Western media’s gloating at America’s misfortune over the State Department’s cable leaks should stop

In my prior post, “Wikileaks.org: Secret US Embassy Cables“, I didn’t get a chance to say what I thought were wrong about this leak. I mean the leaking itself, not the content of it. Apparently, the Western media is still all over it, gloating at America’s misery and milking it for every penny of advertising dollar they can get their hands on. Here is an example, the Economist’s latest segment, “From soporific to sizzling; Plenty of gossip, some titillation—and also a few surprises.”

I couldn’t help but sympathize with the U.S. government over their desire to put an end to this leak. Whoever leaked it (took the original documents and sent to Wikileaks) is in clear violation of U.S. laws. The fact that Wikileaks is redistributing illegally obtained materials has a tinge of dishonor in it, despite their stated goals.

Lately, the U.S. media has been reporting that China is blocking access to Wikileaks. I am not sure. Certainly, China Daily’s articles has been mostly about Wikileaks’ founder Assange, and not much coverage of the leaked documents’ contents. As in the discussions in my prior post, I didn’t think the materials were that ‘incriminating’ of China.

As relates to the Chinese media, I think they are taking a principled approach. Censorship? I think so. But I think it is likely done to not condone leaking of state secrets.

[Update]
This was a quick post, because I mainly wanted to get this idea out: the fact that their is a need for balance between national security and free press. Allen has insightful comments below, especially if you felt this post left you hanging.

28 thoughts on “Western media’s gloating at America’s misfortune over the State Department’s cable leaks should stop

  1. yinyang, I will nitpick a little.

    Neither the leaking nor distribution in this case is illegal under U.S. laws. The leaking is not because it was done extra-territorially – i.e. outside the U.S. territory where U.S. law applies.

    (Whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange violated other nations’ laws I am not sure. To be sure, I don’t really know which law applies – the place of his citizenship, residency, or where wikileaks is hosted. It is not trivial to figure out where Wikileaks is based. According to this page: “The organization itself has no offices or central location. Schmitt and Assange are originally from Germany and Australia, although Assange now lives mainly in Kenya. WikiLeaks hosts its main Web servers in Sweden with backup servers in other jurisdictions, according to WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum. Its hosting provider—the company that provides a network connection and physically manages its machines—PRQ was originally founded by one of the creators of the controversial file-sharing information site Pirate Bay as a free-speech friendly Internet service provider.”)

    It is also not illegal (under present US law) to distribute (and report on) the contents of the leaked documents. Traditionally, U.S. journalists are prohibited to obtain state secrets or other sensitive information through illegal means. However, once state secrets or other sensitive information becomes available to the public, U.S. journalists are free to do whatever they want with it. Many in the U.S. are proud of that tradition – and point to it as a foundation of Western progressiveness.

    I’ve always thought different. The journalists are free to do with such information because such information – traditionally – did not really harm the state. With Western regimes so strong over the last hundred or so years, there was no need to police such activities – and hence the West could afford free speech in this area.

    Now we can see things may become different. If the wikileaks or other organizations like it is able to get to the public information that is truly harmful to U.S. interests without repercussion from U.S. law, the law will change to restrict the way jouranlists report.

    As reported in Fresh Air of NPR yesterday:

    Mr. LIPTAK: … it is quite possible that the WikiLeaks phenomenon will start to unravel what used to be an uneasy but many decades long accommodation that the government and the press had reached, which was basically that it’s the government’s job to try to keep its secrets. But if the press through ordinary reporting obtains those secrets, it’s free to publish them without fear of prior restraint or subsequent penalty.

    And you have the sense that that was partly because the courts and even administrations believed that they were dealing with mature and responsible people on the other end with whom they could negotiate and try to persuade them that some things they may not like to be published but they could live with, but that others might have very serious consequences. And The Times has said that it takes very seriously pleas from the government to redact given materials and in this case and others it has. Without a responsible party on the other side that becomes harder.

    It’s also hard because WikiLeaks may well be outside the reach of American law no matter what the courts might like to do. But it does seem to me that this phenomenon has the potential to put real pressure on what had until recently seemed like very settled First Amendment law unlikely to change.

    GROSS: When you say pressure do you mean a change in the law or just more pressure on the press from the White House?

