US risks shooting the messenger

In May 2009, The Daily Telegraph set off a political storm in Britain when it detailed widespread expense-account abuse by members of Parliament. Among the claims: 1,645 pounds, or $2,547, for a floating duck house in one lawmaker’s garden.

By Eric Pfanner

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 23 Dec 2010, 10:31 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:18 AM

The reports were based on a leak, in the form of a stolen computer disk that The Telegraph obtained from a disgruntled public-sector employee, reportedly in exchange for a fee.

At first, the British political establishment was nearly unanimous in its condemnation of the newspaper. There was talk of prosecuting The Telegraph, and government lawyers boned up on the Official Secrets Act.

Eventually common sense prevailed and the government backed off, realising that legal action would have made a bad situation worse. Given that the information had already escaped, shooting the messenger would have been pointless. And the damage to Britain’s image as an advocate of transparency and fair play would have been enormous.

The expenses scandal is worth considering as the US government weighs its response to an even bigger leak of secret information obtained with the aid of digital technology – the publishing of thousands of American diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks. According to reports in The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, its global edition, which have published articles based on the cables, the Justice Department is examining whether to file charges against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

There are, of course, some differences between the expenses scandal and what WikiLeaks calls “Cablegate.” The cables are arguably more sensitive than the information on The Telegraph’s disk – in some cases, publication threatens lives, according to the US government. Yet the expense reports provided more immediately compelling evidence of scandal; the WikiLeaks files contain a lot more “cable” than “gate.”

On the other hand, the alleged payment by The Telegraph adds a commercial factor to the newspaper’s motivation for publishing; WikiLeaks, meanwhile, says it acts purely in the interest of promoting transparency.

Still, there is one important parallel: A US prosecution of Assange would carry significant downside risks for the United States. The issues at stake were described neatly in a recent policy paper by Google, about government efforts to disrupt the free flow of information on the Internet.

The paper does not mention WikiLeaks; it was widely seen as a broadside against China’s policy of filtering the Internet, after Google’s run-ins with the censors in Beijing. But it contained a useful summary of the different kinds of censorship practiced around the world, including this tactic: “Encouragement of self-censorship through means including surveillance and monitoring, threats of legal action and informal methods of intimidation.”

That sounds a lot like what is going on in the United States right now with regard to WikiLeaks. It is not necessary for America to erect a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” to filter out government criticism; if Assange were prosecuted, would-be whistleblowers and news tipsters would have to think twice before taking action.

That would be unsettling for American journalism, and it might be even worse for US technology giants, whose global dominance is underpinned by a sense that American values align with the spirit of openness and free expression that has generally prevailed on the Internet. Technological superiority is not the only reason why Google, and not Baidu of China, is the world’s pre-eminent search engine.

In the WikiLeaks saga, other commentators have elevated the stakes further, describing the cable dump, the bellicose official response and the juvenile efforts by hackers sympathetic to WikiLeaks as the opening salvos of a long-awaited cyberwar.

Does it really make sense for Washington to escalate? This is one war in which most of the collateral damage would be American.


More news from