WikiLeaks Arrest Prompts Backlash Fears

The clash over a leaked video is pitting old and new media against each other—and the government.

By: Shane Harris

There’s news today of an arrest in one of the most high-profile and unusual leaks of classified information in years, and it may have a lasting and potentially unsettling effect on the relationship between reporters in Washington and their confidential sources.

Specialist Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army solider from Potomac, Md., has been placed in confinement in Kuwait while he’s investigated for giving classified footage of a deadly U.S. helicopter strike in Iraq to the Web site WikiLeaks.  The footage caused a sensation when WikiLeaks released it in April, with the title “Collateral Murder.” It shows an attack in 2007 on a group that Apache helicopter pilots believed to be enemy fighters, but that turned out to consist mostly of civilians and news reporters.

Wired’s “Threat Level” blog broke the story late last night, after its reporters were given access to transcripts of an online chat that Manning allegedly had with a well-known ex-hacker.   Manning bragged about his exploits to Adrian Lamo, writing that he “had unprecedented access to classified networks” in Iraq,  and that he  decided to expose government secrets in order to shed light on scandal. Lamo told Wired that after Manning said he’d sent 260,000 classified State Department cables to WikiLeaks, Lamo decided to report him to military authorities.

“I wouldn’t have done this if lives weren’t in danger,” Lamo said. “He was in a war zone and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air.” A spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command confirmed that the service is investigating someone for possibly giving classified information to WikiLeaks, and he referred to an Army press release that names Manning.    

WikiLeaks founder Julian Paul Assange and the site’s staff take extraordinary measures to ensure that the identity of their anonymous leakers is kept secret--sometimes even from Assange himself. Today, via its Twitter feed, the site has been lashing out at the media, including the Washington Post, which WikiLeaks accuses of sitting on the Apache footage.  

“Statement: Washington Post had Collateral murder video for over a year but DID NOT RELEASE IT it to the public,” WikiLeaks wrote on Twitter. Kris Coratti, the Post’s director of communications, told Washingtonian that the newspaper “did not have the video, nor did we sit on anything.” But Post reporter David Finkel was in Iraq on the day of the helicopter strike, in July 2007, and he wrote an account of it in his book The Good Soldiers, published last September.  That blow-by-blow narrative was apparently based on the video that Wikileaks ultimately released, according to the newspaper.

WikiLeaks also impugned the credibility of one of the two Wired reporters, Kevin Poulsen, and the man who claims to have reported Manning to military investigators. “Adrian Lamo&Kevin Poulson are notorious felons,informers&manipulators,” WikiLeaks wrote on Twitter. “Journalists should take care.” Both Lamo and Poulsen are prominent ex-hackers who were convicted for various crimes related to their online exploits.

WikiLeaks said it is investigating the Wired story and that it cannot confirm Manning was the source of the video, because “we never collect personal information on our sources.” But the site offered that if Manning was the one who handed over the notorious footage, “he’s a national hero.” The site also used the occasion of Manning’s arrest to warn its sources “ONLY TO SPEAK TO WIKILEAKS.” (WL’s emphasis.)

WikiLeaks founder, Assange, sees himself in a battle with governments and large organizations, including the media. Assange has characterized news gathering and reporting as “a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis.” As Raffi Khatchadourian notes in a lengthy profile of Assange in the New Yorker out today “WikiLeaks has long maintained a complicated relationship with conventional journalism.” Newspapers and large media outlets, which eagerly monitor WikiLeaks for new morsels, filed amicus briefs on its behalf in 2008, after a Swiss bank sued the site for publishing confidential documents. But Rop Gonggrijp,  a close associate of Assange told the New Yorker, “We are not the press.”
 
“He considers WikiLeaks an advocacy group for sources,” according to the magazine. “Within the framework of the Web site, he said,’The source is no longer dependent on finding a journalist who may or may not do something good with this document.’”  

In that respect, WikiLeaks is fundamentally upsetting—even eliminating—the role that journalists play in the transfer of classified information from sources to the public. And it’s a near certainty that the Obama administration, which is cracking down in court on leaks of classified information to news reporters, is taking notice.

When it comes to publishing secrets, reporters are the vetters and arbiters of what is newsworthy. Traditionally, if a reporter receives classified documents, he tries to assess the validity of that material, seeks comments from the organization that originated it, and reports any contradictory or exculpatory information. If it’s government information the reporter is publishing, this multi-layered approach gives officials some chance to persuade the news organization not to publish at all. “If you know that Time magazine has something, you can call the editor of Time magazine and say, ‘Can you come to the White House and have a conversation?’” says Lucy Dalglish the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “You have somebody’s who’s going to be accountable for [publishing] it.”  

But WikiLeaks turns that model on its head and tries to obscure what it’s doing from official sources. Before the release of the Apache footage, Assange “encouraged a rumor that the video was shot in Afghanistan in 2009, in the hope that the Defense Department would be caught unprepared,” the New Yorker reported. “Assange does not believe that the military acts in good faith with the media. ... ‘What right does this institution have to know the story before the public?’”

After WikiLeaks released the Iraq footage, Defense Secretary Robert Gates keyed in on this assault to the traditional Washington power structure. “These people can put anything out they want and are never held accountable for it,” he said, characterizing the video as devoid  context and perspective: viewing war “through a soda straw.” WikiLeaks fired back on Twitter that “Robert Gates is a liar.”

“WikiLeaks is much more of a threat I think to the government” than traditional media, Dalglish says. “I want to be clear that I think some things WikiLeaks has posted have been in the public interest. And so the possiblity for great good is there.” But Dalglish fears that the site and other forums for releasing classified information wholesale, without government officials having a chance to weigh in, could compel officials to try and restrain media organizations from publishing in the first place.

“I think it’s possible that the prior restraint law that we’ve known since the 1930s could change...because of this phenomenon,” Dalglish says. Since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Near v. Minnesota in 1931, government restraints on publication have been considered  a violation of the First Amendment. That case was a key precedent, forty years later, in the Pentagon Papers case, the federal government’s last great attempt to stop a news organization from publishing official secrets. But in light of the significant exposure brought on by organizations like WikiLeaks, Dalglish worries that lawmakers will try to even the playing field. “I’m fearful that the result is going to be legislation that imposes restrictions not just on the Web, but on everybody.”