. That is made very clear in the rights groups' letter to Assange. If some out there believe that Amnesty International and other groups suddenly turned on Assange because they are, deep down, tools of some tyrant, I suppose there is no arguing this point.

2. When dealing with classified informatio­n, one cannot expect the Pentagon to confirm any specifics, if they can even draw a positive link. It would be idiotic for several reasons to say, "Yep, that guy killed right there. He was working with us," or "No, many of those people who just disappeare­d were actually relocated by us, because they were helping us." Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, particularly when dealing with classified information.

3. That casualty list still would not include the damage done by lost resources when the people named fled (the State Department offered protection to those named) or stopped working with the US, or when dissidents and reporters lost their now-terrif­ied sources and connection­s.

4. And even if none of these things ever happened in some magical world where they do not... one does not throw a baby into oncoming traffic and then claim innocence because it wasn't hit by a car. That there have been no announced resulting deaths does not make dangerously irresponsible action suddenly morally acceptable.