Panel Explores Effects, Ethics of WikiLeaks

The Wikileaks release of classified diplomatic cables may have the same influence that the Pentagon Papers did four decades ago, said a panel of Duke faculty Tuesday.

“There is an arc between the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks, each beginning a new age of information,” said Philip Bennett professor of journalism and public policy and former managing editor of The Washington Post. “The release of the Pentagon Papers led to a new period in the relationship of the government and the press. WikiLeaks may do the same.”

Four Duke professors spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy Tuesday amid the breaking news of the arrest of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange on charges of sexual assault. The panel attracted a crowd of students, faculty and community members that filled a classroom and an adjacent overflow room.

Panelists included Bennett, Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and member of the National Security Council during the Bush administration, and Ambassador Patrick Duddy, Latin American specialist with the State Department and U.S. Diplomat in Residence at Duke. Vice Provost of International Affairs Gilbert Merkx served as moderator.

On Nov. 28, WikiLeaks posted 220 documents on its website, the first of a cache of more than 250,000 documents of confidential American diplomatic cables. More cables had been made available to mainstream news outlets, including The New York Times and The Guardian.

Publication of leaked classified material is not new, the panelists said.  For example, journalist Bob Woodward ferrets out White House secrets and gets a book contract, with no aggressive investigation into those leaks, even though some of the information revealed in his book might be of a higher classification than the diplomatic cables.

However, WikiLeaks presents a new way for secrets to enter the public domain, Bennett said. It has an anonymous online drop-box, which can serve to shield the leaker’s identity. In the past, a leaker’s identity was at least known to the reporter to whom he divulged classified information. WikiLeaks has suffered from denial of service attacks and the arrest of its founder.

Bennett believes there are at least two different stories, one of the content released and another about how the leaks are distributed and the response to the methodology. Not all media had initial access to the documents, which influenced how they focused their reporting.

“There are three elements in WikiLeaks not found in the Pentagon Papers,” Bennett said. “WikiLeaks are international, decentralized and deinstitutionalized. They are by individual actors that are difficult to control.”

Ambassador Duddy’s point of view reflected his career in diplomacy.

“Someone with access and authorization to see the materials downloaded them and passed them to an unauthorized person. That is a criminal act.” He sees the release as damaging to the practice of diplomacy, which depends on candid reporting from the field. “The cables themselves are contributions to the conversation, not policy, which enrich the thinking of the policy makers.”

Duddy’s concern is that “publicizing of these private conversations hurts the confidence and safety of those who speak to us. For those for whom speaking to us at all is a risk, to expose them seems profoundly irresponsible.” It will make diplomacy harder in the future.

The cables do underscore that the current administration has a robust international diplomacy, and is intending to deal with the difficulties laid at its doorstep. Duddy said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reached out to foreign leaders on this matter, although reportedly she was told, “You should hear what we say about you.”

“I divide the impact of the WikiLeaks into the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Feaver. “It is good for Julian Assange, as it glorifies him and he sees himself as a hero. It is also good for scholars, at least those who don’t want to go into government, as they have access to the information 20 years early. It’s good for Israel, as if proves what they have been saying, that what Arab leaders say to the West is different from what they say to the street.”

Feaver characterized the leaks as bad for diplomacy and also for the Obama administration, because “it happened on his watch.” It revealed a lack of “message discipline” between the State Department and the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice has been slow to respond.

“It’s also not so good for the mainstream media,” Feaver asserted. “Like Matt Drudge, WikiLeaks can bypass the mainstream media.” Bennett disagreed, saying that reporters and experts are needed to interpret the information and put it in context. In additional, traditional media do consult with the White House and consider the risk of damage to national security.

For the ugly, Feaver said further leaks will be hard to prevent because of technology. The system is vulnerable because of changes to prevent stove-piping of information after 9/11. He also saw the action of the U.S. government forbidding employees from going to the WikiLeaks website as part of the ugly. “It’s not so good for Assange, with his arrest and attacks on the site by other vigilantes. We’re entering an uglier phase of the story,” he said.

The event was sponsored by the Duke University Center for International Studies, (DUCIS) along with the DeWitt Wallace Foundation for Media and Democracy, Duke University's American Grand Strategy Program and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.