Dec. 15 2010 10:20 AM

We're taking sides in the 'infowar'

Julian Assange
Photo by Espen Moe
If WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a “high-tech terrorist,” as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently declared, then that must make the “Cablegate” document dump the equivalent of a cache of radiological materials. Because CityBeat published a story about one of the WikiLeaks cables—last week’s lead news piece, “The Russia houses”—that means we’re the sleeper cells in McConnell’s metaphor, right? So, does that make our newspaper a bomb?

We wish. One thing’s for sure: It places us firmly on one side of the battle line.

A few weeks ago, the world woke up and found itself living a William Gibson paperback. At the center of the WikiLeaks plot is Assange, a charismatic Aussie with flowing white hair who believes that releasing 250,000 confidential State Department cables onto the internet will change how the world (or at least the U.S. government) conducts business. British and Spanish supporters took to the streets as the information activist was thrown in jail to await extradition to Sweden to face bizarre broken-condom-related sex charges. Even the Minister of Justice in Kenya called it a “frame” job.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are scrambling to figure out whether any law can be employed, bent or newly written to take down WikiLeaks. The financial giants who control the flow of cash online are collaborating with the government to block donations to the group. Now, police are arresting teenage hackers and anti-censorship activists who retaliated against VISA, PayPal and others with attacks on their websites that UCSD professor Ricardo Dominguez says are tech equivalents of sit-ins.

“The first serious infowar is now engaged,” Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow tweeted on Dec. 3. “The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.”

That is some cyberpunk shit right there, and we were cool to just watch, report and debate the ethical implications internally. That is, until Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Peter King both suggested that The New York Times and other publications should be investigated and prosecuted for publishing the cables.

Haven’t we been through this? Most of CityBeat’s staffers weren’t born yet when the Pentagon Papers saga unfolded—but, back then, the government failed to convict the leakers or prevent the newspapers from publishing the government’s self-damning account of its covert operations in Vietnam. We were all around, however, when the War on Terror became the War on Media, with officials calling for criminal investigation of the Times for revealing leaked details of the National Security Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

At the time, Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, called for limiting press immunity. Lo and behold, three years later, Harman blasted the Department of Justice when she learned that she, herself, was wiretapped by the NSA. Her source? A Times story based on leaked documents.

Funny how that works.

So far, the “Cablegate” documents (approximately 1,500 of the 251,287 have been released to date) indicate that U.S. officials may have enabled corruption, shilled for defense contractors and were asked to quash news stories connecting Afghani officials and military contractors to possible sexual abuse of a teenage boy. We’re learning that Scotland’s release of the Lockerbie Bomber may have been less about compassion and the law and more about caving to Libyan threats. We’re learning about black ops in Pakistan, generals involved in drug trafficking and negligent bank executives getting away scot-free.

It’s not our job to protect the government from embarrassment. Whether U.S. diplomats will be invited to future Dagestani functions didn’t weigh into our decision to report on the “A Caucasus Wedding” cable that revealed how a Russian politician’s wealth extended to San Diego County. If anyone’s to blame, it’s the Secretary of State for setting up such a vulnerable system—no one person should have had that much access.

If the WikiLeaks cables landed in CityBeat’s inbox, we probably wouldn’t dump them all online. That’s not an ethics thing; we’re just selfish bastards when it comes to our precious scoops.

But you can be sure that we’d report on them, archaic espionage laws be damned. CityBeat has registered with WikiLeaks as an organization that would like to be included in future cable releases, particularly information related to the Mexican border, defense contractors and Camp Pendleton.

We support WikiLeaks, and that doesn’t make us criminals, terrorists or spies. We’re journalists and that means we’re always looking for bombshells to drop.

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