Monday, 29 November 2010

Guardian and New York Times defend publication of US embassy diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks

The Guardian and New York Times have defended the publication of US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.

Simon Jenkins, on, says: "The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport."

He also says: "The Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

"In this light, two backup checks were applied. The US government was told in advance the areas or themes covered, and "representations" were invited in return. These were considered. Details of "redactions" were then shared with the other four media recipients of the material and sent to WikiLeaks itself, to establish, albeit voluntarily, some common standard."

Jenkins concludes: "What this saga must do is alter the basis of diplomatic reporting. If WikiLeaks can gain access to secret material, by whatever means, so presumably can a foreign power. Words on paper can be made secure, electronic archives not. The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets. The Guardian material must be a breach of the official secrets acts. But coupled with the penetration already allowed under freedom of information, the walls round policy formation and documentation are all but gone. All barriers are permeable. In future the only secrets will be spoken ones. Whether that is a good thing should be a topic for public debate."

In a note to readers, the New York Times, which is also publishing some of the WikiLeaks material, said: "The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.

After its own redactions, The Times sent Obama administration officials the cables it planned to post and invited them to challenge publication of any information that, in the official view, would harm the national interest. After reviewing the cables, the officials — while making clear they condemn the publication of secret material — suggested additional redactions. The Times agreed to some, but not all. The Times is forwarding the administration’s concerns to other news organizations and, at the suggestion of the State Department, to WikiLeaks itself. In all, The Times plans to post on its Web site the text of about 100 cables — some edited, some in full — that illuminate aspects of American foreign policy.

"The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly. Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest. As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy.

"On the other hand, we are less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials."

  • The New York Times has published the correspondence between WikiLeaks and the US Government.
  • The Guardian in an editorial says: "Once the material fell into the hands of WikiLeaks, an organisation dedicated to publising information of all kinds, there was no realistic chance of it being supressed. While opposing publication, the US administration has acknowledged that the involvement of news organisations has not only given protection to many sources, but has also given a context to information which, had it been simply dumped, would have been both overwhelming and free of any such context. As Timothy Garton Ash puts it: it is both a historian's dream and a diplomat's nightmare."
  • Daily Telegraph deputy editor Benedict Brogan has blogged: "The WikiLeaks story is great fun. The embarrassment of others always is. But however much the Guardian, the New York Times and Julian Assange assure us that this represents a shattering blow to every assumption we hold about foreign relations, the fact remains that it’s a collection of little substance that will do nothing to reshape geo-politics."
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tells The Times in the UK: “You only live once, why not do something worthwhile?. The cables cover serious issues for every country in the world with a US diplomatic presence. In as far as knowledge about what is truly going on in the world can influence our decisions, this material must result in political change and reform.” [The Times is behind a paywall]
  • Stephen Glover in the Independent today questions the role of the D-notice in the age of the internet. He writes: "In the pre-internet age, the secretary of the Government's D-notice committee was a personage whom editors took seriously. His role was to inform them that a story had implications for national security and request them not to publish. As patriotic chaps they were expected to comply.It is difficult to see how the advice of the present secretary of the D-notice committee, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, will inhibit The Guardian, which is carrying the latest batch of WikiLeaks documents. If its editor, Alan Rusbridger, got out his black pen and began to cross things out, that would have no effect on what is published on the internet or by newspapers abroad, where no one gives a fig for British national security. Our enemies have no need of The Guardian."

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