Why Does The Myth Persist That Wikileaks Is Indiscriminately Leaking Thousands Of Documents?

from the check-your-facts dept

A few weeks ago, we called out the fact that many in the press continued to falsely report that Wikileaks had indiscriminately released all 250,000+ State Department cables that it had in its possession. In fact, this was the key claim that many have used to condemn Wikileaks and to suggest that it’s neither a journalistic entity nor a whistleblowing entity. The problem is, this is false. To date, Wikileaks has only dribbled out approximately 2,000 of the cables and nearly every one has been in conjunction with various mainstream publications and do include redactions of sensitive info.

NPR just got around to correcting the error, even though many of its “hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.”

And yet the myth persists. It’s quite amazing, for example, that the Wall Street Journal allowed famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to publish this attack on Wikileaks as being “different” than Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (a case for which Abrams represented the NY Times). The crux of the “differences” that Abrams highlights is the fact that Ellsberg withheld four out of 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, to be published at a later date, and then says:

Can anyone doubt that he would have made those four volumes public on WikiLeaks regardless of their sensitivity? Or that he would have paid not even the slightest heed to the possibility that they might seriously compromise efforts to bring a speedier end to the war?

As Jack Shafer deftly points out over at Slate, why, yes, it’s quite easy to doubt that assertion of Abrams, since Wikileaks has so far withheld much more than Ellsberg did. As Shafer notes:

Perhaps because Abrams listens to too much NPR or doesn’t read the New York Times very closely, he’s under the misconception that WikiLeaks has published all 251,287 U.S. diplomatic cables it claims to possess. It hasn’t, as NPR noted in a correction yesterday. WikiLeaks has released just 1,942 cables, which makes Assange’s ratio of released-documents to withheld-documents much, much smaller than Ellsberg’s. By that measure, Abrams should regard Assange as a more conscientious leaker than Ellsberg, not less conscientious.

Abrams’ other reasons for slamming Wikileaks seem self-contradictory. He complains about the “harm” that these leaks will do, while at the same time insisting many of the documents shouldn’t be released because they show no wrongdoing. Again, Shafer debunks this thoroughly:

Does he mean to imply that publishing state secrets can be defended only if they catch the government murdering, stealing, kidnapping innocents, fouling pristine rivers, or betraying allies? It may startle Abrams to learn that the diplomatic process has always been treated as news. Any of the cables now in the news would have made a splash had they been leaked in the conventional, non-WikiLeaks fashion.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike Wikileaks. The organization clearly has some serious issues and there are lots of reasonable questions concerning Julian Assange’s leadership and focus. But it’s really quite amazing how frequently the major media sources out there are attacking Wikileaks based on flat out false statements.

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Comments on “Why Does The Myth Persist That Wikileaks Is Indiscriminately Leaking Thousands Of Documents?”

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118 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

One of the reasons

I think the primary reason for this myth is it makes Wikileaks look like a data dump and not a collection of anti-mainstream journalists. If they are considered journalists they get all kinds of protection comparatively.

On the other hand, if they are portrayed as hackers who stole a bunch of information and posted it all they are obviously not journalists and don’t deserve any protection that would be reserved for them. There are two major entities that would benefit from this.

This first entity is of course the US government that is actively trying to bend laws to the breaking point so they can throw the book at a single person (strangely, considering without Assange Wikileaks would not suddenly disappear).

The second entity is the major new outlets who have become a mouthpiece for both government and corporate propaganda. Wikileaks makes them look incompetent and they don’t like that. They break the stories they are told to and Wikileaks just doesn’t fit into this scenario very well.

Hulser (profile) says:

The didn't release all the documents *this* time

I think the myth started in the first place for the simple reason that, with previous disclosures, tens of thousands of source docucuments were released. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that WikiLeaks released 76,900 documents about the war in Afghanistan and 400,000 documents about the war in Iraq. So, it’s really easy for journalists, politicians, and the general public to just assume that they used the same model with the diplomatic cables.

