The US government and others will use the latest WikiLeaks release "as reason for secrecy for many years to come," believes Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press. It may take some time for the situation to change, but governments will try to plug what leaks they can and "lock things down," she said. She was speaking at the Nieman Lab event "From Watergate to Wikileaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age."
All governments want to keep secrets from the public, she said, sometimes for the right reasons, but sometimes not. "Governments too often stretch the national security rationale well beyond reason," she continued, and there is a lot of information that is 'classified' that has little reason to be so. She pointed out that the US government spends $9 billion a year on keeping information secret. The US is far from being alone in this practice, Carroll said: and threats against journalists for reporting on what the government wants to keep secret is "an all too familiar sad story in too many countries."
Carroll moved on to discuss the role of technology in fighting secrecy. "Technology can help move information around quickly and it can put original source material in front of a wider audience, and it may some day soon help us more easily unearth and understand those documents," she said. Technology has also given hundreds of millions of people their own place to publish, which she appreciates, but added that "very few of these are using these tools to dig out and unearth what governments are doing."
AP journalists have issued more than 1500 state and federal FOIA requests this year, she said, and will probably do the same next. These fights are becoming more expensive and more protracted, and they require time and resources. "We're fortunate, we have a lot of reporters and we're able to train them," she added.
For example, the US Department of Homeland Security was notoriously slow at releasing information through FOIA requests, using a vetting process that was clearly political in nature. The situation has been changed, but only after the AP investigated it.
Some information is not actually secret, but it just takes a significant effort to locate and gather it. For example, the AP was wondering how many Israeli settlements there actually were in the West Bank, so an AP reporter went to count them.
What technology has also done, of course, is allow whistleblowers to bypass the mainstream media and go direct to the public. But this poses problems: by leaking information directly on the web, how can they draw an audience and how can they be distinguished amongst all the noise on the web? Posting material online can also make a whistleblower vulnerable.
"News organisations have provided the audience and the additional work required that puts context around what whistleblowers have to say, and they have provided a modicum of protection to whistleblowers over the years by protecting their sources and their identity," she said. They have provided a kind of buffer which the net so far has been unable to provide.
And indeed, Carroll stressed, "WikiLeaks had to turn to the mainstream media to do the work around it that gave it value. Even WikiLeaks understood the value of the reporting process on the information." WikiLeaks has gradually increased its cooperation with news organisations throughout this year. For the release of the cables, WikiLeaks did not 'dump' all the data but respected the advice of the newspapers it worked with on what should be redacted.
The AP did not get access to the cables, perhaps because the organisation did not agree to cooperate with WikiLeaks' terms regarding where they could be stored and who could have access, perhaps because the organisation is US-based and therefore was rejected by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
At the same conference, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller described the way that the paper vetted and processed the information. Nieman Lab has a thorough summary of Keller's speech, which explains how the Times assessed the information, put the database into a searchable format and then dove deeper into various stories. The paper gave WikiLeaks the documents that it intended to publish on each day's stories, he said.
Clearly, it is the combination of the secure leaking capabilities of WikiLeaks with the influence and knowledge of mainstream media that can truly have an impact in terms of the release of large amounts of data. WikiLeaks has evidently realised this and is seeking to work with the media as far as possible.