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Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Journalism or Crime?

Julian Assange is tough to pin down.

Alan Dershowitz called him a “new kind of journalist.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called him a “high-tech terrorist.” Others have fallen either somewhere in the middle or somewhere extreme.

But one thing that’s certain is neither the left nor the right can really define the man largely credited for Internet whistleblowing site WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organization whose goal is to provide “important news and information to the public.” Using a digital drop box, WikiLeaks enables anonymous sources to submit classified government documents to get “the unvarnished truth out to the public.”

The website was launched in October 2006, publishing its first classified document in December 2006. The founders of WikiLeaks are a mystery – most media outlets credit Assange as the founder, but he referred to himself in an online chat with the UK newspaper The Guardian as “that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organizes and directs other journalists.” Meanwhile, its website said WikiLeaks is made up of Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians, and start-up company technologists from the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.

The site accepts restricted or censored material of “political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance. We do not accept rumor, opinion, other kinds of first-hand accounts or material that is publicly available elsewhere.”

Much has been made of how WikiLeaks obtains its materials.

Leakers submit such classified material via the site’s digital drop box, which uses anonymized online channels with advanced encoding and data encryption to ensure a source’s anonymity – not even WikiLeaks knows the identification of its sources. These codes are then rerouted through various countries that have the strongest shield laws, such as Sweden, where the sites main servers are located. WikiLeaks’ team of journalists will then read over the submission, making sure it is authentic and not fraudulent, and then writes a news story explaining what the document contains and why it is significant and newsworthy. WikiLeaks then posts the news story on its website and submits it to other major media outlets throughout the world. The unedited document (i.e., still containing certain names from the cables, such as e-mails) is simultaneously stored into an even more encoded folder called insurance.aes256, according to the Associated Press.

Some have taken a harsh stance on leakers such as Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq.

Charged with transferring classified data onto his personal computer; transmitting national defense information to an unauthorized source (WikiLeaks); and aiding the enemy, Manning was arrested in May 2010 after sending encrypted e-mails and Web chatting with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who was convicted in 2004 of accessing the computer servers of The New York Times without permission.

Manning confessed to Lamo he leaked classified information, including the infamous July 12, 2007, Baghdad airstrike in which two U.S. Apache helicopters fired into a standing crowd, killing two reporters from Reuters (Note: link requires a YouTube account because it may be offensive to some viewers). Reports at the time said 9 insurgents were killed, however it was later learned the crowd was actually made up of civilians. Lamo notified the FBI of his AOL chat with Manning and forwarded agents the e-mails which he was unable to decrypt.

Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly criticized Manning and other leakers on the Nov. 29, 2010, edition of The O’Reilly Factor.

“Whoever leaked all those State Department documents to the WikiLeaks site is a traitor and should be executed or put in prison for life,” O’Reilly said. “There’s no question leaking secret documents harms the country, even if most of the content was predictable.”

Meanwhile, others, such as investigative reporter Lee Williams of the Illinois Policy Institute “couldn’t care less” about WikiLeaks’ sources.

“First, there has been too much focus regarding how WikiLeaks obtained the data,” Williams said in an e-mail. “I too have worked sources for insider information. To me, any discussion about WikiLeaks’ methods is much ado about nothing.”

Williams may have a point. According to Assange’s Web chat with The Guardian, in WikiLeaks’ “four-year publishing history… there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities. This is despite much-attempted manipulation and spin trying to lead people to a counter-factual conclusion. We do not expect any change in this regard.”

Still, others are uneasy about WikiLeaks.

Former Fox Chicago reporter Lilia Chacon told an investigative reporting class at DePaul University, “I’m OK with [WikiLeaks] as long as it doesn’t endanger anybody.”

Chacon and others have drawn comparison between the actions of Manning and Assange to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other newspapers in 1971 with the help of friend Anthony Russo. The Pentagon Papers revealed the documented history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, dating as far back as 1945. Included among the papers was a Department of Defense memo that listed the reasons for continued American presence in southeast Asia, contrary to what the Johnson Administration was telling the American public.

Upon release of the documents, Ellsberg was criticized for his actions, being labeled as a traitor. Ellsberg has praised Manning, attributing some of the leaks he’s been accused of to him in order to “give him credit” and called him a “credit to Evolution.”

Ellsberg also praised the work of Assange, saying, “To call [Manning and Assange] terrorists is not only mistaken, it’s absurd… Anybody who believes Julian Assange can be distinguished from The New York Times… is on a fool’s errand.”

Chuck Goudie of ABC 7 Chicago joins Ellsberg in calling Assange a journalist.

“The delivery systems of news have changed – radically in many ways – because of the Internet, but the definition of news has not,” Goudie said in an e-mail. “Tell me something I didn’t know, show me something I care about, demonstrate something that affects me. That’s what news is. Mr. Assange is a journalist by that measure. What he has reported are things that weren’t previously known that lots of people care about and, in many cases, affects them.”

The biggest issue with Assange is whether or not he is a criminal. According to Goudie, “The potential hole in his journalism is the gathering. If Mr. Assange is charged and convicted of a crime, he will no longer be able to fulfill his role as a journalist – and will have violated a cardinal rule of my journalism: you don’t break the law to get a news story.”

However, Assange hasn’t personally broken any laws with regards to WikiLeaks. The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in New York Times Co. v. United States over publication of the Pentagon Papers allows media outlets to publish classified documents that have been given to them.

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government,” said Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion. “And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

WikiLeaks quotes from Black’s opinion on its website, but that hasn’t stopped some in the media from accusing Assange of wrongdoing.

“Of course what he does is dangerous, judging only by the reaction to his work and those who have publicly suggested he should be assassinated by the CIA,” Goudie said. “For many journalists, that alone is a clear measure of his success.”

Goudie summed up WikiLeaks by adding that it fits “one of the best, oldest definitions of news” from Lord Northcliffe, a British publisher: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Assange, however, refuses to get drawn into such definitions.

When asked during his Web chat with The Guardian over whether or not he’s a journalist, Assange said, “I coauthored my first nonfiction book by the time I was 25. I have been involved in nonfiction documentaries, newspapers, TV and Internet since that time. However, it is not necessary to debate whether I am a journalist, or how our people mysteriously are alleged to cease to be journalists when they start writing for our organization.”

Julian Assange is tough to pin down.

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