Two main media narratives followed the recent release of over 250,000 confidential U.S. embassy cables by the website WikiLeaks. Both missed the point.
The first wave of reporting involved parsing the most gossipy tidbits and debating whether they were actually damaging, or simply mortifying, to diplomats. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton related that one of her counterparts remarked, "Well, don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you." The state department reporters all chuckled with her.
The second theme was of journalists reliving the glory days of the Pentagon Papers, when the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for publishing secret government documents relating to the Vietnam War. Media analysts interviewed legal experts about the decision of the Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel to publish the classified information. There was lots of discussion about the Espionage Act--a law first enacted during World War I that makes it a crime to possess or disseminate information relating to national defense--and whether it applies to websites and newspapers, with endless roundtable chats focused on the First Amendment.
But isn't there a bigger problem here? Those state department reporters who started out the week chuckling at Secretary Clinton's nonplussed reaction suddenly stopped laughing when it came out that one of the leaked documents contained a list of potential targets for terrorists--"sensitive sites" such as hydroelectric dams, vaccine production facilities, and communications hubs. At least the British foreign secretary realized how serious things were becoming: he told the New York Times that the publication of the list was "particularly reprehensible."
Earlier this week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, under investigation in his home country of Australia, ended an international manhunt by turning himself in to British police in response to rape charges in Sweden. He says those charges are a "smear campaign" directed at him because of the documents he's published. Since 2007, his website has published formerly secret documents ranging from Scientology manuals to Sarah Palin's hacked E-mails to the so-called climategate memos to classified military videos from Baghdad. For years, he's been moving around the world in order to avoid surveillance and arrest, changing his hair color frequently and living on friends' couches. Philip Shenon, former New York Times chief Defense Department correspondent and author of numerous articles about WikiLeaks, concisely explained on NPR recently the problem with Assange: A well-known hacker who has broken into the computer systems at places like the Defense Department and the Los Alamos nuclear weapons facility, Assange wants to ensure that "no institution can shut down WikiLeaks. So it exists on a large number of computer servers all around the world. It has hundreds of domain names. So you could attack one WikiLeaks website but not shut them all down."
So there is no official WikiLeaks headquarters, no office for the FBI to raid, nothing to seize. Instead it is ephemeral, able to vanish as fast as a guy can jump up from the couch and throw a thumb drive into a backpack.
Which is how this latest release began: A young private in the U.S. Army stationed in Iraq, Bradley Manning, allegedly put hundreds of thousands of Pentagon and State Department documents on a thumb drive and got it to Assange. Four months ago, WikiLeaks published more than 75,000 classified documents that exposed more than 100 Afghans who were cooperating with the U.S. against the Taliban. We can assume that at least a few of those people are now dead. In response, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell demanded that WikiLeaks return the documents to the U.S. government and added that if WikiLeaks refused to comply, "we will cross the next bridge when we come to it." WikiLeaks did not comply.
In October, WikiLeaks posted hundreds of thousands of classified documents relating to the war in Iraq. This time, it was more than a quarter million documents dealing with diplomatic directives and intelligence. The response? State Department lawyer Harold Koh sent a letter to Assange's attorney--apparently they didn't have an address for which friend's couch Assange was on at the time—again telling him to return the documents. "As long as WikiLeaks holds such material, the violation of the law is ongoing," Koh wrote. No mention of which law that would be, or of any sort of criminal penalties, or even of crossing the next bridge when we come to it. Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference later to say an investigation is ongoing, but sources tell the Washington Post that "no charges are imminent." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed Assange as just a "guy with a laptop."