WikiLeaks stirs ethical dilemmas

A controversial website redefines the brown envelope and raises some challenging questions for journalists.

By Corey Davison

WikiLeaks encourages people to give it secret documents to publish online. How should journalists handle this information?

Wikileaks, who leaked "Collateral Murder," woke the world with shocking private documents.
Julian Assange discusses the importance of WikiLeaks with Chris Anderson in this file photo from TED. (TED / James D. Davidson Photo)

By Corey Davison

The image shows about a dozen men walking down the middle of a wide, dusty street.

It looks empty, and is slightly cratered from where the water gathers when it rains.

On one side, there is a row of low-slung buildings. Many look damaged, maybe missing a brick here or a chunk of cement there. The other side features a mostly bare courtyard. There are no flowers or trees and hardly any grass. It is scattered with litter and large piles of debris.

Find out more
Watch “Collateral Murder”
WikiLeaks web traffic details
How ‘leaky’ is your country?
CNN walkout
Assange on TED
KJR does not endorse nor is it responsible for the content of external sites.

The men continue to walk. They seem unaware of the two American Apache helicopters circling above them.

But the soldiers aboard the helicopters are acutely aware of the men. Combat rules allow them to attack if the men on the ground are armed, and the soldiers believe they’ve spotted weapons—AK47 rifles and rocket launchers.

It’s good enough for them.

They radio back to base for “permission to engage.” Translation: kill them. The word comes back quickly. Go.

“Just fuckin’, once you get on ‘em just open ‘em up,” says one soldier over the radio. But the attack has to wait until the helicopters can swing around to create a clear shot.

They circle, waiting impatiently.

The men on the ground remain oblivious.

“Light ‘em all up,” says the same voice once the small group of men comes into view.

“Come on, fire!” hollers another soldier.

With that, continuous gunfire overwhelms the audio of the recording.

Blat, blat, blat, blat, blat.

“Keep shoot’n, keep shoot’n.”

Blat, blat, blat, blat, blat.

Four separate rounds are fired from the chain gun attached to one of the helicopters.

Clouds of dust pour up from the dirt road and engulf the men as their bodies crumple lifelessly to the ground.

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” says a soldier.

Various shots of rooftops and the road below flicker across the screen as the soldiers in the air continue to circle and discuss the location of the carnage with comrades on the ground.

Then the camera zooms in and focuses on the only man still alive.

Attempting to stand, he is seen crawling and rolling from side to side on the curb.

This scene is part of an 18-minute video called “Collateral Murder”.

It was published on the website this past April.

The Ethical Implications

Launched nearly four years ago, WikiLeaks is a website that posts classified and secret documents online anonymously, often in defiance of powerful governments and militaries that don’t want the information to become public.

It sees itself as a valuable tool for reporters, the modern equivalent of the classic “brown envelope” leak. WikiLeaks has presented journalists with new opportunities, but also raises questions about ethical practices and responsibility.

However contentious, one thing is undeniable: WikiLeaks and its Australian founder, Julian Assange, have become a force that cannot be ignored.

“When I saw the ‘Collateral Murder’ documents, I considered myself privileged to be able to have vetted and examined the documents as they were being released,” says C.J. Hinke, a member of the WikiLeaks advisory board.

He has been with the organization from the very beginning.

“I thought, wow this is going to end the war.”

“I thought, wow this is going to end the war.”
–C.J. Hinke

“That’s a really proud feeling to have. You don’t get many chances like that.”

Also the founder of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, Hinke is extremely enthusiastic about transparency. FACT is a local resistance organization that is pressuring the Thai government to address and publicize censorship rules. Without leaked documents, no one in Thailand would know which websites are blocked.

This is why WikiLeaks has become so important to Hinke.

Emailed submissions to WikiLeaks are said to be actually much safer than brown envelopes, because of the encryption process.

When a source sends something to WikiLeaks, it travels through a network of international servers before it ever reaches the organization, making it difficult to trace back to the original sender. Once WikiLeaks receives the information, volunteers from all over the world get to work. They authenticate and edit each document before it is published on the website—exactly how remains a mystery.

