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January 28, 2011
WikiLeaks: Notes From a Relational Netherworld
 
What sort of public relations, or media relations, is involved when "a derelict with a backpack"  walks, or "slouches," into a newspaper office "alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street..." and unloads a backpack "with a stockpile of laptops, cords, cellphones, thumb drives and memory sticks that held the WikiLeaks secrets?" Bizarre, certainly. But also fateful, for that visit of Julian Assange to The Guardian in London, is producing political turmoil in the Middle East and could well lead to new laws and standards in the U.S. for the handling of classified information. What was apparently intended as something like a harlequin's bow to openness could lead to tighter restrictions on the world's information flow, or at least information that officials think ought to be classified.

As observers of the WikiLeaks controversy, we find fascinating the account provided by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, of how the Times handled the trove of information that Assange gave it and The Guardian, and how it considers Assange a news source, and by implication, at least, not a journalist himself. That gives support to those seeking tighter controls on government information and prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder.

Yet, writes Keller, "it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated. Taking legal recourse against a government officials who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country.

"As one of my colleagues asks: If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?"

Plainly, Keller has a further point when he notes that "The government surely cheapens secrecy by deploying it so promiscuously. According to the Pentagon, about 500,000 people have clearance to use the database from which the secret cables were pilfered. Weighing in on the WikiLeaks controversy in The Guardian, Max Frankel remarked that secrets shared with such a legion of 'cleared' officials, including low-level army clerks, 'are not secret.' Governments, he wrote, 'must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make.'"

Indeed not. As we said, Keller's account of the WikiLeaks saga makes for gripping reading from a relational fringe world.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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