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Unnecessary Secrets

Sanford J. Ungar, author of The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers, which won a George Polk Award in 1972, president of Goucher College in Baltimore, and a member of the US Public Interest Declassification Board, writes in the current CJR about overclassification of government information.

  • Unnecessary Secrets, Opening government, from Ellsberg to Manning, By Sanford J. Ungar, Columbia Journalism Review, (March / April 2011).

    Absent, at least from the government’s public statements and actions, is any consideration of an obvious underlying problem: that the obsessive over-classification of US official information has reached a point where it is impossible to know with confidence what truly deserves to be kept secret and how that can be done effectively. The government’s instinct to protect so many “secrets” also hinders democracy by keeping vital information from the public.

    As it happens, the WikiLeaks drama unfolds as we approach the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and it is useful to think about secrets through that prism.

Wikileaks in libraries – notes from a classroom discussion

Debbie Rabina, LIS Professor at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science (and my colleague on the Depository Library Council!), after reading our post A librarian reacts to “A librarian reacts to wikileaks” and doing the Wikileaks and Libraries survey (which is still open BTW so please take a minute to fill it in!), decided to survey her LIS students. Below are responses from 2 of her students about the class discussion.

Wikileaks in libraries – notes from a classroom discussion
Debbie Rabina

Months after the Wikileaks release of US State Department cables, having read countless accounts in the media, as well as a few course readings, twenty Master’s students in an information policy class at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, came to class three of the course unit on limiting information access in a democracy.

I chose to open the class with a survey. Based on the survey that James sent to libraries, I presented students with the following three questions:

  • Should libraries include the wikileaks cable site in their catalogs and provide a link to it?
  • Should libraries download the wikileaks cables and archive them?
  • Is it important for libraries to preserve and give access to wikileaks cables?

Using classroom clickers students entered their anonymous vote. The results for all three questions indicated that around 70% of students felt that cataloging, archiving, preserving and treating wikileaks as a collection was not important, but most students agreed that the library should provide access to wikileaks through Internet to a remote location where the cables will be stored by someone else.

Quite surprised by this response we held a discussion centered on collection development and social responsibility. Below are responses of two students to the classroom discussion that evening.

Lauren’ response:

Take a group of mostly liberal-minded New York City library school students and give them a survey pertaining to WikiLeaks and libraries. What sort of reaction would you expect them to have?

This exact social experiment occurred recently in my Information Policy class. Using anonymous survey technology, a group of 17 students answered four questions about WikiLeaks: one asking asked about our general opinions of the website leaking thousands of diplomat cables, followed by three questions about libraries cataloging, archiving, and preserving access to WikiLeaks. When it came to whether libraries should catalog and link to WikiLeaks and/or download and archive them, the class was split pretty much evenly. However, the results of the last question were truly staggering: when asked “Do you think it is important for libraries to preserve and give access to WikiLeaks cables?” the class voted a resounding yes, 16 to 1.

So what does this mean? How do a group of library students see the importance of preserving WikiLeaks, yet are so split on cataloging and archiving them? Everyone in the class recognizes the significance of these documents and understands to some degree that they need to be preserved. (Who knows how long the WikiLeaks site will be around? As a generation of digital natives, the students of our class are painfully aware how quickly websites pop-up and disappear. As the U.S. government prepares to try Manning and Assange, the lifespan of the information seems to shrink.)

I am one of the 17 who voted against cataloging and archiving WikiLeaks, but was in favor of libraries in general preserving access to them. I can only speak for myself, but my reasoning was simple: my own professional background stems from working in an art library and a German Jewry library. To me, the most important thing about collections is scope—WikiLeaks would not be appropriate for the scope of the libraries I have worked in. However after our class discussion, I see the fallacy in using scope as the highest value factor in collection development: all of us in the class agreed that libraries had a responsibility to that preserve access to WikiLeaks, but we apparently expect someone else to do it.

Maybe more libraries need to take a closer look at WikiLeaks and consider archiving and cataloging this collection. After all, there are thousands of documents available, most of which we as a nation (and beyond) haven’t even scratched the surface of. There could be information there that does pertain to the art world, or to the history of German-speaking Jewry. Or more likely, not. But upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that if libraries don’t preserve this material, we will never find out.

Rini’s response:

I did not have a strong opinion one way or the other when I first read these questions, and I admit that I waffled between yea and nay on each of them. I think the main reason that I did not have a strong feeling about any of them is that I don’t think I, personally, had enough information about the whole thing. Of course, I had seen a few newspaper articles about the data dump – most of them sporting relatively sensational headlines that belied the fairly dry content of the articles. And throwing out Assange’s sex-capades certainly obfuscated matters – information completely unrelated to serious issues at hand. But I hadn’t really given that much thought to the implications of the situation until we discussed it in class.

