Freedom of speech/press conundrum

What are the limitations of free speech and a free press? We might find out soon with the recent shut down of wikileaks.org by a US judge. "Shut down" is a vague term - dozens of mirror sites have popped up all over the internet.

What is wikileaks.org? According one of the mirror sites:

"Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis. Our primary interests are in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we expect to be of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact...."

Some of the more notable leaks on the site are documents concerning the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq, a military manual concerning the operation of prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other evidence of what it has called corporate waste and wrongdoing. In the interest of US national security, The FDC will not link to any of these mirror sites. The genie is out of the bottle though, and the documents can easily be found in about 0.17 seconds via Google.

This will likely turn out to be one of the biggest tests of the freedom of the press since the Pentagon Papers. There's lots of debate about this issue on the web, and it's likely to heat up. The debate isn't necessarily formally decided along party lines.

Regarding government leaks in general, Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing on today's Wall Street Journal Editorial Page:

"Today, the secrets that are routinely leaked to the press typically concern operational intelligence, i.e., secrets about ongoing intelligence programs. The New York Times's publication in 2006 of details of the joint CIA-Treasury program to monitor al Qaeda financial transactions is one of the most egregious cases in point. But one could cite many other damaging leaks.

Such unauthorized disclosures of classified information have the direct and obvious effect of conveying vital information to America's adversaries. They have a range of harmful second-order effects as well.

The ever-present possibility of disclosure throws a wrench into the machinery of deliberation. In this environment, discussion of policy alternatives must be confined to small groups of reliable officials, and certain policy alternatives cannot be discussed at all lest their disclosure generate outrage.

Also, foreign governments cannot depend upon the U.S. to protect their secrets, and therefore cannot share them. When that happens, communication even among friendly states, a vital part of intelligence, dries up.

What's more, leaks aimed at influencing policy subvert the rule of law and the democratic process. Decision-making that is supposed to be the work of a democratically elected government is supplanted by the decision-making of anonymous officials and Pulitzer-Prize seeking journalists -- individuals who have private agendas.

This state of affairs -- government policy hijacked by leakers, government decision-making paralyzed by the fear of leaks and the repercussion of leaks -- is exceptionally dangerous. And worse is yet to come."

What's worse that's yet to come? Wikileaks.org and the whack-a-mole mirror sites.

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