More Than “Collateral Murder”

In addition to publishing “Collateral Murder”, WikiLeaks has posted all sorts of confidential material and receives about 30 new leaks a day. On Oct. 22, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 documents about the war in Iraq. Dubbed the largest classified military leak in history, these reports contain details and statistics regarding the number of casualties between January 2004 and December 2009.

Other documents have included banking or taxation records, those related to government corruption and, perhaps most prominently, secret documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

In July, WikiLeaks posted an estimated 77,000 classified military files written by NATO soldiers and intelligence officers between 2004 and 2010. The documents reveal details of the close relationship between the Pakistani military and Afghan insurgents.

They also describe accounts of brutality, extortion and kidnapping by members of the Afghan police.

WikiLeaks knew that this would have repercussions. So it took a different approach to this information than usual.

As well as vetting the material itself, WikiLeaks made the files available to three news institutions on the understanding they would release all the information on the same day: Der Spiegel, the Guardian and the New York Times.

Mark Mazzetti has been with the Times for almost five years and assisted his colleagues with the war documents. He covers issues on national security and describes the “working relationship” that these outlets had with WikiLeaks and with each other.

“Everyone looked at the documents independently and wrote our stories independently and we didn’t share them with each other. Then there was a sort of a rough agreement that the newspapers would publish their information at the same time WikiLeaks posted the documents online.”

The first day of publication was July 25, 2010.

An Open Process

Each outlet published between four to six different articles about the documents that morning.

This pattern continued for the next three days with all the articles available in both the print and online editions of each organization.

Accompanying their stories, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and the Times all wrote articles explaining how they organized the material. Each outlet disclosed its editorial processes and encouraged readers to comment on what it had done.

When asked about the audience’s reception to this collaboration, Mazzetti said that most people believed it was beneficial because reporters acted responsibly. The Times did not publish any documents that included names or any other harmful information.

This differs from the standard practices of WikiLeaks. It is not as careful or concerned about combing documents for potentially injurious material.

Although these journalists didn’t mind using WikiLeaks as a source, not all reporters are as comfortable with the idea.

Dan Leger, director of news content at the Chronicle Herald, explains why.

“They’re all very shadowy, mysterious figures and certainly in journalism, ordinarily, you understand the organization that is producing the journalism, whether it’s the New York Times or the Chronicle Herald or the CBC or whomever, you understand who those people are and you know where to call them and you can meet them on the street, but you can’t do that with WikiLeaks.”

Wikileaks is gaining in popularity since leaking important documents about the war in Iraq. (Corey Davison photo)

Despite numerous attempts, the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, did not respond to messages from KJR. All of the emails bounced back and many staff members declined interview requests because they were not allowed to speak on behalf of WikiLeaks. One employee added that he or she doubted anyone at WikiLeaks would agree to speak with KJR because they don’t know enough about what it is.

The New York Times was not concerned about who is behind WikiLeaks, how it gets information or how it is verified.

“We got the documents and then we did our own reporting to determine the authenticity of them,” says Mazzetti. “WikiLeaks is a source and they were a source for us. We don’t always choose our sources and we can’t always vouch for our sources being great people, but we want the information our sources give us.”

Harvey Cashore, senior editor and investigative journalist with the CBC, agrees.

“For me, the source of the information is not so much important as the quality of the information and what the facts tell us.

“You can get sidetracked on who is the person that leaked the stuff and what’s their motivation, and again, those are good questions, but those are side issues to the real question which is, is the information that we’re getting valid?”

Hinke agrees with this approach.

“No one needs to trust us, just analyze the links.”

He says that journalists should always do their own research to crosscheck the material found on WikiLeaks. “I think that anybody should take some time to become familiar with the material. I mean, you shouldn’t fly off the handle and publish just anything. Certainly WikiLeaks does not do that either.”

