Thursday, December 09, 2010

Glimpses into the Wikileaks release process

We can get bits and pieces of how these cables are being released from various sources. Together they paint a picture of a process under the relatively firm control of the US government and parties sympathetic with the foreign policy objectives of the US government.

The British organization the Guardian, one of the first four recipients of the full wikileaks archive of over 250,000 cables shared that archive with the New York Times out of fear of legal consequences if it had not.
David Leigh, The Guardian's investigations executive editor, told The Cutline in an email that "we got the cables from WL"—meaning WikiLeaks—and "we gave a copy to the NYT."

It's not everyday that a newspaper gives valuable source material to a competitor. But Leigh explained in a second email that British law "might have stopped us through injunctions [gag orders] if we were on our own."
The four original news organizations, from UK, France, Germany and Spain, have along with the New York Times come up with a process that involves US government oversight of the release process.
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.
Documents and portions of documents that are withheld from public release are not withheld according to any set of rules that could be explained, criticized and defended, but rather by the cable-by-cable judgment of the releasing news organizations.
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.
Wikileaks is not releasing documents independently.
Julian Assange:

The cables we have release correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working.
What we are left with is a process that appears to be a release of 250,000 documents but actually is the major Western news organizations, led by the New York Times, releasing small numbers of documents that they select in coordination with the US government and using the wikileaks name to generate interest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you're being too hard on the guy. To me, it's a simple case of being able to cover your ass in court. If wikileaks only publish cables that have been referenced by major newspapers, they are pretty bullet proof, unless obama feels like going after the guardian and der speigel as well. I can't really blame Assange, he's taking a big enough risk as it is, and I think he's got a fair point about being able to milk media coverage better this way. The Israel cables will still be relevant when they are published in the coming weeks.