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WikiLeaks Documents Go Public: Where Should Journalists Draw the Line?

July 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Some have questioned whether WikiLeaks and major news organizations publishing the secret documents compromised the safety of American lives. Judy Woodruff gets perspective from two journalists on what is considered when publishing sensitive information.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the WikiLeaks documents were published, there have been a number of questions, not only about WikiLeaks, but about the media’s decision to publish them and work with the organization.

We explore that now with Alex Jones. He’s director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He’s a former New York Times reporter. And David Leigh, he’s investigators editor at English newspaper The Guardian, one of three publications that originally released the WikiLeaks material. He joins us from London.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

David Leigh, to you first. How did The Guardian get this information from WikiLeaks? Who initiated it?

DAVID LEIGH, The Guardian: Simply enough, we went to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. We tracked him down in Brussels, in Belgium, and we persuaded him to let us have a look at his material.

His intention had originally been to put it all — to dump the whole data set out on the Internet, all 92,000 files, without any kind of filtering at all. So, we dissuaded him it was a good idea to let mainstream media, as he would call them, have a look first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you know about him going in? Did you have any doubts at all about the veracity of the material he was turning over?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, I knew a few things about Assange, because I had had dealings with him in Norway a few weeks earlier, when he had actually shown me, in conditions of great secrecy, this video he had got of an Apache helicopter crew who fired shots at Reuters journalists in Baghdad, so that I knew that he did have access to some quite remarkable material.

Obviously, once we got it, we then did quite a lot of work to authenticate it. And I’m — I’m glad that there’s been no question raised about its authenticity since we decided to publish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how about this arrangement to have three different newspapers or news organizations involved, how did that come about?

DAVID LEIGH: We originally asked him to turn the material over to us, as you could imagine. He was a little bit reluctant. In fact, it took six hours of persuading by my colleague Nick Davies.

One of the things that Nick did to persuade him to — this was a good idea was to say we would share it with The New York Times, and, therefore, he would reach a much larger audience in America, and, later, “Der Spiegel” in Germany was brought into the mix as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alex Jones, as somebody who has been a reporter yourself, who has watched the media for a long time, what do you make of this whole episode?

ALEX JONES, director, Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University: Well, I think, in this kind of a situation, there are two conflicting — two legitimately conflicting values.

One is the legitimate need for secrets, that there are legitimate secrets and they should be kept. The other is the clear history that government very much wants to keep information that may not really be at the level of what could be considered a legitimate secret, but is embarrassing or is in some way compromising to the government, away from the public.

And the role of the media, the mainstream media, the responsible media, has been to try to make that — that decision based on very careful efforts to make sure that real secrets are not being released.

And, in this kind of situation, I think it’s fair to say, based on what I have read, that all three of the mainstream news organizations took extraordinary measures to validate, to understand. In the case of The New York Times, I know they went to the White House before it was published, and the White House did not try to prevent them from publishing it. They did not ask them not to publish it. But the issue is also that you have got now an organization like WikiLeaks that is not sort of bound by the idea necessarily that there are secrets. It is based on, as I understand WikiLeaks’ philosophy, that there should be no secrets, or very, very few.

And I’m not sure that WikiLeaks ought to be the arbiter of that. I think that, based on what they did this time, the material was handled well by The Guardian and well by The New York Times and I assume by “Der Spiegel” as well.

But WikiLeaks’ inclination to simply put raw information out, without any kind of effort to protect sources or to guard legitimate secrets, that’s dangerous, as far as I’m concerned, although I’m not sure there is any real solution for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Leigh, what about that? How much of a conflict do you see there is between your mission, as a news organization, obviously operating under some different rules in Great Britain, from — and those of an organization like WikiLeaks, which, as Alex Jones said, is just to get everything out there?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, it’s nice to hear that people recognize that The Guardian and The New York Times and “Spiegel” went to a lot of effort to ensure that there are no legitimate secrets that published. We took out everything that might endanger informants and cause reprisals.

