by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
free speech, politics, reaction, wikileaks


The US's Reaction To Wikileaks Is Doing A Lot More Harm Than The Leaks Themselves

from the destroying-any-moral-high-ground dept

It's becoming clear as the weeks go on, that the US government's massive overreaction to the latest Wikileaks releases is doing much more harm to the US's standings abroad than anything in the documents themselves. So far, most of the reaction from various politicians and diplomats concerning the actual content of the documents was that some of it might be slightly embarrassing, but there's been nothing all that surprising. Some foreign diplomats have joked back: "you should see what we say about you." And yet, we're still hearing claims that Julian Assange needs to be put on trial or (worse) executed, and other forms of "attacks" should be made on Wikileaks itself. All this has done has been to have foreign governments and diplomats start mocking the US for not living up to its claims of supporting freedom of the press and freedom of expression. This will make it much, much harder any time the US tries to stop any form of censorship in other countries, as they'll immediately point back at how many of our politicians flipped out over Wikileaks.

A bunch of folks sent over this blog post by Jack Goldsmith, which succinctly summarizes how backwards and damaging the US's response to Wikileaks has been. He questions if whoever leaked the diplomatic cables (he names Bradley Manning, but nothing has yet proven that he's the specific source, as far as I know) directly to the NY Times -- and the same info would likely have been published -- would the US government reacted in the same way?
Would our reaction to that have been more subdued than our reaction now to Assange? If so, why? If not, why is our reaction so subdued when the Times receives and publishes the information from Bradley through Assange the intermediary? Finally, in 2005-2006, the Times disclosed information about important but fragile government surveillance programs. There is no way to know, but I would bet that these disclosures were more harmful to national security than the wikileaks disclosures. There was outcry over the Times' surveillance disclosures, but nothing compared to the outcry over wikileaks. Why the difference? Because of quantity? Because Assange is not a U.S. citizen? Because he has a philosophy more menacing than "freedom of the press"? Because he is not a journalist? Because he has a bad motive?
He also notes that a reporter like Bob Woodward has published and revealed "many details about top secret programs, code names, documents and the like," obviously with direct help from top administration officials... and yet there's been no anger and threats about all of that. Among the many points he raises, one is particularly compelling: any attempt to actually charge Assange will backfire for a huge list of reasons:
I think trying to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act would be a mistake. The prosecution could fail for any number of reasons (no legal violation, extradition impossible, First Amendment). Trying but failing to put Assange in jail is worse than not trying at all. And succeeding will harm First Amendment press protections, make a martyr of Assange, and invite further chaotic Internet attacks. The best thing to do -- I realize that this is politically impossible -- would be to ignore Assange and fix the secrecy system so this does not happen again.
Yet again, I'm left noticing the similarities between the US government's reaction to Wikileaks and the entertainment industry's reaction to file sharing. Each move that it made, including going legal, backfired in a big, bad way. It's really quite stunning to watch the US government make the same mistakes.

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  1. icon
    Geof (profile), 13 Dec 2010 @ 12:44pm

    cade writes, "I'm Canadian as well. And I hold no illusions that we don't have many of the same influences on the press here."

    Heh. I feel a bit foolish, but my argument stands. What you say about Canada is of course absolutely true. I'm sure our government would react similarly if given the opportunity. In that case though, who but Canadians would care? The impact of this falls particularly hard on the U.S. (as it should) given its power and its claims of free speech.

    You are also correct about the strong influence of politics on the press. I read some research recently finding that politicians influence the press more than the other way around (unfortunately I'm not sure so can't check it or its broader validity).

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