Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bradley Manning Trial -- Professor Benkler, Witness

Courtroom dramas (like Congressional hearings) are like Wagnerian operas -- a succession of highlights interspersed with long boring spells which could have been avoided.  Unfortunately, these are the venues in which the most important discussions of our time take place, where decisions are made with consequences that remain long after those discussions are forgotten.

The trial of Bradley Manning is under way and the results will be important for years to come. With Julian Assange holed up in an embassy in London and Edward Snowden somewhere in a Russian airport (we are told) poor Bradley Manning has become a sacrificial lamb for giving the world information which is officially supposed to be restricted to several thousands (or more) of special people.

His treatment as a prisoner has bordered on torture, and the government is throwing the book at him in a military trial. 

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU, send this Twitter message...
Excerpt beginning at Page 89

Q  So let's talk, let's go back to the Afghan SIGACTS, Professor Benkler. When were these documents released?

A  July of 2010.

Q  And before that publication, what news organizations did WikiLeaks partner with?

A  The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

Q  And how was the publication of the Afghan SIGACTS accomplished or done?

A  WikiLeaks gave the materials to the news organizations a few weeks prior to the publication. Each organization analyzed the articles as it did in its own professional process and organizations. The four organizations agreed on a date to which the newspapers would release their stories and some set of the collection of logs and WikiLeaks would release a larger section of the logs at the same time.

Q  And did each of the news organizations publish ultimately all the Afghan SIGACTS?

A  No, they didn't. They published parts of them depending on what their stories were.

Q  Now, did the reporting of the Afghan SIGACTS by WikiLeaks and other news organizations generally report -- this is again in general, generally report on issues of importance to the public?

A Yes. They were considered to be important. There were no clear major smoking guns that were raised. Broadly speaking, they created a public record of ground view realities of the war and that's how they were understood. There were some discrete things that were, that raised more public concern but they were viewed very wide and reported on very widely as matters of broad public concern.

Q  How did the United States respond, again in general, to this publication?

A  A couple of responses. Admiral Mullen said WikiLeaks would have blood on its hands. General Jones reported publicly to have said that WikiLeaks was endangering lives. Those were the primary public responses. Although Secretary Gates in a letter to Senator Carl Levin in response to a formal answer, to a formal report on what the damages done by the disclosures were, reported that to that point none had occurred.

Q  Based upon this time period, did you see any change in how WikiLeaks was being viewed or started to be viewed?

A  There were some reports in the media broadly that were questioning the, the organization but the shift did not, in a significant way, begin until later in the stories.

Q  Did the same questioning of WikiLeaks apply equally to the other news organizations that WikiLeaks had --

A  No, absolutely not. Both the government and other media had no similar critique of the other organizations, of the New York Times, the Guardian, of the Der Spiegel for reporting on and making available some of the war logs. The wrath was reserved purely for WikiLeaks.

Q  Now, what was the next set of documents or documents that WikiLeaks released?

A  These were the Iraq SIGACTS in October of 2010.

Q  And before the publication of Iraq SIGACTS did WikiLeaks partner again with these news organizations?

 A  The same three news organizations.

Q  And how was the publication of the Iraq SIGACTS handled?

A  In similar ways. Again, materials were available, a publication date was agreed on and the materials were published alongside the stories.

And again, in general, how was the publication of Iraq SIGACTS part of the, of importance to public and public consumption?

So again, these were raised very publicly as an important insight into how the war was going on. It was understood and reported by different media, different ways. The New York Times only emphasized more of the texture and the reality and the sense of providing the American public with a sense of what the war looked like. There were discrete disclosures that were understood to have actually raised significant differences from what the public record had been before and these were reported on as discrete revelations. That was the way in which it was.

Q  How did the United States respond to this publication?

A The response was similar, although the direct response in terms of the demand for non-publication was similar. The public response was not as clearly vocal as it was to the first instance or what it would become to the last of the instances.
Q  And what was the next set of documents released by WikiLeaks?

A  These were the Embassy cables. The first 272 of which were released on November 28th of 2010 known as the Embassy cable release.

Q  And before this publication, did WikiLeaks partner about traditional media organizations?

A   Yes, they did. They partnered with the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Lamont and El Pais. They had excluded the New York Times this time because the New York Times had run an extremely derogatory story on Assange alongside with the Afghan war logs and this was seen as inappropriate by WikiLeaks. But then the Guardian passed on the materials to New York Times so that as a practical matter the collaboration worked very similarly to the first round, except for the addition of Lamont and --

THE COURT: Did you say the derogatory story was after the release of the Afghan war logs?

Alongside the release of -- I'm sorry, the Iraq war logs. I apologize. I misspoke. Q In general, again, how was the public representation to the release of the diplomatic cables?

It was odd. These cables were released in a much more controlled and measured way than either of the prior two, even though the prior two themselves had had the redaction and control in the WikiLeaks set. But the response is hard to define as anything about shrill. Secretary of State Clinton described it as an attack on the international community. Vice President Biden on a television interview said that Assange was more like a high tech terrorist than the Pentagon papers. Representative Steve King who was then incoming chair of the Homeland Security Committee in the House called for WikiLeaks to be described, to be defined as a foreign terrorist organization. Senator Feinstein, who was then the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act. And Senator Lieberman called for, who was then chair of the Senate of the Committee on Homeland Security, called for companies to stop providing services to WikiLeaks.

Q Did traditional media assist in the government, the government's efforts, I guess, in delegitimizing WikiLeaks?