    Mr. LIPTAK: No, I do mean a change in the law. And so you saw under the Bush administration the prosecution of some lobbyists who had basically been doing what reporters do which is, you know, get information wherever they can. You see the Obama administration going after people who had called themselves whistleblowers, but certainly sources, quite aggressively. You saw some saber rattling in the Bush administration that The Times’s publication of revelations about the warrantless wiretapping program violated the Espionage Act.

    So I think there is the beginnings of some sentiment that could well reach the courts and might even find a sympathetic ear among some judges that this old understanding I was talking about, which is that if we obtain through ordinary reporting, truthful and newsworthy information, we’re free to do with it what we wish, that that might not be where we end up, you know, somewhere down the line.

    GROSS: So this kind of experiment in making – in sneaking out and then widely making available all kinds of secret documents might end up having the opposite impact that it wanted to have. It wants to be about free information and you’re concerned it’s going to end up restricting the press’s ability to publish.

    Mr. LIPTAK: I suppose I have that concern. I want to make clear that I, you know, like almost all journalists, I’m in favor of finding stuff out and I’m in favor of an informed citizenry being able to see what its government is up to and make decisions about how it should be governed based on as much information as can reasonably be shared with it that doesn’t endanger very vital interests.

    The power of the state is already clamping down, as we see that (Western) governments and corporations are hacking hard to shut it down. British prosecutors seem to be on his tail over alleged sexual charges.

    Aside: Allen rants – “So where are the trumped up charges of corporate and government hacking? Where is the Nobel prize for a gallant fighter against established governments and social order?”

    The Chinese government has often been derided for invoking state security in limiting irresponsible speech. I’m not gleeful about wikileaks, but it’s interesting to see this turn of events. Perhaps more in the West will come to see: a right to free speech matters – but so does a right to security.

    If you truly believe speech should be free, that the more information the merrier, that the market of ideas will alway ferret out truth and lead to justice, you should not be concerned about wikileaks at all…

  2. @TonyP4

    Thx for the Thomas Friedman article. I think he is right on when he said:

    There is a willful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics.

  3. @Allen

    Great comments. And I agree with them.

    I meant whoever took the documents in the first place and then submitted to Wikileaks has violated U.S. laws. I had bad choice of words. Edited now and hopefully is clearer.

    If I understand you correctly, it means that the U.S. government now doesn’t have any legal means to block the materials?

    The journalists are free to do with such information because such information – traditionally – did not really harm the state. With Western regimes so strong over the last hundred or so years, there was no need to police such activities – and hence the West could afford free speech in this area.

    Well said, and I’ve always thought this way too.

    The Chinese government has often been derided for invoking state security in limiting irresponsible speech. I’m not gleeful about wikileaks, but it’s interesting to see this turn of events. Perhaps more in the West will come to see: a right to free speech matters – but so does a right to security.

    Exactly. And the smarter the Americans are about this topic, the better it is for America.

    Regarding your point about “trumped up charges,” I thought this guy, Daniel Ben-Ami, over at Spiked Online, explained the duplicity rather well:

    Why is the bible of capitalism cheering on Chinese workers?

  4. @Allen,

    I meant the person who actually had access to the U.S. State Department’s cables. Whoever that is, taking the documents and then make them available to Wikileaks. That person has violated U.S. law.

    Then there is Wikileaks, further making those documents available to the media and to the public around the world.

    So I understand the latter is legal per your clarification. But I am pretty certain (okay, guessing) that the former case is a violation.

  5. @YinYang,

    Ok – I suppose an American citizen working in a US embassy should be subject to US laws…

    But short of that, I don’t know. What if a US embassy employee accidentally misplaced a USB memory stick and a foreign national found it outside the embassy and then turned it to wikileaks.

    OK – that may be colorful fancying, but who knows.

    The more interesting question is that when nationally sensitive information does become publicly available – should it be driven out of the public? How hard should Western government go after these information sitting on servers in their jurisdiction? How free should the press be on reporting information that’s out there?

