Wikileaks didn’t just happen

July 29, 2010

OPINION – By PETER SCHEER–The New York Times’ front-page stories on the war in Afghanistan–based on a massive leak of classified US military cables and other documents–are not likely to change the course of the war. But they represent a sea change in the way journalists report on national security.

The records for the Times’ articles, which inevitably invite comparison to the “Pentagon Papers” of an earlier generation and an earlier war, were supplied to the Times not by a government source, but by, a shadowy and stateless website specializing in publishing sensitive records leaked anonymously from the files of governments and corporations.

Why wikileaks?

If necessity is the mother of invention, the gestation for wikileaks began in Washington DC on June 17, 2005. That is the day the Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from court orders compelling journalists from Time Magazine and the New York Times to reveal the identity of a source–Lewis “Scooter” Libby, we later learned–whom the reporters had promised confidentiality.

The  Supreme Court’s inaction laid bare the vulnerability of American journalists to the coercive power of  federal judges who are determined to extract information for a grand jury or trial.  Most journalists can’t or won’t go to jail to protect a source. And those who would do so may find that their employer, typically a public corporation with an obligation to shareholders, doesn’t share their  commitment to civil disobedience.  Even without the intervention of courts, federal agencies conducting  national security investigations can gain access to reporters’ phone records, often without the reporters’ ever knowing about it.

Wikileaks, in short, is a response to journalists’ loss of control over their information.

Using technology both to erase leakers’ fingerprints and to place wikileaks and its files effectively beyond the reach of any one country’s judicial process, wikileaks offers a degree of anonymity and security that, while imperfect, exceeds the capability of US media companies.

These advantages explain the unusual provenance of the Afghanistan stories. Although the source could have leaked the classified materials to a Times reporter directly, the reporter would have insisted on communicating with the source. For the Times, knowing the identity of a source is important for assessing the authenticity of leaked information and to determine a source’s motives for leaking. From the perspective of the source for the “Afghanistan Papers,” however, communicating with the Times would create an undue risk of exposure. The source therefore chose to give the records to wikileaks; wikileaks gave them to the Times.

The upshot is that the Times ran its stories apparently without knowing the identity of its source. That may be a first for a major Times article on national security. It won’t be the last time this happens.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.



  1. ThomasPaine says:

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need more whistle blowers not less. How many lives would have been saved if the lies about the Gulf of Tonkin had been known? How many lives would have been saved if Bush and Cheney’s lies had been uncovered earlier?

    (2) 6 Total Votes - 4 up - 2 down
    • zaphod says:

      Daniel Ellsberg regrets:” I regret that in 1964 or early 1965 I did not release the documents in my possession at that time to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These documents were in my safe in the Pentagon. Later they were among the documents in the Pentagon Papers that I copied and gave to the Senate in 1969 and later to the newspapers in 1971. But if I had released them during the 1964 presidential campaign or before the open-ended escalation on the ground in mid-1965, I believe that all the war that came afterwards could well have been averted. That is a heavy burden to bear.”

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  2. Army says:

    Wikileaks, and Assange, has proven itself the lies of a liar.

    (-4) 6 Total Votes - 1 up - 5 down
    • zaphod says:

      cite ?

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      • Army says:

        Cite what? His “murder” video leak was edited and audio doctored to make believe the US Army deliberately targeted the two Reuters reporters, which was/is 180degs from the truth.

        The gunship pilots clearly tracked and engaged terrorists involved in a shooting confrontation with US forces. The reporters knew this could be, yet embedded themselves with enemy gunmen anyway.

        The obvious result, was their timely death in a combat zone.

        Now, he happily publishes stolen controlled intell, that includes the names of Afghan citizens working to make their country fee of the taliban. Since that info is now in the public domain, it is nothing less than a death sentence for those citizens and their families at the hands of the taliban.

        He was proven a bald-faced liar with his “murder” video, which makes Wikileaks… the lies of a liar.

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        • zaphod says:

          Oh, OK, we will just take you at your word here, no need to link to another source or anything, he just made the whole thing up to make our occupation invasion look bad.

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          • Army says:

            OK, no less source than Assange himself admitting that he edited any information of the obvious weapons (AK’s and RPG’s) being carried in the video, and purposely only pointed out the presence, and then bodies, of the two reporters.

            You must be living in a special world where reality nevers rears its ugly head.

            Good luck with that.

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        • Goyo says:

          Army, you do us all a service by presenting such a weak and benighted account, not only of the leaks, but also of the U.S.-sponsored terrorist imperialism in poor countries on the other side of the world that can’t strike back. Thank you for making it clear that the U.S. presence is utterly indefensible and supportable only by poorly-informed distortions of the sort that make Glenn Beck such an amusing entertainer as he whips the mentally-challenged into a racist frenzy. Your name is especially appropriate. Are your initials U.S., as in U.S. Army? an organization of sociopaths, the poor trying to escape poverty because no jobs are available in an economy ruined by military industrialists and bankers, gang members looking for weapons training, and high school dropouts unable to think their way out of a paper bag. Your name is appropriate, and fits the acumen of your message.