Now, as to why the myth persists, it could very well be lazy journalism or even bias, but I think it probably has more to do with the fact that it appears consistant with what they’ve done in the past, so to many, it’s not worth thinking about any more.

PW (profile) says:

Top Secret vs. Secret....myth #2

It also appears that none of the released cables to date were of a Top Secret nature, only Secret, which is an important designation especially so many are attacking Wikileaks for putting lives in danger with this latest batch of cables. Glenn Greenwald spent some time on a Jessica Yellin’s CNN show a few days ago clarifying this among several other facts (see video: http://huff.to/ec5fx9).

Anonymous Coward says:

I think it has to do with the aes256 encrypted file with all of the documents in it. Wikileaks is playing games right now dumping stuff that is beneficial to themselves and their partners, but the big file bomb is sitting out there to be set off at any time, sort of the nuclear option.

If they hadn’t put out the encrypted file, the might have a leg to stand on. They released all 250,000 documents, they just haven’t given out the key yet.

Oh yeah, that and they distributed them to a number of news agencies. The truth is so pesky!

MD2000 says:

Most Mature Response

The most mature comment I heard about these Wikileaks came oddly enough from the diplomatic community. Some US diplomat said the general response from foreign counterparts has been “who cares? You should see what we say about you guys…”

Although I imagine the US reply should be “…we have.”

I think it was Napoleon who said “never ascribe to malice what can best be explained by incompetence.” A truly malicious liar would get the facts right and explain around that, rather than repeating a verifiably untrue fact.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Maybe there's no new there...

Perhaps a majority of these cables say nothing more than something like:

“Not much to report on. Got a little indigestion at a new eatery in the Food Court.

Do I forward parking tickets to you or does the embassy handle them?

Sincerely,
Diplomat X

P.S. Please send more money. And domestic beer. “Domestic” means “American.” And ice cube trays. What the hell is up with the worldwide aversion to ice?”

Anonymous Coward says:

Define "released"

One of the things that annoys me about Wikileaks is that they are all about openness and transparency except when it comes to their own operations.

We don’t know where they have stashed the entire treasure trove of cables. Is it on a flash drive in Lord Julius’ pocket? Is it on the hundreds (thousands?) of mirror sites around the globe in an encrypted file? Who has access to the entire file?

I bet even Wikileaks could be the victim of a leak and the greater the number of people that have access to the information, the greater the odds of such a leak – uncensored, unredacted, uncaring.

Before anyone condemns Mr. Abrams statements based on edited news clips, maybe Mike should ask him questions about the points raised in this post.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re:

While the point that they have released the encrypted file is important, I don’t see how it makes this article “100% wrong”

The fact remains that they have withheld a great deal of information. True they have withheld it using encryption, giving them the option to release it at any point, but this alone doesn’t mean you can claim that the release has been “indiscriminate”

They have clearly been exercising a lot of judgement in which documents they actually make public in an unencrypted form, and as a result they have only released a small minority of the cables – with redactions.

Question and condemn their actions if you wish – I am not a full supporter either – but you can’t call them “indiscriminate”

Jeremy7600 (profile) says:

Re:

You have opened the file and know whats inside? You’re sure its all of the cables? And if they haven’t given out the key yet, just what good is it then?

The truth is pesky, it also depends on how its being told.

So they have put out the file. That in my eyes does not fall under them being released to the public, even if they are in that file. See, the thing about them being “released” is that they need to be able to be read. Since they are still bound by encryption, that doesn’t fit very neatly into your supposition that they “released all 250,000” cables.

The day the password gets out then they all will be “released.”

Until the file is opened, I’m fairly certain its all speculation as to whats inside.

Damn that pesky truth.

MissingFrame says:

Suprised there is a need to ask why.

Most people don’t fully pay attention to where they are walking much less the nuances of complicated facts. It’s a lot easier to parrot whatever the political celebrity of the day is saying than actually think or research, and for the most part it doesn’t actually hurt the individual to be completely wrong.

