The NSA surveillance story reinforces why an entity like WikiLeaks is so important

WikiLeaks, the secretive repository for government malfeasance, hasn’t been in the news much lately except for occasional updates about founder Julian Assange, who remains in exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain. And neither WikiLeaks nor its supporters had much to do with the latest blockbuster leak of government intelligence, which confirmed that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone-call data from Verizon customers thanks to a secret court order. But despite all that, the NSA story helps to highlight why having an independent repository for high-level leaks is a valuable thing.

The original report on the NSA’s surveillance effort came from Glenn Greenwald, who writes about politics for The Guardian, courtesy of a leaked document that confirmed the existence of an order signed by the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. As the New York Times explains, even the existence of this kind of order is subject to the highest levels of U.S. government secrecy — much higher, in fact, than the diplomatic cables that former Army private Bradley Manning is accused of providing to WikiLeaks.

Update: Both the Guardian and the Washington Post are reporting that the federal government has also been getting personal data from a number of large internet players for years — including Google, Facebook and Apple.

The government is cracking down on leaks

Even without the current Manning trial as a warning, the risks of a leak like the NSA court order would be abundantly obvious by now, given the Obama administration’s ongoing campaign against government leaks — a campaign that some argue has gone too far, with reporters being named as “co-conspirators” by the authorities (a charge that has echoes of the “aiding the enemy” accusations against Manning). Among other things, the government recently seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters.

This kind of cloak-and-dagger activity towards journalists — which some observers (including me, and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller) have been warning might occur in the wake of the government’s pursuit of Manning and Assange — has likely thrown a substantial chill over the U.S. media when it comes to exposing government information. As if to reinforce that, within minutes of the Guardian story appearing online, sources said the Department of Justice would likely be investigating the leak and how it arrived in Greenwald’s inbox.

Assange and Wikileaks

There have always been leaks, of course, and there would no doubt continue to be leaks even if WikiLeaks didn’t exist. The legendary Watergate investigation and the release of the famous Pentagon Papers both happened without WikiLeaks, or even the internet. But there’s also no question that having a repository for such documents that is both anonymous (or as close as it is possible to get) and largely stateless would make it easier for such leaks to occur.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defence Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — and later became part of one of the most ground-breaking First Amendment trials in history — has said that Manning and WikiLeaks are carrying on the same tradition he was a part of: namely, the quest to hold the government accountable for its actions. Since the media seem reluctant to play the role they should in this effort, Ellsberg says, WikiLeaks becomes even more necessary.

WikiLeaks continues to struggle to stay alive

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks itself is struggling — in part because of Assange’s legal issues, as well as a lack of funding that was exacerbated when PayPal, Visa and MasterCard cut off the ability to donate to the organization, despite the fact that WikiLeaks hasn’t been accused of a crime. And viable alternatives have not yet emerged (a splinter group headed by a former WikiLeaks lieutenant tried to set up a competitor called OpenLeaks without much success, and the New Yorker recently launched its own effort called StrongBox).

Greenwald suggested in a comment on Twitter that the Obama administration’s behavior towards government leakers may have actually encouraged sources like his to become even bolder, as a way of defying what they see as an unreasonable attack on freedom of speech and whistle-blowing. But if WikiLeaks were stronger, sources would have another place they could go to reveal important information — and one that would be more difficult to attack.

Greenwald tweet

To that end, a group called Freedom of the Press was formed earlier this year by Ellsberg and a number of other free-speech advocates, including BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin and actor John Cusack, which is designed to help support WikiLeaks and a number of other entities via crowdfunding. Freedom of the Press has also crowdfunded a number of stenographers to take notes about the Manning trial, since very few media organizations were allowed to attend and most have had restrictions placed on what they can and can’t report.

Whether WikiLeaks can survive or prosper given the splintering of the organization (which appears to have been caused at least in part by Assange and his mercurial approach to running WikiLeaks) — remains to be seen. But having some kind of entity that performs the same function is a clear public good.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Mmaxer and Flickr user Carolina Georgatu