Press Freedom Tested After Leaks
According to the New York Times, “Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has confirmed that the Justice Department is examining whether Mr. Assange could be charged with a crime.” And WikiLeaks itself may be added to a list of known terrorists and terrorist organizations.
The United States Department of State was scrambling after November 28 to prevent a foreign policy meltdown after WikiLeaks, a non-profit whistleblower website, leaked over 250,000 American diplomatic cables to four major newspapers in Europe. The cables revealed private correspondence between diplomats and about 270 embassies and consulates around the world, raising questions about governmental security and just how much freedom the press should really have.
Many of the cables contain frank or unfavorable descriptions of foreign leaders, including one which says the president of Russia “plays Robin to [Prime Minister] Putin’s Batman.” Other leaders have been similarly portrayed, causing a great deal of international awkwardness.
“I don’t see a big risk to national security in what’s been leaked,” said Ken Weinstein, CEO of Hudson Institute and a foreign policy expert, in an interview with the Free Press. “It’s mostly embarrassing psychological observations on foreign leaders.” He added that the cables haven’t revealed any startling new information and have merely confirmed what the public already knew or suspected.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, is dealing with the legal and political implications. Currently, the alleged source of the leaks, 22-year-old Private Bradley Manning, is held in solitary confinement, according to The New York Times, and may be facing a court martial. He gained access the cables because following the attacks on September 11, various federal departments consolidated their documents databases into one to prevent any lack of communication that could lead to another terrorist attack.
However, according to Martin Flaherty, a lawyer and Fordham Law professor, this plan allows anyone who breaches security to access much more information. But he also said the government was unlikely to return to the old system and predicted tighter security and more stringent background checks instead. He foresees few other changes.
Flaherty said that the U.S. may try to change how individuals or the press may divulge secret information, “but of course that’s going to run into First Amendment problems.”
The First Amendment has been mentioned frequently since the leaks began. According to the New York Times, “Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has confirmed that the Justice Department is examining whether Mr. Assange could be charged with a crime.” And WikiLeaks itself may be added to a list of known terrorists and terrorist organizations.
But Flaherty said that seemed unlikely since the First Amendment would almost certainly be used to defend WikiLeaks from being labeled as a terrorist organization
To convict Assange, meanwhile, the Espionage Act would have to be changed to include not only those who leak confidential documents, but those who receive them as well. Lucy Darlglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in an interview with the Free Press, said that this, too, was unlikely.
“Every time this happens, somebody tries to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we need a law to prevent this from happening in the future,’” she said. “But there’s not much they can do.”