WSJ Claims That Wikileaks Is Not Journalism But Espionage By Taking A Bunch Of Quotes Out Of Context

julian_assange_ (Copy)

By Mike Masnick
Tech Dirt
March 20, 2013

The Wall Street Journal’s former publisher, Gordon Crovitz, has apparently decided to follow the lead of the NY Times’ former managing editor Bill Keller in misrepresenting things having to do with Bradley Manning and Julian Assange to new and impressive heights.

Crovitz has a history of being fact-challenged, especially when it comes to the internet, and his latest opinion piece entitled Aiding the Enemy Isn’t Journalism is an impressive work of bad journalism. Let’s start from the top.

It looks as if Pfc. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange will go down in history as outliers, not trend setters. There have been no copycat leaks of massive quantities of diplomatic and intelligence documents, despite how easy the Internet makes it to leak and the fact that more than four million Americans have clearance to access government secrets.

Um, might that have something to do with the fact that the US government went absolutely apeshit over the release and charged Manning with a variety of offenses that have the possibility of capital punishment? We’ve already discussed the fact that the administration’s reaction likely created massive chilling effects for whistleblowers around the world. Pointing to the lack of anyone willing to step into that breach doesn’t mean Manning was necessarily an “outlier.” It just means the government’s intimidation campaign against whistleblowers may have been quite effective.

Furthermore, requiring an exact “copycat” as the standard for whether or not leaking government docs was a one-time ordeal is just silly. Prior to Manning’s leak, Wikileaks had a regular stream of important documents leaked to it, so I’m not sure what Crovitz thinks he’s proving here.

Among the prosecution’s more than 100 witnesses will be a Navy SEAL who participated in the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. He’ll testify to finding Manning-Assange documents on the terrorist leader’s computer. Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

How much do you want to bet that terrorists have read the Wall Street Journal as well at times? How does that matter?

The key element of this espionage charge is intent: Did Pfc. Manning mean to give intelligence to the enemy? In his 35-page plea, Pfc. Manning describes himself as a whistleblower, but he doesn’t explain what he was blowing the whistle on. The documents didn’t disclose government wrongdoing. Instead, WikiLeaks posted unedited diplomatic and intelligence cables that identified by name Iraqis, Afghans and others who were helping the U.S. war effort. People were outed as homosexuals in countries where that makes them a target for deadly violence. Prosecutors will identify a long list of victims.

And here, Crovitz is just lying. Either that or he’s ignorant. First off, Manning highlighted some key things that he was blowing the whistle on in both his chat with Adrian Lamo and in his plea. Things like the “collateral murder” episode, in which US military helicopters shot reporters. I’d consider that (and the ensuing coverup) to be “government wrongdoing.” Furthermore, it’s simply untrue that Wikileaks just “posted unedited diplomatic and intelligence cables.” Wikileaks worked with a small group of newspapers — including the NY Times, The Guardian and others — to sort through the leaked cables, redact sensitive information, and highlight which stories were important.

Building a case that Pfc. Manning knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy seems open and shut. The more interesting question is how this requirement of intent applies to Mr. Assange.

No, it doesn’t seem “open and shut” at all. Having the press report on something embarrassing is not “knowingly giving intelligence to the enemy.” If it is, then shouldn’t Bob Woodward and his White House sources be facing similar charges? After all, Woodward’s book Obama’s War was recommended by Al Qaeda for people to read after the death of Osama bin Laden. Woodward’s book contained much more classified info, including the code names for NSA programs, details of CIA activities in Afghanistan, and details about Chinese hackers breaking into Obama’s computers. But somehow that’s considered legitimate reporting, but Manning’s activities are “an open and shut case” of knowingly giving intelligence to the enemy? That’s ridiculous. Manning gave information to the press. It may have embarrassed the US at times, but that’s not the same as giving “intelligence to the enemy.”