You should breath a sigh of relief that it’s a lot less likely to be burned at the stake because your neighbor’s daughter called you a witch, but that part of our human nature is not buried as deep as you seem to think.

Christopher (profile) says:

Top Secret vs. Secret....myth #2

Ah, but the problem is that NOT ONE LIFE PUT IN DANGER can be directly linked to these cables being leaked. Not O N E! So, there comes a time where you have to tell people like Mr. Greenwald (if he is saying that they are putting lives in danger) to shut the hell up and put up proof or shut up!

The fact is that Wikileaks has redacted to the best of their ability A N D asked the American government to help them with redacting. The American government wanted them to just hand over the leaked stuff to them and not release it. Sorry, but not going to happen.

Eugene (profile) says:

The most obnoxious thing about all these gross misconceptions is that Wikileaks is RIGHT THERE. IT’S ON THE FUCKING INTERNET! God damn it people, this is not some obscure research paper published by a little known scientific journal and only available on microfilm in the Library of Congress or some shit like that. Just fucking type “wikileaks” into god damn Google and figure this shit out for yourself! Fuck!

Anonymous Coward says:

Define "released"

No, commenting on a public figure’s statements is fair enough, but given today’s media modus operandi of only printing small sound bites and partial quotes, I would like to hear more from the person.

I don’t know enough about Mr. Abrams background, politics, or views on this matter to conclude that he is totally wrong, as I think has been done in this post and many of it’s comments.

Unless Mike and the critical commentators have read considerably more about Mr. Abrams, how do they know how he came to the conclusions that he presented in the WSJ? Wouldn’t it be interesting to have Mike eMail him and ask him about this stuff?

I know that this is a commentary blog, and it is quite entertaining, but sometimes some of the one-shot “The guy is a jerk” articles without any follow up leave me feeling like we might be missing something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Define "released"

You didn’t read down far enough in the dictionary. Check out 3, 8, 9, 10, and 11 below. The fact that a file is encrypted is unrelated to it’s release.

Your selective definition of the word “release” is an example of the type of “sound bite” journalism that was discussed above.

re?lease
   /rɪˈlis/ [ri-lees]

?verb (used with object)

1. to free from confinement, bondage, obligation, pain, etc.; let go: to release a prisoner; to release someone from a debt.

2. to free from anything that restrains, fastens, etc.: to release a catapult.

3. to allow to be known, issued, done, or exhibited: to release an article for publication.

4. Law . to give up, relinquish, or surrender (a right, claim, etc.).

?noun

5. a freeing or releasing from confinement, obligation, pain, emotional strain, etc.

6. liberation from anything that restrains or fastens.

7. some device or agency for effecting such liberation.

8. a grant of permission, as to publish, use, or sell something.

9. the releasing of something for publication, performance, use, exhibition, or sale.

10. the film, book, record, etc., that is released.

11. press release.

12. Law .

a. the surrender of a right or the like to another.

b. a document embodying such a surrender.

13. Law Obsolete . a remission, as of a debt, tax, or tribute.

14. Machinery .

a. a control mechanism for starting or stopping a machine, esp. by removing some restrictive apparatus.

b. the opening of an exhaust port or valve at or near the working stroke of an engine so that the working fluid can be exhausted on the return stroke.

c. the point in the stroke of an engine at which the exhaust port or valve is opened.

15. (in jazz or popular music) a bridge.

Anonymous Coward says:

Define "released"

“One of the things that annoys me about Wikileaks is that they are all about openness and transparency except when it comes to their own operations.”

Well what do you expect? It’s a site for people to anonymously leak sensitive info to. Obviously a certain level of secrecy is required or nobody would risk using them. How can you be annoyed by that?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re:

They have already been indiscriminately leaked once, unless Aftenposten is being misleading. But they are beginning to publish articles based on documents which have not been ‘released’ by WikiLeaks proper.

How do you know that Aftenposten got them from Wikileaks?