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          • Army says:

            Weak? Unless you saw a different video, there were enemy combatants with weapons engaged in combat with American forces…..and two foolish Reuters reporters were killed in the process.

            Enjoy your utopia of wherever you live, because the world will still get along without you.

            Oh, and “imperialism” would denote tht the USA has set up its own satellite government, chaired and operated by US citizens. Apparently you have no idea what is going on in Iraq, and since I was there for two nationwide elections which elected Iraqi citizens…and even women… that even the UN deemed fair and accurate, I believe I have a handle on that situation.

            It is so sad you folks live in such a tiny bubble. Put down the Ganja and open your eyes. By the way, your ignorant anti-military rhetoric is rather old and tiresome. Can’t you people come up with something new and catchy….or even true?

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            • Goyo says:

              I apologize for being such an embarrassment and blithering idiot, but, you see, I have a high-tech version of Tourettes syndrome, and I sometimes make posts under an assumed name saying inflammatory and presumptuous things that have no basis in fact. I go by such handles as ‘dipshit’, or ‘garbage can’, ‘dumpster’, and, as you have seen, ‘army’. These moments come upon me when I witness the worldwide devastation caused by explosives and uniformed humanoids made in the good ole USA, and think, holy cow, as a taxpayer I’m paying for this insult. And I hope and pray that our boys, if not killed by a lucky sniper, come home and commit suicide by cop, if not their own hands, after abusing the spouse, turn to drugs, and whining about how touch it was killing innocent people so as to remain one of the band of brothers.

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              • Army says:

                Wow, thanks for hoping on my death. Despite that, I still volunteered to fight to protect your rights.

                Oh yeah…..nice rehash from 1972. LOL!!

                Hey, looky here! It’s 2010 already!

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    • zaphod says:

      Well it turns out that it was the Pentagon doing the fabrication of facts, who knew?

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      • Army says:

        No. It turns out that Assange never went to the Pentagon, or ANY govt. official party. He went to the NY Times and expected them to. When they didn’t, Wikileaks simply claimed the Pentagon denied them.

        Sorry, that’s straight from your (highly suspect) Salon link.

        I also giggled when Salon called the NYT a govt. supporting rag. RICH!!

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        • zaphod says:

          Army as soon as your service obligations have expired, Fox news could use you for disinformation!
          copy and paste from my link.:”UPDATE: Just to underscore how misleading the Pentagon has been in denying that WikiLeaks sought its assistance in redacting the documents, DoD Press Secretary Geoff Morrell gave a Press Conference on August 5 which alternatively threatened and pleaded with WikiLeaks. Watch how much Morrell had to parse his statement in order to deny WikiLeak’s claims that it sought the Pentagon’s help prior to release of the documents:

          Recent reports claim WikiLeaks asked the department for help in reviewing these documents before releasing them to the public as part of a “harm minimization exercise,” Morrell said. However, “WikiLeaks has made no such request directly to the Department of Defense,” he added.

            That awkward modifier — “directly” — is necessary precisely because WikiLeaks did indeed request redaction help from the Pentagon “indirectly”: i.e., through The New York Times as mediator, just as Assange insisted from the beginning and the Pentagon denied.

          For whatever reasons — because it wanted WikiLeaks to release the documents with the names of Afghan sources to damage its credibility, because it was indifferent to the potential harm — the Pentagon simply failed to pursue that option, just as it is doing now with the next 15,000 documents. Are those the actions of officials with any genuine concern for the harm to Afghan civilians, other than to the extent it be can exploited to harm its arch-enemy, WikiLeaks?”

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          • Army says:

            What disinformation? You once again confirmed that Assange never went to the Pentagon, but tried to use the NYT as a mediator.

            Although, a job with FOX News as a “go to” military expert would be very sweet!

            I really don’t know how many more years I have left in me, been dong this for 23 already and I’m nearly 50 years old now. I’ve proudly and honestly served my country in peace and combat, and I even kept you safe all this time:)

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            • zaphod says:

              a job with FOX News as a “go to” military expert would be very sweet …. Oliver North got away with it , why not you? BCNU on fox.
              thanks, we are anti war, but not anti warrior.

              (-2) 2 Total Votes - 0 up - 2 down
              • Army says:

                Ooo, doesn’t work that way.

                If you love me, then you must agree with what I do, which is kill people and break things, that’s what makes me a warrior. As a warrior, I have but one job: to protect my country by all means available. War makes me a warrior.

                To support me, is to support me without reservation.

                See, I don’t like you much, because your words and actions hinder my ability to do my job. I do not support you or your cowardly kind. However, I gave my word of honor to defend you, even if means getting killed in the process. Your American freedoms and liberties mean more to me than life.

                COL North was acting on LEGAL orders, and was NOT required to voice those orders to anyone but his superiors. He never lied, but he also never admitted to anything…yes, there is a big difference. That is why his convictions were overturned. I would be very proud to stand with the Colonel, not only in a combat zone, but as an equal at FOX.

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          • zaphod says:

            BTW…. I am so ever thankful that the military is under civilian control.

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  3. zaphod says:


    … could become as important a journalistic tool
    as the Freedom of Information Act.”

    — Time Magazine

    (5) 9 Total Votes - 7 up - 2 down

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