The world is once again anticipating a massive leak of classified documents by WikiLeaks. The U.S. State Department is so concerned that it has published a letter addressed to the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and his attorney, arguing that publication of the documents will “risk the lives of countless innocent individuals,” “[p]lace at risk on-going military operations,” and “[p]lace at risk on-going cooperation between countries.” The letter is signed by Harold Koh, a far left lawyer who serves as legal adviser to the State Department.
Whereas the Defense Department has led the way in objecting to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents in the past, the State Department is out in front this time for a good reason. According to press reports, the latest cache includes approximately 250,000 diplomatic cables. As in the past, the documents have been leaked to mostly friendly news organizations so they can review and report on them – and cherry pick from them, too.
Amid the mostly dull and insignificant documents there will be some interesting nuggets of information. WikiLeaks and the press promise to reveal these nuggets to us over the next week, with a staggered publication schedule that is designed to keep WikiLeaks in the news. That means WikiLeaks’ spin on the documents will also be in the news, or entirely frame the news, and this leads us to a word of caution.
Assange intends to embarrass the U.S. with this release. But his spin on the documents will surely be skewed by his transparent anti-Americanism, just as his spin on previous leaks has been in the past.
Journalists covering WikiLeaks would be wise to remember that when Assange released a trove of documents concerning the war in Afghanistan he said they would reveal that America is guilty of “thousands” of possible war crimes. They did nothing of the sort. And when Assange released even more documents concerning the war in Iraq, the press repeated an entirely false claim that the documents demonstrate that 285,000 people were killed in the war. The press was also quick to highlight any American mistakes revealed in the documents, especially with respect to civilian casualties. The real story is that the documents demonstrate – unambiguously – that the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties were caused by Iraq's and America's terrorist enemies, as well as "criminal events," not by the U.S. military.
Undoubtedly, the documents will generate some interesting stories. For instance, some press accounts have hinted that the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with respect to closing Guantanamo may be detailed in Foggy Bottom’s correspondences. But one story that will surely receive less attention than it deserves is how Julian Assange’s narrative all too often becomes the media’s.