Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News site, on Monday dropped the hammer on Wikileaks, a Web site now infamous for exposing documents that countries and other powerful entities wish to keep secret. "WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals," declared Aftergood in a blog post.Wikileaks has exposed corruption in governments, corporations, and other organizations around the globe. More recently, it earned the ire of the U.S. government for publishing a formerly classified video of an attack by a U.S. Army helicopter that resulted in the deaths of civilians and a journalist. It is also reportedly in possession of secret State Department documents that the U.S. does not want to see released.
As consequence of its embarrassment of the U.S. military and its insistence on editorializing its disclosures -- labeling the helicopter video "Collateral Murder," for example -- Wikileaks now faces criticism, not just from authorities in the U.S. but from those like Aftergood who pursue the same goals as Wikileaks: openness, transparency, and accountability.
Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in an e-mail rebutted Aftergood's assertions:
The allegations are false and misleading. Readers should consult the primary sources where listed, and where not, exercise skepticism. WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating and upholding the law. WikiLeaks has never lost a court action in any country and just this month one of our legislative proposals, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, unanimously passed the Icelandic Parliament.
I spoke about its implications for Europe to European Parliamentarians at a Parliamentary seminar on censorship last week. And last year, we inspired a pending U.S. Senate bill by McCain and Lieberman to liberate thousands of Congressional Research Service reports. What WikiLeaks does not do, is accept arbitrary interpretations of the law by specialist interests. We always fight and, to date, we always win.
While I don't agree with all of the choices made by those operating Wikileaks, I continue to believe it's a valuable and necessary resource, one that has seeded more substantive journalism than most traditional news organizations have generated in their reporting. It may operate outside the behavioral norms of the mainstream media, but the mainstream media needs organizations like Wikileaks to provide reminders about the need to question authority. Without such questioning, news reporting too easily slouches toward public relations and managed communications.
Many of Aftergood's arguments against Wikileaks don't stand up, as can be seen in the comments addressing his post. His observation that the Knight Foundation declined to fund a Wikileaks grant application confirms that Wikileaks isn't a traditional journalistic organization, but it isn't a specific charge of wrongdoing.
His primary objection to the site seems to be that it "tramples on the privacy of non-governmental, non-corporate groups for no valid public policy reason." He calls the publication of such information "information vandalism."
Setting aside the difficulty of defining what a valid public policy reason is, there's something to this argument. But at the same time, there's something healthy about the limited leakage of private information, just as there's something healthy about limited copyright infringement.
Wikileaks' decision to publish information that some group may wish to keep private may seem inappropriate in some cases, but on the whole it reflects a necessary reaction to the absence of transparency into the operation of companies and organizations that have profound influence on people's lives but insufficient accountability.
Aftergood charges that Wikileaks "does not respect the rule of law." Yet the rule of law is not always just. Not every law deserves respect. If Wikileaks deserves to be faulted for crossing the line, traditional media and advocacy organizations deserve to be faulted for failing to approach the line.
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