Americans enjoy freedom of expression like no other country, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Yet, although most likely unconstitutional, it just seems as if "there oughta be a law," as they say, against WikiLeaks's recent actions. Because, in my opinion, nescient arm-chair security analysts with an axe to grind sure as hell shouldn't be able to declassify thousands of government documents and unfetter them into cyberspace. It just doesn't feel right.
WikiLeaks's ability to extract and publicly expose such a prodigious amount of military intelligence should make the most liberal-minded of freedom of speech advocates nervous, because not only has internet journalism fundamentally changed the nature of the First Amendment, but of immediate concern is that the lives of American soldiers will be resting upon the intelligence expertise of journalists and computer hacks.
According to some intelligence experts, there's a good chance coalition soldiers and Afghans might even die in the coming days as a direct result of the decision to expose historical military data for the entire world to see (now that we've discovered the Taliban possess heat-seeking projectiles I am willing to bet they also have internet access).
But don't tell WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange that, who scoffs at the notion, claiming his organization won't publish anything that could put anyone or any operation in danger, because they vet every item prior to posting through their "harm minimalization process."
Mr. Assange is apparently also an expert on war crimes - no need for a court martial here, as he played judge and jury the other day during his press conference in London. When asked if there was evidence that war crimes had been committed Assange responded: "thousands." This is interesting because, according to Assange, his team has only closely analyzed about 2,000 of the 90,000 reports. But I guess that's a representative enough sample for the WikiLeaks founder to make a ruling.
Though Assange's military security acumen is up for meticulous scrutiny, he's certainly well-versed in cyber-security considering that he plead guilty to multiple counts of breaking into Australian government websites. Stealing information is one thing, analyzing it properly is another - and it looks as if WikiLeaks has already failed in that regard.
According to Andrew Exum - a former advisor to General Stanley McChrystal, now with the Center for a New American Security - the military has good reason to be upset because the documents reveal specific and sensitive information about tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment. Of course, I doubt Mr. Exum was aware that Mr. Assange "harm-minimalized" the docs.
The Telegraphreported that there's potential to do extensive damage to the military's human intelligence network that's been built over the past decade because of the fear of revenge killings. This caper has now jeopardized the lives of Afghans who have provided the U.S. with intelligence, including village elders and militants who act as double agents. The Telegraph spoke to someone who might know a bit more about this subject matter than Mr. Assange:
Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, predicted that the Taliban would take anything that described a US strike and the intelligence behind it "and figure out who was in the room when that particular operation, say in 2008, was planned, and in whose home".
As a matter of fact, The Times of London reported this morning that the names and locations of hundreds of Afghan civilians who had worked for the U.S. as informants have appeared in the WikiLeaks documents. Reporters supposedly identified these issues after scanning the reports for just a few hours.
Essentially, employees of WikiLeaks and organization's such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel will be the ones determining which military documents should or shouldn't be declassified, because they know more than the countless military personnel who believed the information in said documents were sensitive enough to classify in the first place. I'm inclined to let those professionally trained perform that task.
There ought to be a law, but what is happening is WikiLeaks is changing the nature of the ones currently in place. Brian Baxter of The Am Law Daily wrote that a number of lawyers agree that WikiLeaks has likely made prior restraint obsolete. First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams says:
"I think we're moving to a situation where it will be more and more difficult to protect secrets, regardless of the validity of the decision to make the information secret. The combination of Web sites, anonymity, and pervasiveness of distribution make it extremely difficult to find a person or an entity to prevent them from publishing and punish them for publishing."
Renowned attorney Thomas Burke, who specializes in freedom of the press litigation, also believes WikiLeaks will transform the prior restraint principle:
"There are certainly arguments for [disclosing everything], but from a legal perspective, the issue is you no longer have an editor exercising First Amendment-protected editorial decisions," Burke said. "If something's just posted on WikiLeaks, it's available for all the world to see and interpret."
WikiLeaks is ostensibly a major triumph for the press, but I wonder why it feels more like a defeat.
Coalition soldiers and the people of Afghanistan are not the only ones who are scared for their lives. Julian Assange himself is supposedly very concerned about his own safety. It's been reported that he rarely sleeps in the same place two nights in a row. He has that luxury.