    The Chinese gov’t get a lot of bad rap for controlling information. But the same exact issues are raised here. If people sympathize with controlling wikileaks but not China’s censorship – I submit, we are not arguing about freedom of speech, but national security. When the West’s security is really threatened, they focus on illegality, security. When Chinese security is threatened – they focus on freedom of speech, with security not accounting at all. After all, if China fragments and fall into turmoil, that might even be a good thing… (at least for some people)

  6. Just to follow up on comment #2, the attempt to shut down wikileaks appears to be multi-pronged, coordinated by multiple Western governments:

    From Time:

    WikiLeaks is coming under increasing pressure from forces that want to shut it up. This week two U.S. Internet providers pulled the plug on the website in the space of two days, and the French government tried to ban French servers from hosting its database. As a result, WikiLeaks announced Friday it moved its website to a Swiss domain: wikileaks.ch. This followed news earlier this week that Amazon stopped hosting WikiLeaks content in the U.S.

    And of course, the British and Swiss are going after Assange for sex crimes.

  7. @Allen #7,

    Precisely. This is the first time American security seems to be “threatened.” This Wikileaks controversy is indeed bringing the balance between “freedom of the press” vs. “national security” to the fore.

    I just hope after this, America wise up more. But I expect the hypocritical media to remain the same.

  8. “the British and Swiss are going after Assange for sex crimes”

    This is originally an arrest warrant from Sweden. The case was opened several months ago so I don’t think there’s any connection to the recent leakage. A lot of people believe Assange is innocent but from what I’ve gleaned after reading the news about the sex case, it involves a former girlfriend so either it’s some sort of revenge or he is actually guilty. Some believe in a CIA connection and I thought so early on, but I’ve dropped the idea.

  9. Thanks Wukailong #10, #11 for clarifying that the case was opened long before the current leaks.

    But it seems to me that the activity to really get Assange (or maybe it’s just my attention to this) picked up after the recent leaks.

    By the way: paypal has just terminated Wikilaeak’s primary mode of fundraising – and wikileak’s swiss bank account is under investigation for what appears to be technicalities(?).

    To be sure – wikileaks seem to have been the target of Western gov’ts for some time – though these activities do seem to have been ratched up since the most recent leaks.

  10. So this Bradly Manning is a lone dissenter towards his own country’s policy and took action? Doesn’t that make him a “dissident”? A lone dissident against America’s empiralistic foreign policy IMHO would contribute grately towards world peace and fellowship among nation.

    So where’s his Nobel Peace Prize? Even if he got money from some foreign NGO it’s still a just cause right? Seems instead this poor sap’s photo was plastered all over the TV, like OJ Simpson. Instead we see well connected, retired government officials showing up on TV as paid consultants explaining that our spys stationed in embassy were only “political officers doing journalistic work”.

    Where’s the independence and courage in our media now? If there’s a lesson here, what would the Chinese learn from us?

  11. “So where’s his Nobel Peace Prize? Even if he got money from some foreign NGO it’s still a just cause right?”

    Indeed, he would make a good candidate. I’m not an anti-war activist myself, but I agree with their stance, as does a large number of Europeans. And yeah, it doesn’t matter that you get money from foreign NGO:s per se, IMHO.

  12. I think there are two issues here and we should be precise to not conflate them.

    1. The moral issue behind the invasion of Iraq and the legitimate anti-war movement.

    2. The obtaining of U.S. secret documents and making them available to organizations such as Wikileaks.

    I think it is fair for the media to focus on concerns over U.S. secrets in the case of #2.

    But, in the case of #1 – the anti-war movement in the U.S. has absolutely been ignored by the U.S. media.

    I therefore agree with Charles – the U.S. media is hypocritical when it comes to real dissidents. They will make saints out of other countries’ criminals. That destroys their credibility outside U.S. borders. That completely undermines U.S. “activists” around the world too.

  13. I think there’s value in civil disobedience, where you deliberately break laws you find immoral and take the legal consequences, as long as you don’t hurt others. The problem, of course, is where you draw the line.

    I’m saying this because anyone breaking the law is a criminal. Nelson Mandela was a criminal in this sense, for example, but he was held out as an example, and justly so I think. (Of course he was at times chided by the US and the UK)

  14. @Wukailong #18,

    In my opinion, I don’t think it’s as clear as that.

    Laws are supposed to protect the people – so whenever you break law, there is always the argument that you are placing people’s safety at risk.

    Please note that I’m not saying that breaking the law must thus be per se wrong: I am just saying that framing the issue as breaking law – ok, hurting people – not ok does not make the issues clearer, the issues are equally merky under either frameworks…

    @ #15

    I’m not an anti-war activist myself, but I agree with their stance, as does a large number of Europeans.

