GLOBAL JOURNALIST: The impact of WikiLeaks is difficult to measure

Saturday, December 4, 2010 | 4:19 p.m. CST

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: This past Sunday newspapers around the world were more interesting than usual. WikiLeaks, the transparency website that embarrassed the Pentagon last spring with thousands of documents on Iraq and Afghanistan, cooperated with five prestigious international newspapers to unveil more than 250,000 State Department cables that had something to say about most of the world and most of its leaders. And some of the language was most undiplomatic.

What is the value of these latest revelations, described by one editor as “a historian’s dream and a diplomat’s nightmare?” Is there real harm beyond the red faces in Foggy Bottom and U.S. Embassies in every continent?  And what are the professional and ethical challenges for reporters and editors dealing with this treasure trove of memos and analyses not intended for public view?


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Simon Rogers, you were with us for our discussion in May and again I want to compliment you and The Guardian for the accessible data window you built for the online audience.

Tell us something about what it contains and how the media got this information?

Simon Rogers, editor, Guardian Datablog and Datastore, The Guardian, London: This was the third in a series of huge releases from WikiLeaks which were initially broke by one of our investigative reporters, a guy called Nick Davis who negotiated with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks to get a hold of this data. Obviously the first two, Afghanistan and Iraq, they were spreadsheets so they were kind of a data stream and they were of significance if you are looking at trends and so on.

This one is a little different. We don’t know completely where it came from. It came to the Guardian via a small thumb drive and the reports are this guy, probably (Bradley) Manning, who is facing court martial, would basically go into work with a Lady Gaga CD, delete the Lady Gaga files and download this stuff onto it. In a sense it is 250,000 incredible stories in one place and we have to kind of find our way through.

Scott: The New York Times is where that famous set of documents The Pentagon Papers were first viewed. Is this any different in the way you’re being told to handle this?

Andy Lehren, investigative reporter, The New York Times: If it is different it is only because the national security law has been changed since those times. But clearly the controlling Supreme Court precedent of the Pentagon Papers case has certainly influenced what our legal counsel has been telling us about what we can and should do in these times.

Scott: Ben Birnbaum, the Washington reaction to this has been severe, including everyone from Hillary Clinton to members of Congress. Could you say a little something about that?

Ben Birnbaum, foreign affairs reporter, The Washington Times, Washington, DC:  Well I don’t think anyone is defending Julian Assange on the Hill. I think Pete King, the incoming house chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, called for WikiLeaks to be listed as a terrorist group.

I think the main takeaway is that everyone is very paranoid right now. I was talking with a senior Senate staffer who was in a meeting with a diplomat from some European country who told me that no less than five times during a 30-minute meeting the diplomat said, “This is all off the record,” and made sure to the tell the person that everything that was going into her notebook had to stay there. And I think that is going to be the biggest effect from these leaks. Everyone is going to be much more careful about what they say behind closed doors with the knowledge that it could eventually become public.

Scott: Andrew Rettman, give us the European reaction. Just about every country in the European Union is mentioned in these dispatches.

Andrew Rettman, reporter, EU Observer, Brussels: The reaction in Brussels is surprisingly downbeat. Catherine Ashton is the new foreign relations chief for the EU. Her people said, “no comment, we don’t comment on classified information.” In fact, yesterday and today Ashton is hosting a sort of behind-closed-doors meeting with all her 136 foreign ambassadors. I’ve been getting some feedback from people involved, and they said she didn’t mention WikiLeaks in her speech. It was mentioned a little bit in the Q&A. It is more being discussed in the margins.

It has been downplayed by the EU institution, but when I spoke to a senior security analyst in the European Commission he said it is having a really big impact. On the one hand these revelations that American diplomats were asked to carry out intelligence type operations, gathering biometric data. The quote from my contact was: “When we interview an American diplomat in the future how do we know they don’t have a recording machine hidden somewhere? How do we know what they’re gathering on us?” It is hugely damaging of trust and in the broader perspective the effect of what is coming out could have a big impact on international relations in general.

Scott: Back to you Simon. What kind of reactions are you getting in London, seat of the so-called special relationship with the United States, and what kind of reactions are you getting to your online site as well?

