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Will Wikileaks Revolutionize Journalism?

While journalists should view Wikileaks with some skepticism, it cannot be ignored. Welcome to the brave new world of investigative reporting.
 
 
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As popular a reference tool as Wikipedia has become, our newsroom policy doesn't allow for our reporters to use it as an official source for any story. And for good reason: anyone with access to a computer can edit entries.

Through the various industry grapevines, I've ascertained that the Cape Cod Times isn't the only news organization that considers Wikipedia to be a potentially polluted source.

Wikileaks, however, is a different animal -- despite the similar interface the fledgling whistleblower site shares with Wikipedia.

If you're not familiar with Wikileaks, you should be because, since it debuted last year, the international transparency network behind the site has forced governments and news media to take notice, most recently with the posting of whistleblower documents that indicate "thousands of sterilizations, and possibly some abortions, took place in 23 Texas Catholic hospitals from 2000 to 2003," as reported by the Catholic News Service in the wake of the leak.

The same day of the Catholic hospitals leak (June 15), Wikileaks posted the 219-page U.S. military counterinsurgency manual, Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces (1994, 2004).

Wikileaks investigative editor Julian Assange writes that the manual can be "critically described as 'what we learned about running death squads and propping up corrupt government in Latin America and how to apply it to other places.' It's contents are both history defining for Latin America and, given the continued role of U.S. Special Forces in the suppression of insurgencies, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, history making."

Students of U.S. foreign policy history, particularly guerrilla warfare history, will find no real surprises in the counterinsurgency manual, as eye-popping as it may be to some.

In February, Wikileaks posted the secret rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq, which was followed by The New York Times and prompted the Iranian government to hold a press conference, warning U.S. military planners about border crossings. The Washington Post reported on leaked Guantanamo detainee policy documents first posted on Wikileaks that forced the Pentagon to respond.

Wikileaks describes itself as a site that's "developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact."

Besides having been briefly banned by a judge in the U.S. (the site appears to be based in Sweden), the anonymous founders are international computer geeks who know how to hide in cyberspace and get around things like the Great Firewall of the government in China. In fact, Wired magazine notes that one of Wikileaks' advisers, security expert Ben Laurie, "doesn't even know who runs the site -- other than (co-founder Julian) Assange (who lives in Kenya) -- or where the servers are."

What makes Wikileaks a unique "news" site is that instead of "breaking stories," it publishes leaked documents, now boasting "over 1.2 million documents ... from dissident communities and anonymous sources."

An early criticism of Wikileaks was its posting of anonymously leaked documents without running it through an editing process and without providing any context -- something that many industry insiders (and military brass), including prominent open government advocates like Steve Aftergood, view as "irresponsible," at best.

While Wikileaks Web masters seem immune from government and press criticism, they're not unresponsive, having changed the site a bit since it first hit the net in January 2007. The home page now features analysis of recently leaked documents, as well as "fresh leaks requiring analysis."

The site also notes: "Wikileaks is not like Wikipedia. Every submitted article and change is reviewed by our editorial team of professional journalists and anti-corruption analysts. Articles that are not of high standard are rejected and non-editorial articles are fully attributed."

As for the possibility of someone, including spy agencies, posting forged documents -- well, Wikileaks has an answer for that too.

"Wikileaks believes that the best way to determine if a document is authentic is to open it up for analysis to the broader community -- and particularly the community of interest around the document."

"So for example, let's say a Wikileaks document reveals human rights abuses and it is purportedly from a regional Chinese government. Some of the best people to analyze the document's veracity are the local dissident community, human rights groups and regional experts (such as academics). They may be particularly interested in this sort of document. But of course Wikileaks will be open for anyone to comment."

"Journalists and governments are often duped by forged documents. It is hard for most reporters to outsmart the skill of intelligence agency frauds. Wikileaks, by bringing the collective wisdoms and experiences of thousands to politically important documents, will unmask frauds like never before."

While journalists should view Wikileaks with a healthy dose of skepticism, its short-track record has proven that it cannot be ignored. Welcome to the brave new world of investigative journalism.

In 1788 Patrick Henry wrote: "The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

In 2008 Wikileaks is poised to test just how much we believe in the idealistic rhetoric celebrated over the Fourth of July weekend.

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and news editor with the Cape Cod Times.

 
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