Note: This article is part of a debate with PolicyMic Contributing Writer Sagar Doshi. For an opposing view, see Doshi's piece here.
My PolicyMic colleague Sagar Doshi brings up several interesting points in his article about Wikileaks and makes it clear that it will be difficult for the government to find a simple, happy remedy to the challenge posed by Julian Assange and his organization. However, I find the legal issue to be a nonstarter, for precisely the reasons he cites.
The U.S. has the ability within the law to prosecute Pfc. Bradley Manning, and it seems they will do so. They do not seem to have any avenues currently available to prosecute Wikileaks or its founder, Julian Assange. I do not believe that a normative argument (whether or not he should be prosecuted) is constructive, as that option is not available.
The Wikileaks issue is but one part of several contentious debates. Ultimately, it comes down to what one believes of the freedoms of press and speech (and what limitations, if any, are acceptable), the role of the media in the 21st century, and the debate over government transparency. Wikileaks is protected under the First Amendment. It is hard for me to imagine that this issue rises to the level that demands alteration of those protections. This is the age of the Internet and the security of protected government information is paramount, regardless of legal recourse.
Furthermore, the scope of digital information available and the speed with which information can be transmitted has created a very different environment for media organizations. There is an immediacy and thirst for a lot of information very quickly. It is within this environment that the act of leaking protected information can be seen as heroic and many have supported Pfc. Manning’s actions, not to mention Wikileaks’ release of the documents. New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the role of the media is not simply to inform the public; it is also to provide context to the published content and to vet content for information that could potentially put others at risk. Wikileaks failed this test of professional responsibility.
My issue with Wikileaks is that I do not believe that their ends, namely government transparency and accountability, are best achieved through their means, providing an avenue for government whistleblowers. This activity will bear fruit, as has been seen from the recent government document leaks. However, I do not believe that this activity will lead to either government transparency or accountability.
Rather, the government will go to greater lengths to protect information and prevent its diffusion, which necessarily means greater compartmentalization of information and a qualitative lessening of inter-agency cooperation, all of which will affect government operation. Government accountability is an issue of political culture and political will. All that the Wikileaks document release has done is instill a political culture suspicious of information sharing and strengthen a political will more interested in revenge than reform.
Furthermore, the ability of the United States to conduct state business with foreign partners will be stunted, at least for the short-term. Some partners were burned more so than others and effects will vary. But, the world of diplomacy is supposed to be separate from the world of public discourse, for better or worse. Maybe the youthful rebel spirit within us applauds Mr. Assange for sticking it to the man. But, as much as I want more government transparency, I see the actions of Mr. Assange as reckless and counterproductive.
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