By John Mauer
In 1971, the secret Pentagon Papers were first published by the New York Times. They were not censored, except by the journalist himself. Contrast that with the recent release of secret U.S. documents by WikiLeaks, an online publication. WikiLeaks has been roundly reviled, perhaps rightly so. However, the attempts at government censorship were obvious and disgraceful; online journalism is currently extremely vulnerable. By moving away form the printed word, we are leaving ourselves open to electronic manipulation.
After the initial release of the Pentagon Papers, the federal government tried to censor the news through the courts. With WikiLeaks, the government has used cyber warfare and political intimidation instead of court action. The response of our government is chilling. Electronic news is more vulnerable than the printed word. Let’s take a look at the relevant details.
The Pentagon Papers were a series of studies, compiled secretly within the Department of Defense during the 1960s, which documented the relationship of the United States with Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. They outlined the perfidy of the administration of President Lyndon Johnson with regard to the startup and conduct of our military and political involvement in Vietnam, among other details. They were leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the report. The New York Times published excerpts of the report, starting in June, 1971. Other newspapers soon followed.
The federal government attempted to quash any further release, but were rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court which indicated that the government had failed to meet the burden of proof required for such an injunction. Justice Black wrote, in the decision, “Our Government was launched in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, followed in 1791. Now, for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says, but rather means that the Government can halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country.”
Ellsberg was charged with stealing and holding secret documents, but the judge dismissed the charges because the federal prosecutors botched the case.
Contrast this activity with release of secret U.S. government documents in late 2010 by WikiLeaks, an online publication run by Julian Assange and like-minded individuals. The documents are, for the most part, embarrassing to the diplomatic corps of the United States, as reported by the Huffington Post. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, they do not disclose any illegal activity. However, the release has been roundly criticized for its lack of editorial discretion, and its damage to international relations.
A limited set of the documents were also released to the New York Times, the Guardian, and several other international newspapers and were republished in those newspapers.
Shortly after the release of latest documents in late November, the WikiLeaks web site, then located on an electronic host in Sweden, came under electronic attack. Early in the morning of November 28, 2010, a Twitter line from the site said, “We are currently under a mass distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack.” Such an attack combines the use of a distributed array of computers to flood a website with the goal of shutting it down due to overload. Note that the only organization injured by the release of documents was the U.S. government.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman started the official response. As Chairman of the Senate committee on homeland security, he stated, “"I call on any other company or organization that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them. Wikileaks’ illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world. No responsible company – whether American or foreign – should assist Wikileaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials.” Note that, while the theft of the secret documents was illegal, their publication by WikiLeaks and several newspapers was not, at least by Supreme court standards established by the Pentagon Papers.
Several days later, the site was experiencing a DDOS attack greater than 10 Gigabits per second (a real lot, about 1,000,000 greater than most sites.) At some point, Amazon.com shut down the WikiLeaks site, which had moved to their servers. (Amazon has amazing resilience to electronic traffic. Remember the Christmas rush.) Amazon cited a violation of their acceptable use policy, but this was a dishonest response made necessary by the political pressure. WikiLeaks said, “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”
As reported on Gawker, the U.S. government struck directly on December 3, 2010 when the Library of Congress shut off access to WikiLeaks on its computers. The Department of Defense followed suit for all its employees, including warnings about private viewings. Soldiers were forbidden to view WikiLeaks.
Students at Columbia University were warned that even discussing WikiLeaks online could cost them employment opportunities. In passing along information from the U.S. State Department, Columbia officials said, in part, “Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.”
During this period the WikiLeaks domain name server, EveryDNS.net, severed ties to the site. A domain name server (DNS) provides the electronic correspondence between the site name, in this case “wikileaks.org”, and an internet numbered address. EveryDNS.net also cited its acceptable use policy, although this was a cover for the continued strong electronic attack of its servers. Guess who was attacking? The web site ReadWrite reports, “Losing the DNS means most people can’t access the site. This has come about through the actions of the U.S. Government. The government’s statements about WikiLeaks have forced companies to analyze their Terms of Service.”
The WikiLeaks site moved to Switzerland, although their bank account there has been frozen. Moreover, more than 500 mirror sites have popped up, some listed here. (Mirror sites are exact duplicates of content at a direct address.)
More damaging to WikiLeaks was its loss of PayPal and the credit card companies, on which its financial support had depended, again through political pressure. This occasioned anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks to electronically attack those companies, and restrict their sites. Welcome to a real cyber war.
Although the U.S. government has talked about charging Assange, they have not yet done so. According an online publication, the Daily Beast, the Obama administration has asked Britain, Germany, Australia, and other allies to consider criminal charges against Assange for his Afghan war leak and to severely limit his nomadic travels across international borders. Senator Lieberman has also introduced legislation to make further leaks illegal, but this is bound to tread on the freedom of speech of all Americans.
Nothing WikiLeaks has done is illegal, anymore than the New York Times did anything illegal with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Private Bradley Manning, who apparently leaked the secret documents, is being held in a military brig in Virginia and will be tried this year. The real culprit here is the U.S. Congress, who demanded the communication system that allowed a marine private in Iraq to have access to these documents.
Now, having looked at the details, can anyone imagine the public response if the federal government prevented the presses of the New York Times from running during its release of the Pentagon Papers, or had threatened their distributors. What would happen if the bank account of the NYT had been frozen during the Pentagon Papers time frame? Yet this is exactly what is happening now. Electronic news is currently exposed to government censorship by intimidation of the electronic infrastructure.
A time line of the recent WikiLeaks activities can be found at The Guardian.
As of January 1, 2011, the Facebook page for WikiLeaks is still up with nearly 1.5 million followers.