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‘The New York Times’ vs. WikiLeaks

The ethics of Guantánamo coverage.

On Sunday night, as Michael Calderone has reported, two groups of news organizations began publishing details of secret inmate reports from Guantanamo Bay. Some, like The London Telegraph, had gotten the documents from WikiLeaks; others, like The New York Times, had not. Although the Times did not identify its independent source, WikiLeaks itself provided a clue in a tweet it issued on Sunday: “Domschiet, NYT, Guardian, attempted Gitmo spoiler against our 8 group coalition. We had intel on them and published first.”

Domscheit is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s former Number Two at WikiLeaks and author of a compelling new tell-all memoir in which he describes how he became disillusioned with Assange’s paranoid megalomania, secretive resistance to transparency, political partisanship, and proclivity for concentrating power in his own hands—all the vices WikiLeaks was established to oppose. The “8 group coalition” is a group of news organizations, such as the Telegraph, with whom Assange is still on good terms and to whom he had promised the Guantánamo documents on the condition that the recipients respect an embargo imposed by Assange himself. The tweet suggests that Domscheit-Berg, or another disaffected former WikiLeaks staffer, may have given the documents to the Times, and that Assange suddenly lifted his own arbitrary embargo when it looked like he might be scooped by the former colleague who turned on him.

Regardless of who the source was, the difference between the Times’s thoughtful report and the WikiLeaks document dump illustrates the difference between a responsible news organization and a website devoted to the personal self-aggrandizement of its founder. The Times reporters carefully sifted through the raw intelligence reports and produced analytical pieces that clearly served the public interest. By contrast, in its race not to be scooped, under a melodramatic photo of Assange himself, WikiLeaks announced, “On Sunday April 24, 2011 WikiLeaks began publishing 779 secret files from the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The details for every detainee will be released daily over the coming month.”

Unlike the Times’s story, which was accompanied by seven carefully selected detainee assessments, WikiLeaks’s decision to publish all 779 of the raw assessments is a reckless act that can only harm the detainees themselves—making it harder for the Obama administration to release those it would like to free. As has long been known, the detainee assessments are a messy grab-bag of unsubstantiated fictions, hearsay about individual detainees, and tentative assessments of their genuine danger. The United States is in the middle of delicate negotiations with a variety of countries to accept some of the detainees for repatriation, and, now, every time a particular case comes up, the foreign governments the U.S. are asking to accept the detainees will find it politically harder to do so because of charges in the reports that may or may not be true. “Every one of the reports contains disparaging stuff about people,” says Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution. “Some of it is true; some is true and old and not relevant any more; some is not true; and some is not true and old. None of that will matter when you’re a European foreign minister, thinking of taking a person, and the assessment published by WikiLeaks reveals what the Bush administration thought of him in 2004. I don’t know how many cases this will scuttle, but it won’t make things any easier.”

This isn’t the first time that WikiLeaks has threatened privacy by publishing unreliable or inaccurate information in the course of its massive document dumps: Assange provoked anger in Belgium after WikiLeaks published the police file of a Belgian politician later cleared of allegations of pedophilia. And, as Domscheit-Berg reports in his memoir, another WikiLeaks exposé mistakenly identified a German citizen as a tax evader after a source confused him with a Swiss citizen who shared the same last name.

In his book, Domscheit-Berg describes how he and another disaffected former WikiLeaks colleague have started a new organization, Open Leaks, designed to preserve the benefits of WikiLeaks while avoiding its costs. Open Leaks is not a publishing platform and therefore does not enable document dumps: Rather, it provides an encrypted drop-box that allows anonymous sources to deposit sensitive material and then to specify the institution—from The New York Times to an NGO—they think best-equipped to receive it. By separating the receipt of the documents from their publication, Open Leaks makes it more likely that documents will be responsibly edited and analyzed by organizations that have the time and inclination to make responsible judgments about what sort of publication is in the public interest. And it tries to avoid the centralization of power that made Assange more focused on his own global celebrity than on the consequences of his unedited data.

Of course, the refusal to edit shouldn’t be a crime, and the difficulty of distinguishing the Times from Assange as a legal matter shows why threats to prosecute the WikiLeaks founder under the Espionage Act are wrong-headed and dangerous. But, as an ethical matter, the very different treatment of the Guantánamo documents by the Times and WikiLeaks provides further evidence, if any more is needed, of the difference between responsible and irresponsible journalism.

Jeffrey Rosen is the legal affairs editor of The New Republic.

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