President Obama has used the Espionage Act often, invoking it six times to bring cases against government officials for providing classified information to the media—twice the number of such cases brought by other presidents since the law was passed in 1917. So it’s at least curious that Mr. Assange hasn’t been charged.

It’s not that curious at all when you realize that Wikileaks didn’t “leak” information it had privileged access to, but rather worked with other news organizations to publish information that had been leaked to Wikileaks.

Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the New York Times, recently wrote: “As a matter of law I believe WikiLeaks and the New York Times are equally protected by the First Amendment.” That misses the point. Unlike WikiLeaks, the mission of newspapers is to inform the public. Mr. Assange’s stated mission is to undermine the U.S. That ought to make it much easier to prove that he intends to help the enemy.

This is a total whitewash of actual history. We actually wrote about Wikileaks right when it launched, and its goal from the beginning was also to “inform the public.” And, early on it had little interest in the US. When it launched, we noted that it was focused on Asia, the Middle East and Africa — areas where they were interested in exposing corruption, which is a public service. It’s only the rewriting of history that suggests Wikileaks was about anyone trying to “undermine the US.” I’m sure that, now, having seen everything the US has done to go absolutely apeshit about Wikileaks, that Assange doesn’t have pleasant feelings towards the country (of which he is not and has never been a citizen), but it seems like an incredible leap beyond basic facts to argue that the mission of Wikileaks was to “undermine the US.”

“An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently,” [Assange] wrote in 2006, “cannot act to preserve itself.”

It might help to read where that came from, and note that it actually builds off a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, which says: “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Assange’s “manifesto” may have been naive and silly, grandiose and full of itself, but that hardly makes it evidence of a plan to undermine the US specifically. It is a general call for stopping authoritarianism around the globe by increasing transparency and stopping the powers that be from communicating too much in secret, something that many people feel is a reasonable goal.

But news executives and media lawyers should think twice before treating Mr. Assange as if he were a journalist. If leaders in the news industry blur the distinction between their journalists and self-proclaimed enemies of the state like Mr. Assange, they may encourage prosecutors to make the same false equivalence.

Frankly, I’m no fan of Assange, who often seems incredibly self-important for no good reason, but Crovitz’s willingness to toss out the press freedom he relies on, based on taking a few quotes and actions completely out of context to claim that a media organization can be declared the “enemy of the state” for wishing to change government to make it more open and more responsive to the will of the people is really frightening. That he doesn’t realize how that can be twisted and turned around on himself and the wider Wall Street Journal directly is even more troubling.

Just for fun, how difficult would it be to make the case that Crovitz himself is an “enemy of the state”? Let’s make this clear: in the following paragraph I am deliberately taking Crovitz’s comments out of context, in the same way he did with Assange’s (though, unlike Crovitz, I actually link to the original sources — Crovitz just implies what he thinks Assange and Wikileaks have said most of the time). Let’s go: In one recent column, he supports “a march on Washington” to change US policy to make it more immigrant friendly. So, he’s advocating attacking our own government for the aid of foreigners? Hmmm… In another column, Crovitz actively calls for tech companies to become “united to go after overreaching government.” That same column complains about the US government and laws they pass. That sounds like a call for revolution and overthrowing the US government. Clearly, he’s an enemy of the state. In another piece he calls for ramping up the police state in the US, cheering on entrapment, which seems to clearly go against American ideals. In another piece, Crovitz cheers on France while criticizing the US government. In another story, he calls for using US taxpayer money to help Iran and China!

And that’s just with a very, very quick stroll through some of Crovitz’s recent opinion pieces. Meanwhile, the organization he writes for, The Wall Street Journal, is in the news today for supposedly bribing Chinese officials. Hmm…

Yes, my paragraph about Crovitz is totally bogus, but if he’s willing to toss out freedom of the press, and twist statements about seeking more transparency and being against authoritarianism as being an “enemy of the state”, well, he shouldn’t be surprised when people show that he, too, is an enemy of the US.