In 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 12 weeks in jail for refusing to identify one of her sources to a federal grand jury. Miller divulged her source as a condition of her release. Swedish law, which theoretically covers the current WikiLeaks site, bars authorities from demanding journalists’ sources. However, alleged WikiLeaks contributor Bradley Manning has been kept in solitary confinement in the U.S. for more than six months, in what some observers believe is an attempt to wear him down into implicating Assange in the leaking of diplomatic cables and a 2007 video of a helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters photographer.
Within the U.S. government, the Office of Management and Budget sent out a 14-page memo in January detailing ways that federal agencies should crack down on potential leakers, including the use of psychiatrists and sociologists to look for potentially disgruntled employees.
“You can’t automate the whistle-blowing process. It’s still a human conversation,” said Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that explores the impact of technology on politics and government, in New York, and author of a new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. “If Bradley Manning did what he allegedly did, he spent a lot of time figuring out if he could trust this guy Assange,” Sifry said, citing portions of chat logs between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo that have been published. In the end, Manning was not actually caught downloading or uploading files. Lamo turned him in.
Obviously, Internet security measures can’t prevent a leak site’s offices and staff from being infiltrated. Assange recently told 60 Minutes that prior to his arrest on unrelated charges in the U.K., he maintained a nomadic lifestyle because “when you’re involved in information that spy agencies are also interested in … if you’re in one location for too long … it is inevitable that location will be bugged.” In America, sneaking into homes and offices to install keystroke loggers on personal computers is a standard law-enforcement activity when approved by a court-issued warrant. For news agencies and other potential leak receivers, infiltration is a real risk.
Once information is leaked, the larger bottleneck is sorting, understanding, validating, preparing, and publishing the information received. WikiLeaks says it has obtained 251,287 American diplomatic cables classified as “secret”—but it has published only 1,942 of them to date. The New York Times and the British newspaper the Guardian claim to also have obtained the entire cable archive through another source, yet both have stopped reporting on the cables, saying they have found no further newsworthy stories.
Former British diplomat Carne Ross detailed his doubts about this conclusion after questioning both newspapers’ editors in a recent panel discussion at Columbia University. For instance, one of the cables apparently exposed covert American aerial surveillance of Lebanon, of which Bill Keller told Ross he was unaware. “Neither the newspapers nor WikiLeaks have the capacity fully to analyze the full stock of leaked cables,” Ross wrote afterward, “thanks to the sheer volume of cables, but also their extremely broad and manifold political significance.”