A  Absolutely. I'd say there were three distinct components to the traditional media response. One was primarily typified by Fox News, the Weekly Standard, so this was a context in which Bob Beckel, who had been at one point Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration speaks on Fox News and says that, says of Assange, he's a traitor, he's a treason, I don't believe in the death penalty. There's only one solution, illegally shoot the son of a bitch.  Or William Crystal in the Weekly Standard writes that the first order of business in the meeting of the White House and the congressional leadership needs to be how to destroy, degrade, destroy WikiLeaks. Describing, describing the organization in these terms.  Governor Sarah Palin in Tweeted that Weekly Standard report and said of Assange, he's an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. Why don't we deal with him with the same urgency that we deal with al-Qaeda and Taliban. That was the response on that side.

The New York Times continued the same approach that it begun to develop right after the Iraq logs. Tom Freedman, probably the best known op ed writer of the New York Times wrote an op ed in which he talked about there being two major threats to the world, one was China and the superpower, and the other was super empowered individuals like WikiLeaks and compared those to the major threats to the world. New York Times editor Bill Keller published an 8,000 word New York Times Magazine description of the events in which the same WikiLeaks and the same Assange that the news reporting part of the organization eight months earlier had called a muck-raking site, a small online site that provides information that governments and corporations would like to be, would like to keep quiet, suddenly started to describe WikiLeaks as a secretive cartel of antisecrecy vigilantes. He described Assange in terms of like badly smelling as though he hasn't bathed.  Repeatedly tried to denigrate the professionalism.

Finally, there was similar poor reporting in a study I did of all of the stories in the first two weeks following November 28th. Over half the news stories simply falsely reported that WikiLeaks had dumped thousands or 250,000 cables without, without any redaction. And only 20 percent of stories reported accurately that 272, not 250,000, simply 272 cables were released. They were released in exactly the form that they were released by the traditional media organization in the redacted form that they were released.

So this combination of poor reporting, attack by the New York Times and very vigorous attack on the right wing certainly resonate with the initial set of statements from more government officials to completely shift the view of WikiLeaks from what it had been a mere eight months earlier.
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Yes, I did. yes, if you look at the ASIC report, it basically seems to come to a conclusion that it's very hard to suppress information once it's on WikiLeaks and that the core target needs to be on trust as the center of gravity. In other words, to undermine the concept that WikiLeaks is a place where a leaker can go and trust that they won't be revealed. So in order to prevent this distributed leaking, it's necessary to increase the fear, at it were, or the constraint on potential leakers.

A judgment I made at the time based on the public reports of PFC Manning's treatment and my understanding of the, one of those key judgments of the report was that treating PFC Manning very badly was, would be consistent with the goal of deterring future whistleblowers.

Q  That's not necessarily your judgment today, but it was your judgment at the time based on what was available to you in open source?

A This is what you asked me now.

Q  Now, Professor Benkler, you've never met anyone who was a volunteer for WikiLeaks or an employee with WikiLeaks; is that correct?

A  You mean as a formal interview?

Q  Formal interview as part of your article?

A  No, no.

Q  And you were never an adviser to WikiLeaks formally or informally?

A  No.

Q  And you've never been a volunteer for WikiLeaks either now or before, prior to your time as a --

A  No.

Q  Just generally, you were never really a party to any of the accounts cited by news organizations in response to the leaks?

A  I'm not sure I understand that question.

Q You weren't there --

A  I'm not an actor. I'm an observer. I'm an academic observer, not an actor in these events.

Q  Okay. Now, when you were writing the article, and I think you already said this, but you didn't seek interviews with others who may have dealt with WikiLeaks or Julian Assange?

A  No, I didn't.

Q You didn't speak with the editors at the New York Times or the Guardian or Der Spiegel or anywhere else?

A  No, I did not.

Q  And why not?

A  Different methods of research in different modes. There are certainly academic disciplines that work very heavily with interviews, be they sociology or anthropology. I have in the past, here and there, used interviews. But here I was really concerned with the public record, with what was available to anyone who would spend the time and effort to do it. So that's what I decided to do. 

And this is not uncommon. Perhaps it's uncommon in journalism, but it's not uncommon in academic exercises of trying to look at things as they exist in the public record rather than trying to do a more journalistic analysis that would involve interviews.

Q Now, you said just sort of towards the end that any opinion, at least, that there have been, I'll quote you, some very poor reporting in this case?

A  Yes.

Is that correct?

A  I referred to the repeated references to 250,000 cables being dumped by WikiLeaks at the time in which it was 272 cables that were redacted and released in coordination with the traditional media

Q So that comment specifically just recently, the very poor reporting, that's mainly referring to that analysis you did in November 2010, the --

A  That was primarily, primarily to that, yes.

Q  Now, do you believe, did you see, at least in your overview of the other time periods, so March 2010 to November or even prior to March 2010, did you see what struck you as poor reporting in those --

A  Yes, they were all. There's high variability and quality of reporting throughout the period.

Q  Now, if your conclusions are based in large part on what you've now acknowledged as sort of poor reporting in some places, does that, did you pause to sort of consider your conclusion entirely?

A  No, not at all. This is what you do as somebody whose a researcher. You assess different documents. You cross-reference the various perspectives, you form a judgment about what happened and then you form a second judgment about which sources you trust and which you don't. It's not even always a particular, a particular organization that would be more or less trustworthy.

I cite in the article a context in which on the same day, the same newspaper has three different articles on the embassy cable release. In one it states the obviously false statement of 250,000 unredacted. In one it states the obviously correct statement of 270 in a different story on the same day. And in a third it says, began to release thousands. So there's no magic bullet of if it's the New York Times, it's always correct and if it's some other place it's not. You have to be able to cross-reference multiple materials, make assessments and come to a judgment. That's what I do.
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