Rogers: It is interesting. Obviously the government has condemned the release of the data. Out there in the world there is an awful lot of interest in it. I mean this is a very specific set of data. This is one thing we all kind of forget. This isn’t every cable sent. This is kind of a subset of cables linked together by the Sifranet system. Up to two million people around the world have access to these cables. So in some way it is a miracle that some of this stuff stays secret as long as it has.

But there has been an awful lot of interest here. We’re still running it on the website as the top thing every day. One of the things we’ve done is kind of an attractive way of navigating around on the documents we published, and we’re not publishing everything. We’re doing a selection.  So we’re running a selection of these every day. And we’ve got this system for navigating around. People are desperate to read them, and we get 10 or 15 e-mails every day from people around the world who are desperate to find cables relating to their country.

So it seems at the moment that some of the stories, in a sense, are known or have been rumors for awhile, the interest is enormous, and we’ve got days and days of this stuff left, and I’m sure Andy has, too.

Scott: The New York Times editorial on this subject actually said quite specifically, we’ve already covered most of these stories but this is value added. Could you comment on that?

Lehren: That is one of the many big discussions that goes on with this material. But Simon is absolutely right. Many of these issues have been in the public’s eye before. So for instance in today’s paper we examine as part of our package of stories on Russia looking at Vladimir Putin’s holdings in oil companies. The cables don’t really shed much more light to what was already known, but they do reiterate it and give a little bit of a glimpse in that.

There are other areas where you see at a granular level some of the things that are going on, thoughts of various world leaders. And there still are surprises in this material. So the general subject matter may be known to people — questions about corruption, say, in the Russian oil industry — but some of the details could be revelatory.

Scott: And of course the whole world hungers for a photo of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s so-called “voluptuous Ukrainian nurse.” Ben, is this making it more difficult to report things in Washington? It looks like everybody is going to have to keep their head down for a fair time longer.

Birnbaum: I think in the short to medium term this is clearly a feast for journalists or rather a buffet. There is just so much stuff in here that pretty much anyone can go through and get what they want. There are so many angles.

Scott: Simon let’s get back to Andrew’s question. Is there any sense of the publication calendar?

Rogers: Well I think the interesting thing about this story compared to previous stories from the Afghanistan-Iraq WikiLeaks, the long term historical impact is huge. My sense of these is that this is much more kind of an open-ended process. I mean certainly we have had, we’ve got journalists poring through documents. People talk about the Internet killing journalism, but it has been a boon to journalists certainly in this sense. We’ve got very established brilliant reporters like David Lear, Heather Brook and people who know these things really well just going through the cables. Every day there are stories. When you normally release the documents you can see the big stories straight away. But you can see a lot more of this kind of thing over the next days and even weeks.

Scott: Andrew Rettman, what are the points of interest in Brussels?

Rettman: I am looking at our website right now as I speak at some of the headlines that we’ve been running. One of the stories that got the biggest level of readership on our website were comments from commission forces about the actual quality of reporting by U.S. diplomats. They felt envious, not only about the literary quality of some of the writing but the incisiveness and the political insight of some of them. So that in itself is a point of interest. 

We’ve had light shed on some of the strange dictatorships in Central Asia that the EU is trying to do business with in the energy sector. I think everyone here in Brussels specifically is waiting for is stuff to come out on the EU institution itself.

Scott: It is a comfort to know that our diplomats write so well — at least write better than the military. These cables are quite readable essays and not jargon filled. I want to ask our panelists what they think the longer-term consequences and what the ethical considerations are for journalism itself.   Everybody seems to be enjoying this while at the same time clucking their tongues that we’ve done this.

Rogers: First you could ask: “Is anything ever going to be secret again in the future?” because you can see that is certainly going to change the way that we work. I think the consequence of the whole process since we first spoke in May has been to change the way that journalism is done in the sense that the idea of journalists not being able to use databases and spreadsheets is a thing of the past now. These releases have been so huge, so massive that those kinds of skills become part of the journalist’s skill set.

Ethically it puts us in a difficult position, doesn’t it? Because we’re in a situation where we’ve got these incredible stories, but while we won’t publish them, we will take advantage of them and make stories out of them. We try to be very careful with data. We try not to publish anything that is going to endanger anybody’s life, but you kind of wonder in the future maybe other people won’t be as scrupulous about it.