It’s entirely possible, but it’s also entirely possible that they got them from another source.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Define "released"

One of the things that annoys me about Wikileaks is that they are all about openness and transparency except when it comes to their own operations.

Not always. When someone leaked info about Wikileaks’ own donors, they published it:

http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/02/wikileaks-force/

But, yes, at times the organization seems overly secretive for no good reason.

Before anyone condemns Mr. Abrams statements based on edited news clips, maybe Mike should ask him questions about the points raised in this post.

Wait, what? Why? I’m not allowed to comment on something someone addressed publicly before I speak to them personally? Why?

The Original Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Define "released"

Unfortunately, all together too many people never read the initial WSJ article and they based their comments on an second and third had opinions which are sometimes taken as fact, and in this case on Mike’s editorial about an article about an article. (Abrams -> Shafer -> Masner)

This is even more so now that many of the original sources are putting up paywalls or requiring registration.

Mike just published an excellent item by Daniel Ellsberg that apparently was triggered by a previous blog entry. Maybe Mr. Abrams will contact him as well.

nraddin (profile) says:

and your calling them misleading?!?

Wikileaks has released thousands and thousands of state department and DOD documents (Well over 2k we are talking about here) much of it was not redacted correctly (Quite likely leading to death in Afghanistan). It ask seems to have crushed the fledgling democracy in Zimbabwe by reveling that Morgan Tsvangirai was willing to work with the US and EU.

The Afghanistan documents where never redacted the way they where suppose to be and to this day still have not been completely redacted.

Last and most importantly, you suggest that they are not just dumping documents (even though it’s obviously what they did with the Iraq and Afganistan docs) but to date nothing in the State department docs show and illegal or unethical behavior. So what exactly is it leaking? Is it really now OK to jut give any private information or correspondence away? (JA didn’t think so when his criminal report and online dating profile got out).

I know that the default here is always freedom of information but you really have no ground to stand on with this claim. The new docs might be coming out slow, but they are not redacted or reviewed well before doing so which just makes it a very slow indiscriminate dump.

Peter says:

Artificial Controversy

The government is making it seem as if Wikileaks is a threat to the national-security so they can justify shutting it down.

Once done, this will be used to justify shutting down other sites which publish information, not information that’s a threat to national security, but simply information the government doesn’t want the public to know.

This is about controlling the international commons of the internet, and with it the flow of information. Effectively the government wants us to only see what it wants us to see and nothing else.

I don’t think I have to say why this is dangerous…

Chris says:

One of the reasons

They are being portrayed as hackers who participated in the theft of information. They ARE hackers that just so happened to be the sole recipients of stolen information and are now trying to portray themselves as journalists to seek the protection that journalist are entitled to. Dis anyone at Wikileaks have press credentials before they received these leaks? NO, therefore they were not, and should not be considered journalist.

Chris says:

Top Secret vs. Secret....myth #2

Releasing to the world that there is an unsecured stockpile of nuclear waste in Syria is a danger to lives I would say……one terrorists gets the idea to grab a small amount and we have a dirty bomb floating around somewhere. The leak didn’t say that it had been secured, just that it was unsecure and EXACTLY where it was. Not a good decision from a company devoted to weeding out war mongers…………

Chris says:

Re:

They have released ALL 250,000 cables. Encrypted or not. The files are now out, released so that some zit faced kid in Iowa or China has the ability to try to crack the encryption. Released is released, even if the information is ‘hidden.” The defense of this company and its actions is intolerable. These people were not journalist possessing any press credentials before the leaks and should not be considered ‘press’ now simply because of the information they are releasing and some paranoid delusional backers that feel they have a right to know about the things contained in the leaks.

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They have released ALL 250,000 cables. Encrypted or not. The files are now out, released so that some zit faced kid in Iowa or China has the ability to try to crack the encryption. Released is released, even if the information is ‘hidden.” The defense of this company and its actions is intolerable. <a href=”http://valentines-messages.com/valentine-messages-for-girlfriend/”>Valentines messages for girlfriend</a>
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