Much of the remaining stuff, of course, had lost its tactical secrecy because it’s all old. It’s all several months ago, at the earliest.

WikiLeaks, to give them credit, were persuaded that the right thing for them to do, despite their purist ideology, was, in the end, to hold back a lot of files which they thought might contain dangerous material, sensitive material.

So, they, too, have — have started to edge towards the code of responsibility of the mainstream media, actually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Leigh, just quickly, to follow up, concern on your part about the perception that you, that The Guardian and these other news organizations may be used — being used by WikiLeaks?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, WikiLeaks is a source. They have some material which I think everybody in the world who has seen our publications has agreed it was good to publish. It was educational. It’s shown people a new level of war reporting in which an unvarnished picture of field reports about a very chaotic and failing war have come to light.

I think that’s helped public policy. It’s public enlightenment. So, we feel good about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alex Jones, what is the — as the public looks at this, what are the questions they should be asking as they try to distinguish between, again, the mission of WikiLeaks and of these news organizations?

ALEX JONES: Well, sources of news, whistle-blowers, people who have taken information and tried to get it published, like Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case, they have always wanted to use the media.

In other words, they have wanted to take information that they knew about and put it in a form and with a format and in a delivery system that would get it a lot of attention. So, I don’t fault WikiLeaks for its efforts to get this information out there.

What I do — concerns me — what really concerns me a lot is that I think their only real value is in getting secrets published that they consider — that they consider should be published. I don’t feel like, necessarily, they have demonstrated that they are on the same kind of level of The Guardian and The New York Times when it comes to being careful and scrupulous about protecting sources.

They have now said, as I understand it, that they intend to put all this information out on their Web site, which would effectively, if you had the ability and were trying to find out, would compromise all the sources and all the information that The Guardian and The New York Times at least have protected the public or protected these sources from, these intelligence sources and other things like that.

Now, even if WikiLeaks is basically, as David said, moving toward the mainstream media’s position, I have no doubt that there are plenty of other people out there that would, if WikiLeaks is perceived to be a little too close to what the mainstream media’s values are, will advertise their own willingness to put anything out there.

And in a Web environment, a digital environment where you can’t really, you know, very much do much about that if they get access to the information, I think one of the things this raises is the need for certainly the American military to look at how it guards its own information and for other news organizations — or for other organizations to be careful about that.

I mean, I think that the — that the — in a digital world, with a Web distribution system that no one can control…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ALEX JONES: … if there is information out there, it’s probably got a way of getting out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly, Alex Jones, you have expressed some concern about what the repercussions of this could be.

ALEX JONES: The worst thing that could happen is that people here and other places get on a kind of defensive high horse and say, we are going to make it illegal for The New York Times and The Guardian to publish this kind of information.

That’s not where the problem is. The press’ whistle-blower, watchdog role is essential to this country and to free society. And they need to be able to responsibly publish information. And since they can’t get at WikiLeaks, they may try to go after The New York Times and The Guardian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something that worries you, David Leigh, as — you’re not an American news organization, but your brethren in the United States, is that of concern to you?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, we work in a tighter legal environment than you do in the United States. We don’t have the protection of the First Amendment, so we worry about governments trying to shut us down.

But I think the real point is, a game-changing thing has happened. We didn’t leak this material. And, actually, WikiLeaks didn’t leak this material. This material was leaked by some military source who had access to industrial quantities of electronic information that you can get out and leak across the planet in seconds. And that is what is game-changing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that changes the role of the news media as well?

DAVID LEIGH: Well, because we then get access to this stuff, and we then go about a new model of distributing it. And we’re dealing with data, massive qualities of data, in a way we never used to do before. We used to get little trickles of information.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re going to leave it there. This opens up all sorts of questions for the future.

And we thank you both for talking with us today, David Leigh, Alex Jones.