Lehren: Well, first off let’s take the long view of this. Journalists have long obtained classified and secret documents. In the past you mentioned the Pentagon Papers, one of countless stories that has relied on classified information in the past. I have little doubt that there’ll be stories in the future as well relying on intensely controversial, classified material.

But look at the cables themselves. It is actually really interesting. You will actually see instances where our diplomats are talking to dictators, other world leaders, and those leaders are saying, "Look, there is an unpleasant story coming up. Why can’t you kill it?" And our diplomats are in this position of having to explain to these people: Look, part of a democracy is an independent media, and an independent media will examine, probe, question areas of government. We may not like it but that is part of the bargain of a democracy. Obviously, when they were saying those words they never imagined a scenario on this scale, but our diplomats are familiar with the issue, and they have raised it before with other people in uncomfortable situations.

If I could just add to what Simon was saying, I think it is really important for your viewers and listeners to note we’ve gone to extreme lengths to ensure that no one will be put at risk by the publication of this material. That includes not only our national security and military and White House correspondents combing through every single cable or passage that we might publish but also sitting down with the White House and going through and discussing: OK, what if we do this? What if we do that? Hearing what they have to say and making sure that we don’t publish anything that will put anybody’s lives at risk.

Scott: Ben, do you want to summarize the Washington reporting conundrum at the moment?

Birnbaum: I think it is the same story it has always been.  I think you will have maybe a more difficult time getting people to speak frankly even off the record. People are always going to be paranoid that eventually something is going to come out. I don’t know there is much more to say on that. Certainly in the case of the Arab countries, speaking about Iran, there is one instance in what you hear off the record from Gulf diplomats and Arab diplomats in general has always been different from what you hear in public.

Scott: Then there are the casual comments that we probably won’t be hearing as much for a while. Even in diplomatic cocktail parties. What dull affairs they’re going to turn out to be. Andrew Rettman, what about the mix from Europe? As you say, everybody sort of has their heads down to see what is being said about the EU.  Are the European reporters in Brussels behaving any differently, or are you finding it any more difficult reporting on their diplomats?

Rettman: Speaking personally, in the U.S. contacts are not answering the phone or my e-mails at the moment. I don’t know if that is linked. Maybe they are just busy with other stuff.

I think, yes, as my colleagues have said there will be a period of paranoia, but I think the real consequences of this we really won’t know. We have almost put everything else on hold to try to comb through this, so it is an unprecedented situation. I really don’t think we’ll know for a while yet what kind of impact it will have.

One diplomat was telling me that it might send communications back to the Stone Age where people basically eschew anything that is written or transmitted electronically and go more for face-to-face meetings, face-to-face verbal contact. I have some contacts in the intelligence community, and they’re worried that the impact on the intelligence community — especially in America where it could change the kinds of reforms that were put in place after 9/11, when the 9/11 commission found not enough information was being shared. You could go back to a period of Chinese walls in the diplomatic community that would make it harder for the parliaments to work together, make it harder for people to prevent crises in the future.

I just don’t know what else is going to come out of this, and I don’t think it is predictable what the consequences will be.  Certainly a lot of personal relationships will be destroyed because when Steffan from Sweden learns that Olaf from Germany was calling him an idiot and unworthy of doing his job, it is going to be hard for them to get together and meet and function as professionals afterward.

Scott: This is a classic, let’s wait and see kind of story. We always seem to end up our discussions saying something like that, but in this case we’re probably at the first part of the wave only. Just a few concluding thoughts: The latest WikiLeak data dump is unprecedented and carries numbers of serious implications for the image and the goals of the U.S. around the world, as well as for other nations. If there are any comforts for American diplomacy it is going to be that so many of these dispatches turn out to be so entertaining and readable. Perhaps our current diplomats, when they retire, will have more literary tell-all memoirs. 

Next we hear, WikiLeaks indicates we’ll get a look at how worldwide bankers communicate. For this I can wait.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Kuba Wuls and Rebecca Wolfson. The director is Travis McMillen, audio by Pat Akers.  The floor director is Yue Jiang. The video producer is Erika Croonenberghs. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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