Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is neither terrorist nor hero.

As in the case of the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, members of the military and government are making exaggerated claims that Assange may have blood on his hands because information in the leaks – particularly earlier leaks about the war in Afghanistan – might lead to deaths there. Such claims by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last July were never confirmed with any evidence.

With Wikileaks' latest release of diplomatic cables, some politicians are even calling Assange a terrorist. That’s nonsense, but the unfiltered publication of stolen government documents is irresponsible and unnecessary.

The New York Times has taken the extraordinary step of asking the U.S. State Department to review the documents it intends to publish and is redacting some of the most sensitive material. The government isn’t happy about what is being published, but this is a far more responsible approach than just pushing the material into the public domain.

There are areas where the Pentagon Papers and the current Wikileaks material diverge. The Pentagon Papers were historical – they dealt with earlier periods of the Vietnam War, providing important perspective on how decisions were made. The Wikileaks material is more current. However, claims then, just as claims now -- that release of the material would do the country irreparable harm --are overblown.

It’s likely that most people shouting the loudest about the need for government secrecy have not read the material in question. If they had, they would know that it’s a little like reading a thousand diaries from a thousand writers, each providing a small glimpse into a complex situation – sometimes the Afghanistan War, sometimes the intricacies of diplomacy.

Countries need their secrets, but not nearly as many as presidents, kings, prime ministers or dictators like to think. The number of innocent lives lost because of decisions made in secret must be magnitudes greater than the number lost because of unwanted disclosure. We’ll never know, of course, because most secrets stay secret.

The Post Register’s editors are in no position to know what of this material should be printed and what shouldn’t, but we have taken a conservative approach. We think the Associated Press has generally acted responsibly in covering the releases and we’ve followed that lead. It appears that the New York Times – far from irresponsibly publishing unedited material without journalistic consideration – has taken a careful approach; so much so that the stories on the information aren’t terribly compelling.

The debate over Wikileaks, like that over the Pentagon Papers, is an important one. Unfortunately, this debate is like so many before it – long on rhetoric, short on facts.


  1. Excellent editorial; it's nice to agree with you about something once in a while, given how rarely I agree with your rants about new media.

    Speaking of new media, I can't help but notice you still didn't give credit where due. You give the NYT 'extraordinary' credit for proffering the censor's pen to US State, but neglected to mention that both with cables and Afghanistan publications, wikileaks offered the Pentagon and US State opportunities to redact. And was ignored.

    I *get* why they refused to accept the chance; it delegitimizes their strongest weapon against wikileaks. But the number of times you credit old media for being cautious and responsible while denying similar credit for wikileaks makes me wonder if your anti-new-media bias is showing. Again.

    Yeah, disruptive tech broke your profit engines. Bums me out, too -- I *love* newspapers. But it does you no good to blame us for *everything* without noticing that you're more diminished by the economic drivers to your news decisions. Newspapers' age-demographic curve rather bluntly shows how *THAT* strategy kills newspapers in a generation.

  2. There's a big difference between what Wikileaks offered and the NY Times did. The Times went through the material and selected the information it wanted to publish -- a tiny fraction of the total -- then went to the State Department. Wikileaks made an offer that was essentially impossible to meet -- go through all these thousands of cables and other communications and do the redactions. One process is called journalism, one is not.

    Newspapers or their journalistic successors will survive the next generation and the one after that. No one is suggesting they'll be the same. But you continue to make a black or white argument when the answers are versions of gray.


  3. Oh, please. there are these things called computers -- perhaps you've heard of them? I hear the federal government has a couple of real *pigs* capable of monitoring thousands of simultaneous international phone calls (voice, which is much harder than scanning text), yet you'd have me believe that their reason for utterly ignoring wikileaks' offer but accepting the Grey Lady is because it'd be too hard!? To aggressively analyze less than a gig of text? That's ludicrous.

    I am fascinated that you're old enough to be a product of the 60's, but want me to think you got thru the 60's without an inherent distrust of corporations or government at least occasionally darkening your view. Really?!

    Yes, an agency with 22000 employees could review 250,000 pages in short order.

    OCR can optimize the task if they're not already textfiles.

    Bayesian filtering can further optimize the task, looking for trigger phrases (the same 'magic' that Bayesian filtering does on spam works on determining if a document potentially needs deeper review for national security reasons.)

    To put this into perspective, Yucca Mountain's licensing had 17 *million* pages of documentation that had to undergo a perfunctory 'is it classifiable' review before public release. It took a few hundred people with scanners to fully scan, OCR and review the content over a few weeks.

    But ignore all the technological countermeasures. Let's go old-school: If anyone I've ever worked with believed peers' lives were at risk, every available person would grab a portion of the document stack and twice review it BY HAND before we'd just suck up and call a job this SMALL impossible.

    Occam's razor still tells me that the offers from Wikileaks were ignored because there's a substantial political downside to legitimizing Wikileaks.

    For the record, let me say again that I agree that quality media and editing has value. I'm just saying your business model is badly flawed and your anti-new-media columns are at best whistling in the dark.

    As for shades of grey, I guess I don't see anything that I claimed was black-or-white. Where was that?