    I am making it one of my new year’s resolution to try to learn the difference between European and American perspectives. To me they are just shades of the same thing.

    For example, Europeans may be against the Iraqi – or even Afghanistan – War. But they are not against the use of force to accomplish political goals throughout the world – or shy about creating norms that fit their interests / experiences. American perspectives of the world are usually pretty dumbed down, but European and American paradigms about how the world works / should work are consistent – as far as I can see.

  15. “I am just saying that framing the issue as breaking law – ok, hurting people – not ok does not make the issues clearer, the issues are equally merky under either frameworks…”

    Never said it was simple, the devil is in the details. As I said, the question is where you draw the line. I’m just saying this because there was a mention of “criminals,” which carries a negative perception with it without really taking into account what kind of laws broken.

  16. @Wukailong,

    My concern is this: oftentimes people discuss political freedom (including civil disobedience) as a basic right – a fundamental right that is separate from present day politics.

    But I have a problem with this. The problem is that the fundamental issue is not of fundamental right, but as always is an issue of balance – a balance between preserving order, enabling governance, providing for public safety vs enabling change. Whenever we discuss where a line of fundamental right vs. politics is, it is this balance that should be discussed, not some abstract notion of evil government and oppression – or ideology. We may cloak discussion of real politics in terms of these high-sounding ideals – but that would still not change what it is.

    The wikileaks incidents hopefully reveals this real dynamics. When people insist on discussing freedom in China – we are really discussing politics – except often in a disingenuous way.

  17. @pug_ster, #16

    In regards to the NYT propagandizing Chinese hacking, here is a comment left over at the NYT. I’ve been reading this same junk all over the U.S. media, and NOBODY has offered any facts in support of such claims. It’s all insinuation. They may eventually at the very end of the article saying so and so was then discredited by another report after some questioning. But the headlines, like this NYT article, “Vast Hacking by a China Fearful of the Web” and so on have been utter lies.

    WildKid
    Port Townsend
    December 4th, 2010
    5:23 pm

    I’m just not seeing the evidence of a vast conspiracy to hack into US computers that I would expect to see given the headline, and given that, I consider this article irresponsible journalism.

    There is one anonymous source, quoted twice, whose claims have been ‘called into question’ – by the Times’s own account. There is one attack ‘tenuously linked to PLA’, according to the Times (we have no idea how ‘tenuously’ since the nature of the link is not reported).

    That there are, as claimed in the article, “hackers using Chinese-language keyboards and physically located in China” is self-evident, given that there are more computer users in China than in any other country. That their activities are coordinated by the Government is completely unproved by anything in the article.

    The statement in the article that “In most cases the intruders took great pains to conceal their identities, but occasionally they let their guard down. In one case described in the documents, investigators tracked one of the intruders who was surfing the Web in Taiwan “for personal use.”” in itself indicates how virtually non-existent the evidence is of any evidence of Chinese Government hacking (rather than control, which I think the Government would admit to).

  18. @YinYang #23,

    As we know, WikiLeaks has been forced to switch to a Swiss Domain because allegedly, its domain had been under attack.

    There are several points to note.

    First, if a DNS can shutdown a site simply because the site was under attack, why are the websites of the White House, Google, among others, still up? Should they not have been shutdown because – as presumptive targets of Chinese hackers – these sites constituted vulnerable points that could bring down the whole system – the way Wikileaks became a point of vulnerability?

    Second, as the article noted, there is good circumstantial evidence that the attacks have come from the U.S. government… Why aren’t those evidence cited as basis for reports that the U.S. gov’t is a cyber hacker the way China was smeared on rumors alone?

    Third, based on the information revealed in the article, even if the U.S. gov’t did not directly make the attacks, evidence suggests that the alleged attacks most probably all initated within the U.S. Why should not the U.S. as a nation be condemmed for those attacks the way China as a nation was presumptively held responsible for the alleged acts of a few?

  19. This Wikileaks controversy is finally getting its play as an issue of balance between free speech and national security.

    Silencing WikiLeaks A Free Speech Challenge For U.S. over at NPR.org:

    “This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes,” says Marcia Hoffman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.”

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