On his last night in office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a powerful farewell speech to the nation – words so important that he’d spent a year and a half preparing them. “Ike” famously warned the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Much of Eisenhower’s speech could form part of the mission statement of WikiLeaks today. We publish truths regarding overreaches and abuses conducted in secret by the powerful.
Our most recent disclosures describe the CIA’s multibillion-dollar cyberwarfare program, in which the agency created dangerous cyberweapons, targeted private companies’ consumer products and then lost control of its cyber-arsenal. Our source(s) said they hoped to initiate a principled public debate about the “security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons.”
The truths we publish are inconvenient for those who seek to avoid one of the magnificent hallmarks of American life – public debate. Governments assert that WikiLeaks’ reporting harms security. Some claim that publishing facts about military and national security malfeasance is a greater problem than the malfeasance itself.
Yet, as Eisenhower emphasized, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Quite simply, our motive is identical to that claimed by the New York Times and The Post – to publish newsworthy content. Consistent with the U.S. Constitution, we publish material that we can confirm to be true irrespective of whether sources came by that truth legally or have the right to release it to the media.
And we strive to mitigate legitimate concerns, for example by using redaction to protect the identities of at-risk intelligence agents.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, defended publication of our “stolen” material last year: “I get the argument that the standards should be different if the stuff is stolen and that should influence the decision. But in the end, I think that we have an obligation to report what we can about important people and important events.”
David Lauter, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, made a similar argument: “My default position is democracy works best when voters have as much information as possible . . . And that information often comes from rival campaigns, from old enemies, from all sorts of people who have motives that you might look at and say, ‘that’s unsavory.’ “
The media has a long history of speaking truth to power with purloined or leaked material – Jack Anderson’s reporting on the CIA’s enlistment of the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro; the Providence Journal-Bulletin’s release of President Richard Nixon’s stolen tax returns; the New York Times’ publication of the stolen “Pentagon Papers”; and The Post’s tenacious reporting of Watergate leaks, to name a few.
I hope historians place WikiLeaks’ publications in this pantheon. Yet there are widespread calls to prosecute me.
President Thomas Jefferson had a modest proposal to improve the press: “Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, ‘Truths.’ Second, ‘Probabilities.’ Third, ‘Possibilities.’ Fourth, ‘Lies.’
The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information.” Jefferson’s concept of publishing “truths” using “authentic papers” presaged WikiLeaks.
People who don’t like the tune often blame the piano player. Large public segments are agitated by the result of the U.S. presidential election, by public dissemination of the CIA’s dangerous incompetence or by evidence of dirty tricks undertaken by senior officials in a political party. But as Jefferson foresaw, “the agitation [a free press] produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Vested interests deflect from the facts that WikiLeaks publishes by demonizing its brave staff and me. We are mischaracterized as America-hating servants to hostile foreign powers. But in fact I harbor an overwhelming admiration for both America and the idea of America.
WikiLeaks’ sole interest is expressing constitutionally protected truths, which I remain convinced is the cornerstone of the United States’ remarkable liberty, success and greatness.
I have given up years of my own liberty for the risks we have taken at WikiLeaks to bring truth to the public. I take some solace in this: Joseph Pulitzer, namesake of journalism’s award for excellence, was indicted in 1909 for publishing allegedly libelous information about President Theodore Roosevelt and the financier J.P. Morgan in the Panama Canal corruption scandal. It was the truth that set him free.
Julian Assange is the editor of WikiLeaks; he wrote this for The Washington Post.