  4. Sorry. I'm sure that (upon review/publishing) what I wrote probably got more adversarial than I should have been.

    My bottom line is that your editorials against new media are consistently us/them and smugly 'right' in an almost-cargo-cult kind of way. And I don't see your foundation being correct, so I don't see your conclusions, either. IMHO, the profitable path will embrace blogging and the fact that *EVERY* reader has a camera and a pen and might contribute content. You do that a *bit*. Future newspapers will master a paper-to-online seamlessness of media that will help newspapers reclaim part of TV/Radio's ad revenue. They'll exploit trusted-user volunteerism and other non-financial motivators for content generation and moderation of this content explosion. And they'll find profitability in a way that will have details that have no resemblance to a pre-internet business model whatsoever.

    Third time: we both want and see a future for viable independent in-depth news. I just don't buy most of your predictions on what your newspaper's future will look like. Newspapers face a day when whoever finds that economic sweet spot first will buy up old media for bargain prices.

    Getting back to Wikileaks, did you see Assange's response to a challenge to similarly expose Taliban secrets? Or the rumors of a banking document dump? Wikileaks started with a goal of giving whistle-blowers an anonymous (and ostensibly safer) way to reveal coverups. Making wikileaks the target of the issue is reframing the story (and conversations) from being about self-serving secrets or abuses of power to one governments and corporations can win or at least muddy: is it ever possible for a secret's revelation to be harmful. It's like turning political rhetoric into a horse-race; we're no longer even examining the correct question, but at least anyone can have an opinion.

  5. Good heavens. I wasn't talking about whether the State Department had the manpower. I'm talking about what is required of a journalist. The Times applied journalistic standards then asked for a review. Wikileaks is apparently unwilling to engage in that practice, asking instead for the State Department to review the entire mass of data without the second step of applying any sort of journalist standards to the process of publishing it. Just because something is technically possible doesn't mean that it will produce a meaningful result. I can only assume that your frequent misinterpretations of my comments are intentional because they appear to be intended to continue to paint me as a technical troglodyte.

    Black and white: Newspapers are on a track to disappear. You don't leave open the very likely possibility that newspapers will evolve. Combined print and online readership is higher than print-only ever was, yet critics want to count only the print numbers. There is nuance in the future.


  6. I can't see where I even implied that newspapers should/will die - I think your business model is busted and your definition of journalism (and your editorials) has standards that were only lived up to from the 1920's forward, and limitations that needn't apply any more. Journalism no longer needs to involve *deleting* content. Yet that seems to be how you differentiate between the NYT and wikileaks.

    Scarcity/cost of delivery in the era of the pentagon papers made editorial decisions that involved deletion. Nowadays, there's neither scarcity nor a valid purpose to you picking what I read if that decision excludes material.

    A better model than yours:
    1 - Filter and publish a digest / daily news summary. Incorporate all the extra media you used to discard into portfolios of pictures, video, text, interviews, links, comments and tools to let readers assist in building this media-rich conversation on ANY subject (we'll help out for free if you seem deserving, or for prestige, prudishness/propriety, amateur enthusiasm, etc)
    2 - monetize eyeballs. Look for ways to steal back TV/Radio ad revenue via online media.
    3 - Go back and reread 1 and LIVE THAT PART ABOUT INVOLVING US. Improve the tools you give us to help you out. I don't want your job, but I'll recommend stories. I don't want to write encyclopedias, but I'll fix typos. I submit song data to CDDB. I maintain an anonymity-respecting liberal political blog in Idaho because it fills a niche need or three. I like sharing good links so my friends and I can discuss them or share valuable ideas.

    We've beaten this to death and it's so rarely been about wikileaks, so let me close by thanking you for your attention. It's not just you that chaps my cheeks -- I've disagreed with enough Journalists to know it's something you were taught. Still, I cannot reconcile what passed for journalism among pamphleteers circa 1770-1800 with your definition. Wikileaks is different than old or recent presses, but is definitely a free press.

  7. Yes, this horse is good and dead. Just one final note: Journalism is one thing and what Wikileaks and other information sources do are other things altogether. One needn't become any of the others.


  8. Although I agree with D2 on this point of discussion more than with Roger, I agree with Roger's final point. However, I would add that Wikileaks exists and has power primarily because of the abject failure of journalism, in general. It would be nice to have a journalism corp that did its job, and then Wikileaks would be a small, mostly ignored phenomenon.

  9. I'll bite -- what have we learned from Wikileaks that journalism should have provided? Journalists don't buy stolen stuff. Journalists don't employ hackers to steal stuff. There are areas in which journalism has failed -- the lead up to the Iraq War is the most recent obvious example. But there is simply no evidence to sustain the claim that "Wikileaks exists ... because of the abject failure of journalism," or that journalism is an "abject failure" regardless of the Wikileaks phenomenon.

  10. Straw men everywhere: AFAIK, Wikileaks doesn't buy stolen stuff, doesn't hire hackers (it was started when a chinese blogger got 7 years in prison for publishing a policy letter written by his government). Wikileaks grants whistleblowers confidentiality of source without having to stop at any national border.

    Didn't the PR publish EVERY transcript of Kimball Mason's prison phone calls? Personally, I liked that act because it showed you using new media's limitlessness and did what I talked about above: digest news of highest value, but give us access to dig further as we wish.

    Still, it seems a lot like Wikileaks' move. Reconcile what you did with what you expect of Wikileaks.

  11. Heavens, no. We published a tiny portion of those calls.