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The shadowy website WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan earlier this week, prompting a criminal investigation and calls from some congressional Democrats to rethink American involvement there.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the episode has sparked an intense debate on the nature of WikiLeaks and the way the news came out.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: What exactly is WikiLeaks? New York Times executive editor Bill Keller seeks precision in his answer.
Mr. BILL KELLER (The New York Times): I've shied away from the term whistle-blower because that has a kind of, you know, halo around the term. But they're an advocacy organization. They have a point of view and an ideology and they have a modus operandi which consists of getting information wherever they can and making it public.
FOLKENFLIK: To do that WikiLeaks used servers across the globe to evade detection and software to cloak leakers in anonymity. Its Australian leader, Julian Assange, lives a nomadic life, saying he has to avoid angered governments. He says soldiers have probably committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and opposes the U.S presence there. But Assange also calls himself editor-in-chief, a news executive's title. And just listen to how he answered this question from NPR's Robert Siegel.
ROBERT SIEGEL: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, said that these leaks could put American lives at risk. If that were true, would it bother you, would it deter you at all from the leak?
Mr. JULIAN ASSANGE (WikiLeaks): In journalism we should actually ignore people that say something might happen or could happen. We should look to people saying something that - something probably would happen.
FOLKENFLIK: We journalists, he says. WikiLeaks posts all kinds of secrets, including the rituals of sororities and Masons and Mormons.
Steven Aftergood is director of the government transparency project for the Federation of American Scientists. He says WikiLeaks often fails to ask fundamental journalistic questions: Does the material it posts involve public policy or accountability? Does it injure anyone?
Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Federation of American Scientists): It seems that they have adopted a stance that secrecy is always wrong and disclosure - even if it's compulsory, unwilling disclosure of private individuals' records - is always justified. And to my mind, that's not just wrong, it's idiotic and dangerous.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet Aftergood praises the decision here to involve experienced journalists.
Assange gave The New York Times, the Guardian in the U.K., and Der Spiegel in Germany an advance look so they could authenticate documents and develop detailed pieces.
Keller said The Times presented findings to Pentagon officials, relaying concerns back to WikiLeaks. Times editors withheld materials they felt might endanger Americans, Afghan civilians or the war effort. And Assange himself held back 15,000 documents - at least for now.
The author and journalist Shane Harris covers intelligence issues for Washingtonian magazine. In this case, Harris says, Assange played a journalistic, or at least a journalistic-ish role.
Mr. SHANE HARRIS (Author, "The Watchers"): There's obviously no accreditation process for something like this. But in this case, yeah, I think he is actually acting like an editor. I mean to me, I almost look at him in this particular instance as someone who got a hold of information from a source, decided that he wanted to bring in some other journalists to partner with him in the publication of that information. They sort of did a joint partnership. It's like, you know, New York Times pairing with "Frontline" or something, I guess.
FOLKENFLIK: Not so, says Times editor Bill Keller.
Mr. KELLER: Well, first of all, I don't call it a collaboration or an alliance, because that suggests some shared purpose, and it suggests that they had some involvement in what we did with the material, which they did not. They were a source.
FOLKENFLIK: He says the documents provide texture and heft to earlier reporting about Afghan civilian deaths and the ties between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban. And Keller says WikiLeaks would have posted the documents no matter what his newspaper did.
Mr. KELLER: WikiLeaks doesn't need The New York Times or The Guardian. It has the ability to publish and circulate its stuff around the world instantaneously.
FOLKENFLIK: Julian Assange says he did not simply bypass the established media this time because he's been frustrated with the lack of coverage for earlier disclosures. He says the exclusive arrangements with the three publications gave their reporters time to write about the documents and incentive to do so.
Mr. ASSANGE: Well, that is a journalist's job, of course, is to take the material and turn it into some story and put their reputation behind it.
FOLKENFLIK: The game changer is the speed and the anonymity afforded by WikiLeaks. The surprise is that the spectral new publisher showed it too can find a new way to play by the rules - when it wants to.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.