“If they’re not careful, they’re going to run into trouble. They’re going to make some major mistakes and maybe people will get killed.”
— Stephen Ward

While WikiLeaks has developed more distinct ethical practices since it began, Stephen Ward, professor of journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is still uneasy. He thinks WikiLeaks may “self-implode” if it doesn’t start removing names from documents and paying more attention to operating methods.

“If they’re not careful, they’re going to run into trouble. They’re going to make some major mistakes and maybe people will get killed.”

Maj. Chris Perrine agrees. “They could endanger U.S. troops, coalition troops and Afghan civilians,” says the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense.

“In (this) batch of documents that they released, there were a number of civilians named in those documents. Some of those had provided information to coalition or to the Afghan government and the Taliban spokesmen themselves have said that they are looking to target and kill people named in those documents.”

Although there are no confirmed cases of people being harmed as a result of the documents, Maj. Perrine says that the Afghan war data prompted them to set up the Information Review Task Force.

This unit is made up 120 people, including representatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency, central command, the military and other inner agency partners. They work 16 hours a day reviewing files that have been leaked or have potential to be leaked. Their job is not to find out who is responsible for leaking the documents, but to assess the damage this material has or could cause in the future.

The Canadian Forces would not comment on this leaked data. According to spokesperson Capt. John Decombe, this is because the majority of the files WikiLeaks has released about Afghanistan are American. The website itself, however, is a Canadian security concern. Capt. Decombe says that is blocked from every computer connected to the Canadian Department of National Defence network.

“The fact is, because they were leaked, they’re still classified. So it would be a security violation if we looked at them.”

“I would argue, as an investigative journalist, far too much happens behind the scenes that should be public.”
— Harvey Cashore

Leger, however, doesn’t think that WikiLeaks is endangering troops at all.

“I think that’s a pile of bologna. You’re endangering troops if you show the movements of our forces. If you said there was a call of NATO troops moving along Highway 14 at 3 p.m. or something like that, that’s compromising the security of people, whether they’re soldiers or not, and I don’t agree with that. But after the fact, especially well after the fact, I can’t see how it would compromise their security of their operations.”

Cashore thinks that NATO makes “a legitimate argument” and that reporters cannot simply discount its concerns. Journalists, he adds, should apply the appropriate scrutiny to determine whether these anxieties outweigh the public’s need to know.

“I would argue, as an investigative journalist, far too much happens behind the scenes that should be public.”

He thinks that every news organization should have a leaks address to remedy this. He recently got approval to set up an email address at CBC that will accept anonymous documents and classified information.

What Happens Next?

Just as experts continue to circle the issues surrounding WikiLeaks, the helicopters in the video continue to circle the man lying on the sidewalk.

He can’t hear, but the soldiers above him are urging him to pick up a weapon.

If he does, this will mean they can shoot again.

But the attack is delayed when a black van pulls up. A little longer than a minivan, it slowly comes to a stop beside the man struggling on the street. Two people get out and attempt to help him.

One grabs his legs around the ankles. The other grabs the man under his arms.

The soldiers are frantically trying to get a hold of their commander. They need permission to engage and they’re running out of time. The man is almost in the van when they’re cleared.

Blat, blat, blat, blat, blat.

Three rounds are fired before they lose the van in the dust.

Blat, blat, blat, blat, blat.

Three more rounds are fired when the soldiers can see again. The shots are violent enough to lift and move the van. Once facing down the road, the headlights are now pointing to the middle of the street and the back wheels are on the sidewalk.

There is also a hole the size of a basketball in the windshield from one of the rounds.

Even if there were someone alive to drive it, it wouldn’t start or move.

As “Collateral Murder” comes to an end, the video cuts back to one side of the van before the attack.

WikiLeaks has zoomed in on the passenger window so that viewers can see better. There’s an image the U.S. military probably didn’t want the public to see: two small children sitting in the front seat. They are later handed over to Iraqi doctors.

Another mission accomplished for WikiLeaks.

Elsewhere in this issue
A CBC legend fades out
Gaze takes gay magazines to the mainstream
Sun News faces tough sell
Will the iPad eliminate print journalism?
Bloggers push Qur’an-burning story
Muslims fight bad press