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The Internet Springs a Leak

The recent posting of U.S. Defense Department video on the Wikileaks website has rekindled an old debate over leaking. But now it's not just about the public's right to know vs. the government's right to secrecy - it's also about the global reach of the World Wide Web.

UPDATE June 8, 2010:

The U.S. military has announced the detention of a U.S. solder it accuses of releasing the battlefield video posted by "Wikileaks" and discussed in this story. Army specialist Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac Maryland was deployed to Baghdad and is now in what an Army spokesman calls pretrial confinement in Kuwait.

The story was first reported by Wired Magazine, saying Manning told a former hacker that he had leaked the video.

The Pentagon says a joint investigation is underway, with results released on its completion.

May 13, 2010

The images are as stark as the Iraqi battlefield it depicts. Recorded by the U.S. Defense Department in 2007, the leaked video - recently posted online at the website Wikileaks - shows a number of people gathered on the street in a south Baghdad neighborhood, and their targeting overhead by a circling American Apache helicopter crew.

The pilots spot what they believe to be weapons, and an order to shoot is given. A number of people are killed, including two unarmed contract workers for the Reuters news service.

Reuters petitioned to publicly release the video; their petition was declined but several Reuters officials were allowed to view the video. A subsequent Pentagon investigation concluded the Baghdad attack was justified, saying nearby Army ground units were experiencing small arms fire - a claim some contest - and that those targeted were killed during "a continuation of hostile activity."

Few had seen the video, but that changed when Wikileaks - a website dedicated to making secrets public - obtained the encrypted video and posted it on its site. Now the world had a glimpse.

"It gives you a limited perspective," Capt. Jack Hanzlik, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told

The posting of the video has reignited a debate about leaks, the responsibilities of those who publicize them, and the ways the Internet is changing the nature of keeping secrets.

"Free speech is what regulates government and what regulates law," says Julian Assange, co-founder and sole public face for the Wikileaks website.

The soft-spoken Assange is almost as opaque as the website he edits. He declines to release personal details and leads a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. However, speaking with VOA, Assange is clear in his purpose.

"Wikileaks aims to achieve just political reforms by getting out information that has been suppressed to the public," he says. The process is simple. "Leakers" submit documents confidentially. The Wikileaks team verifies the authenticity of the document and strips out any information that may lead back to the leaker. The document is then published, regardless of content.

Assange says it's not his job to decide what documents deserve publicity. "We never censor," he says, "and as far as we're aware, we've never made a mistake."

Listen to our unedited Julian Assange interview here.

That may be, but some critics say Wikileak's posting of some documents in and of itself may be in error.

"To my way of thinking, their approach is quite wrong," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy and publisher of the Secrecy News blog. "Not every act of editorial judgment is censorship, and not every act of withholding information is censorship."

Listen to our unedited Steven Aftergood interview:

Aftergood has plenty of experience receiving, vetting, and publishing secrets. He has praise for Wikileak's posting of the Baghdad video. "It's useful for all of us to be reminded from time to time that war is genuinely, unspeakably horrible. And I think this video did the service of reminding all of us of that."

But Aftergood says, "There are also problems with the video and the way it was released." He says the video appears to show the presence of weapons such as a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), something not noted in the Wikileaks on-screen graphics. Assange says the video was classified, a claim Aftergood cannot verify. And the titling of the video itself - Wikileaks calls it "Collateral Murder" - is something Aftergood calls "a heavy-handed, propagandistic exercise."

Assange say Wikileaks editorial policy is simple, and powerful. "We state very clearly, unlike almost any other news organization, precisely what our process is. We will accept material that has been suppressed from the public." Are all secret documents valuable? "Of course not," says Assange. "These are diplomatic, political, (or) historical."

That's a pretty big net, and there don't seem to be many limits to what Wikileaks will publish. David Kushner, writing in Mother Jones magazine, notes that everything from U.S. military manuals from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Sarah Palin's emails and Wesley Snipes' tax records have been published by

"I think what Wikileaks does in general is a good thing, says Professor Dave Cuillier, chair of the Society of Professional Journalist's Freedom of Information Committee. "I think the more information out there we have to make good decisions, the better."

As traditional media like newspapers struggle while the Internet surges, Cuillier notes the rules of the leaking game are changing. "Before the Internet, the mainstream media kind of dictated what news was published. Now you have people who obtain information, leaked or otherwise, and they'll toss it out on the Internet."

Given Cuillier's preference for more, not fewer, leaks, it may surprise that he doesn't think a leaky Internet is necessarily a good thing. "There's so much bunk out there, so much information that's contrived and put together," he says. And the fewer trained journalists vetting just what information is good information there are, the less reliable information becomes in general.

Listen to our unedited David Cuillier interview:

Another way the Internet has changed leaking is frequency. Steven Aftergood notes that several years ago, classified documents might be referenced in a major newspaper once a month, causing an uproar. Now, the documents themselves end up on the Internet daily.

"If you think that all government secrecy is pernicious and wrong, then you will say 'hooray, the Internet has rescued us from evil government secrecy!' But if you're someone who thinks there's a place for secrecy, and our security and the security of the country depends in part on the ability to keep a secret, then there's reason to be concerned about that."

For his part, Assange is unmoved by the needs for secrecy. "I think the definition of journalism is changing, and I think that's a good thing." In the future, Assange says news organizations will come under increased pressure to release the secret documents that have access to, so that everyone online will have a chance to critique and verify the information.

"There is the jury of the public and the jury of history, and that jury demands that...material be revealed, even if corporate or government internal regulation would task people to conceal it."

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.