It’s been a while since I’ve thought about WikiLeaks. After the Julian Assange media storm ended last winter (the story got so boring I only remember it was something to do with a weird Swedish sex law), I forgot about the anti-secrecy group. That is, until this morning. The U.S. State Department announced that the group informed them of the “impending release of hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables,” but that it was not cooperating with WikiLeaks, according to the Associated Press via Huffington Post. A spokeswoman told reporters:
We have made clear our views and concerns about illegally disclosed classified information and the continuing risk to individuals and national security that such releases cause…Wikileaks has, however, ignored our requests not to release or disseminate any U.S. documents it may possess and has continued its well-established pattern of irresponsible, reckless, and frankly dangerous actions…We are not cooperating with them.
As a journalist, I’d have to agree with the State Department on this one. While I’m a big supporter of free information, simply dumping that information online with no accountability is reckless. Unlike WikiLeaks, journalists and news organizations put information in context and hold themselves responsible for the outcome. Instead of publishing an interview with the President, a journalist uses that interview to form a story.
In the case of sensitive diplomatic documents, a journalist would not publish the complete document with no other information. And they would certainly omit names of innocent people who could get hurt if their involvement with diplomats got out. And what about gossipy documents where Hillary Clinton says this or that to another State Department? That kind of news can start a war. If a journalist got hold of that information, they wouldn’t thrust it on the world. They’d think about the consequences. They’d check their facts. Then–maybe, depending on weather cause the media enjoys storm-coverage–they’d publish some of the document.
Early this morning, WikiLeaks announced that the security of its secret U.S. diplomatic cables had been breached after a Guardian journalist violated an agreement between the anti-secrecy group and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. WikiLeaks alleges the journalist “disclosed top-secret decryption passwords to the entire, unredacted, WikiLeaks Cablegate archive.”
WikiLeaks explains, “A Guardian journalist has negligently disclosed top-secret WikiLeaks’ decryption passwords to hundreds of thousands of unredacted unpublished US diplomatic cables.”
However, Gawker explains it a bit differently with their expertly titled article, “Wikileaks Freaks Out at Newspaper Over Its Own Dumbassery.” According to Gawker:
Indeed, the statement appears to confirm several rumors that had been floating around…that a password published in full in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, a book about The Guardian‘s work with the site and its founder, was a “decryption password” for the complete, unredacted archive of U.S. diplomatic cables, which the site had released in part in late 2010 in concert with several newspapers.
WikiLeaks fails to mention the leaked password works with “a BitTorrent file of the archive that has been floating around the internet for months—possibly since last year, well before the publication of the book,” according to Gawker. The Guardian journalists covering the leak said they were given archive access “through a secure server online for a period of hours,” as a “basic security precaution” and WikiLeaks told them the password was “temporary” and “would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours.” Gawker adds, “The paper says it had no idea about the BitTorrent file.”
Whoever is to blame, after announcing that their password was leaked, the WikiLeaks twitter account asked its followers if they thought the group should release all its documents immediately, despite its plan to release U.S. diplomatic cables “according to a carefully laid out plan to stimulate profound changes.” They determined, “Given that the full database file is downloadable from hundreds of sites there is only one internally rational action.”
This story is a bit silly. Not because it isn’t news, but the irony is almost too perfect: Any anti-secrecy group should know that nothing stays secret for long, including passwords. Especially if those passwords aren’t changed often.