Lost in all the noise of the WikiLeaks circus of the past few weeks was the emerging debate about how to characterize Julian Assange.
Is he a Journalist or a Terrorist–and why does it matter?
The first suggestion that he was a terrorist came from New York Republican Peter King, has asked the State Department to consider designating WikiLeaks a terrorist group.
What does that mean? Would that make Daniel Ellsberg a terrorist for releasing the Pentagon Papers? Certainly the military could have claimed back in 1971 that that leak, and subsequent publishing of them by The New York Times “endangered American lives.”
“If I released the Pentagon Papers today, the same rhetoric and the same calls would be made about me,” Ellsberg says. “I would be called not only a traitor–which I was then, which was false and slanderous–but I would be called a terrorist… Assange and Bradley Manning are no more terrorists than I am.”
The Times reported the documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
The government in the Pentagon Papers acted to stop publication by court order, which was quashed in 15 days by the Supreme Court. Ultimately the right to publish these papers was upheld in the New York Times Co. vs. United States.
There was no call at the time to investigate or prosecute the Times under criminal statues back in 1971.
Yet today–with the new broad charge of ‘terrorism’ being used to justify searches without probable cause at airports, and secret wiretaps of ordinary Americans, Senator Joseph Lieberman is calling for an investigation of The New York Times for publishing material obtained by WikiLeaks.
The idea that anyone who publishes information that embarrasses the government is a terrorist is frankly a terrifying idea. The purpose of a free press and free speech is so that our government is held accountable–and not insulated from criticism or critique. And the idea that Wikileaks was irresponsible and endangered lives hardly holds up with the knowledge that Wikileaks asked the military to review and redact the material so that no lives would be endangered, the military refused to redact the documents.
And–rather than operate within the rule of law, Clay Shirkey blogs his concerns that our governments behavior–which he calls ‘shortcuts’–undermines the rule of law. Says Shirky: ”as a citizen it sickens me to see the U.S. trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”
And Esther Dyson joins the conversation with a thoughtful exploration of Wikileaks which she calls “a flawed answer in a flawed world.”
Says Dyson: “WikiLeaks matters for two reasons. The first is that we need a better balance of power between people and power. Information–and specifically the Internet’s power to spread it–is our best defense against bad, unaccountable behavior.
Second, we do want to trust our governments and institutions. The point of openness is to make those in power behave better–and to make us trust them more. Rather than viewing them as enemies, we should know what they are up to, and perhaps have a little more say in what they do.”
The good news here is that Wikileaks has prompted an important conversation about truth, privacy, and the changing definition of what journalism is. The bad news is that unless we embrace these questions, and defend free speech and the power of openness, than the emergence of Internet as a haven for new journalism could end up facilitating a new kind of censorship that we can today hardly imagine.
This is a conversation worthy of your attention.