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The Rosett Report

WikiLeaks: Fishing With Dynamite

December 5th, 2010 - 11:08 pm

Speaking from some experience as a reporter, I can attest that a leaked document can be the vital item that clinches a story. Leaked documents can play an important part in exposing corruption, malfeasance, and a host of damaging hypocrisies with which people in power exempt themselves from the rigors they impose on others. Back in the days when newsrooms still had typewriters, one of my brilliant and curmudgeonly editors liked to teach all his disciples that one of the staples of the reporter’s trade is the leaked document. But there is a natural vetting that tends to take place before those leaked documents arrive on your desk — or at least, so it’s usually worked until the web brought forth Julian Assange. Secret documents most often leak because someone inside or close to an organization or a government witnesses wrongdoing and becomes so unhappy with the situation that he or she will take the risk of handing over incriminating material to the press — usually with a request that the reporter protect the source. Sometimes they come from competitors of the folks who are misbehaving. There are various ways that documents leak, but the common denominator tends to be that someone is seeking justice for some specific wrong. It is the evidence of wrongdoing that drives the story, and in publishing the leaked document, or at least some of the details within, old-fashioned reporting standards entail making every possible effort to avoid humiliating or otherwise harming the innocent.

This is different. Unless Assange regards it as malfeasance merely to be a U.S. diplomat, then what wrongdoing, exactly, is he seeking to address in embarking on the wholesale dump of thousands upon thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables? For that matter, with Assange’s declared passion for total disclosure, why is WikiLeaks choreographing “Cablegate” as the dance of the seven veils (or the drip of  the 251,287 cables, which WikiLeaks proposes to release “in stages over the next few months”)?

Assange’s rationale, as laid out on the (migrating) WikiLeaks site, is: “The subject matter of these cables is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice.” Come again? This trove of cables is essentially a large database, with complex, interactive parts. If WikiLeaks is determined to put it all out there, then releasing it in stages is manipulation of the first order — a high-stakes tease, while the world wonders for months if, when, or where the next bombshell might land. If the aim is to present to the public a TSA-style strip-search of American diplomacy, and the done deal is, ultimately, to release everything, then candor and fair play would seem to require skipping the publicity striptease and the advance deals with hand-picked news outlets. Just release the entire database. If the aim of putting it all out there is to let people see and decide for themselves what this cable traffic really means, then let them decide with full information available upfront.

But that’s not what this is about. Having declared that all these cables will become public in stages, WikiLeaks is now broadcasting that any definitive move to shut down Cablegate will result in the rest of the trove being leaked all at once. That’s no exercise in service of the public, or of some higher truth. It’s a threat. I see plenty in the U.S. State Department to quarrel with, plenty that should be more fully shared with the public, and plenty that warrants exposing and fixing — but with the kind of care that the better gumshoes of the typewriter age once took to protect the innocent while going after the documents that could nail the guilty. This is nothing like that. Whatever ultimately comes of Cablegate, bulk-dispensing these U.S. documents is a game of power and manipulation. And in those deep waters, WikiLeaks is fishing with dynamite.

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