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WikiLeaks and the right to know

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UNC Associate Professor of Journalism Lois Boynton is a fellow at the University's Parr Center for Ethics. The Indy spoke with Boynton about WikiLeaks, the public's right to know and national security.

Independent Weekly: What are you teaching your students about WikiLeaks?

Lois Boynton: It presents an interesting dilemma from the perspective of "How do you balance the need to be a watchdog of the government with the need to protect national security?" Part of what has been discovered in the course of all this stuff going out is, there's a lot of it that is not national security, so it raises questions, as a result, as to how much protection is actually necessary.

Now, I think some of the media—as far as what they've done with what has been leaked, provided or posted—are doing a nice balancing act of going through some of these things. When they are coming across names that may put people in sensitive positions, they are asking authorities, taking responsibility to check it out and see what falls under more of a right-to-know, sunshine type of a thing and what isn't particularly necessary.

With this particular incident, I don't think there have been too many instances of national officials waiving national security too broadly. That gives me a little more confidence that the government isn't just using national security as an excuse to cover its fanny. That's a technical term.

How should media outlets handle the information? What's the rubric for judging between the public's right to know and potential threats to national security?

That's not an easy one. Some of it has to do with names being dropped that are not just officials that everybody knows—but are there names, are there particular issues on troop movement or where certain forces are in a war zone? Those might be red flags to ask some questions.

Who you go to becomes a challenge as well. If you go to the government and ask, "Can we release this?" they are going to say, "We'd rather you not," regardless. The New York Times went to former government officials, some expert who could advise them and say, "That's a red flag, you probably shouldn't go with it," or "That's not all that sensitive." Look for those things that are red-flag issues of exposing someone to danger.

Rep.-elect Alan West, a Florida Republican, said earlier this week, "I think that we also should be censoring the American news agencies which enabled him to do this and also supported him and applauded him for the efforts. So that's kind of aiding and abetting of a serious crime." Meanwhile fellow Republican Connie Mack has said, "I think that we do have a right to know." With which do you agree, if either?

I kind of fall in the middle here, I guess. I don't think censorship is a good idea, that's why the Founding Fathers came up with the First Amendment. We don't feel good about things being censored.

I do think media tend to have access to more than perhaps Joe Average does. So it does require a little more responsibility when you have that material, to look at what you have and determine how much of this is right-to-know that people need to be aware of. You don't censor because somebody gets embarrassed. We are all human. Someone in the diplomatic core was probably undiplomatic at some point. That's embarrassment. That's not national security, in my mind.

I would lean more to Connie Mack's point of view, but media need to take the responsibility of knowing what they are putting out there and checking on red-flag issues to make sure it's not going to put someone in harm's way.

Are the leaks ethical?/i>

From an ethics perspective, there's a lot of watchdogging that needs to happen here. Part of WikiLeaks, the whole concept of doing the watchdog role, that intent was a good idea. The blanket "Let's just throw it all out there," I don't know if that was as responsible as they could have been. I think there's an aspect of checking that needs to happen to take that kind of responsibility when you are able to access something that the general public may not be able to easily get their hands on. Generally, the idea of open government is one that I'm real fond of.

How should the American public view WikiLeaks, as sunshine or as a criminal act?

I think it's more in the sunshine venue with a little partly cloudy, maybe. I don't see it as treasonous. I think the sunshine intent was very good. Where I come down on the partly cloudy is, should they have checked out some of the areas where there might have been red flags, as opposed to doing a massive data dump?

How does this compare to the Pentagon Papers?

The main difference that I recall on that is that with the Pentagon Papers the court ruled it was such a long period of time after the Vietnam War that there really was no national security issue for them to worry about. It was too late. That was water under the bridge. A lot more of this—and where eyebrows are getting raised—is that there's a lot of it that's relatively current. The question is, does the currency of the material being released make it fall more in a category of risking national security?

What are the long-term implications of this? Do you expect to see similar projects launch or will we see less public support for open records? What does this mean for the future of information gathering, cyber or otherwise?

When Freedom of Information Act requests go forward, is there going to be a more conservative response by the government because they are a little gun-shy right now? We are going to have to see whether that plays out. Will there be reduced cooperation out of concern? The cyber aspect of it, we are entering a totally new realm.

The whole aspect of a FOIA request puts a step between the asker and the information, whereas the cyber element and the means by which they got the information was more direct—direct communication, in essence, an unmediated, unscreened informant. We are seeing that across the board; social networking and Internet accessibility means more people can get information directly and don't have to rely on a mediator such as yourself. There are some advantages to that, and there are some scary things about that, too.

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