At first, I was disinclined to make it the responsibility of libraries/librarians to provide access to the materials. The data dump (editor’s note: “dump” is a misnomer. See our previous post for more explanation) seemed rather like offering too much information to be useful unless someone took a good deal of time to sift through all of it. However, further reflection and a little digging on the Web has me firmly on the side of protecting this information for current and future users. The problem of cataloging is a concern because of the time and labor commitment that would require. However, there is a Wikipedia article that has done a lot of the preliminary sorting, so it might not be that problematic to create at least a preliminary catalog of the materials.

That said, the final question for me comes down to whether this is a public library access issue, as in current affairs; or a research library issue, as in archiving for posterity. I come down firmly on BOTH sides. In the moment, the public should have full access to “all the data, all the time” in some form that assures that full access as well as governmental transparency are assured. For posterity, a research library should be able to provide full access to all the material for in-depth journalistic and/or scholarly research of the sort that might provide more accurate historical descriptions of a particular moment in time.

Wikileaks panel discussion at ACRL

Unfortunately, I won’t be going to ACRL 2011 in Philadelphia next month. But I’d recommend that folks go to this session on Wikileaks and libraries. If anyone is going, we’d love it if you’d volunteer to send us a summary of the panel (which is confusingly listed under “Roundtables”.

Session Title: Wikileaks, war, and the web: where do academic libraries fit?

When Wikileaks released the Iraq and Afghan War Diaries it raised ethical questions for academic libraries. Join the discussion and help provide guidance to such questions as: What are libraries’ responsibilities regarding leaked classified information? Should libraries link to leaked classified materials? How might Wikileaks be used in an instruction session?

Date: 04/01/2011
Time: 8:30AM – 9:30AM
Location: Roundtable 3 (Exhibit Hall A, Pennsylvania Convention Center)

A librarian reacts to “A librarian reacts to wikileaks”

[Update 2/18/11: The editor at the Center for Journalism Ethics has kindly agreed to reprint our response to Bill Sleeman on their site. The piece was slightly edited from the original. We greatly appreciate their efforts in providing wide ranging context to this critical issue.]

Thanks to Bill Sleeman for his govdoc-l post and link to his op-ed piece “A Librarian Reacts to WikiLeaks.” His parsing is thought-provoking, but incomplete.

I’d like to add some context to Sleeman’s op-ed because I think he conflates and ignores several issues surrounding Wikileaks the organization and the leaked US State Department cables themselves. Unfortunately, I can not submit a comment on the Center for Journalism Ethics site where he published his op-ed, but I post it here in the interest of open discussion.

Sleeman ignores the information and focuses instead on WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and the actions of members of the American Library Association — Al Kagan’s American Libraries Magazine article as well as Larry Roman’s comment/response offer a good review of the ALA Midwinter conference WikiLeaks dustup. Sleeman repeatedly suggests that we have only one choice: “embrace” WikiLeaks or reject it. This is a false choice and misdirection. In doing this, Sleeman has adopted the strategy being used by those who wish to suppress the information by distracting us from it and focusing instead on the messenger.

Libraries should be focused on how to address the information needs of their users. Different libraries will have different answers to that question, which is as it should be.

1) Sleeman casts his piece as a minority opinion. However, if the preliminary data on my WikiLeaks survey hold true (and I hope those that haven’t done so will take the survey ;-)), then Sleeman is not an “outlier” as he would have us believe. The documents community seems to be split 50/50 on whether or not it is important for libraries to collect and give access to the cables — and only 3 libraries so far say that they’ve even cataloged the WikiLeaks cable site. When Sleeman says that the situation, “demands more careful parsing than the [liberal] library community has been willing to do,” he is, in one stroke, mischaracterizing and demeaning his colleagues.

2) The cables are not a “dump” but are in fact being actively vetted and redacted by Wikileaks and the the news organizations with which WL is working (UK Guardian, der Spiegel, NY Times, El Pais, and Le Monde). Only a very small number have actually been released (3891 of 251,287 to date). Those cables, while technically classified, are now publicly available to anyone and analysis by journalists around the world continues to grow (see WikiRiver as well as the news organizations’ sites linked to at the end of this piece).

By ignoring the role of journalists and newspapers in the vetting and release of the cables, Sleeman tries to turn the issue into one of Assange vs. the world. I don’t think Sleeman would suggest that we should ignore other leaked materials, but maybe he would? Does he object to any publication of leaked information in any newspaper, or is there something about this particular release that he finds objectionable? Does he oppose libraries containing any leaked information? He does not say. As Steven Aftergood wrote recently, “[T]he bulk of the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, never formally underwent declassification review…. This means that every public and private library in the country that has a copy of the Papers is technically in possession of currently classified material.” Would Sleeman say that we should remove all versions of the Pentagon Papers from our libraries — including the 4,100 pages of the [w:Pentagon Papers] read into the record of the Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds by then Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK).?

3) There have always been leaks of government information, most often for political purposes or individual vendetta ([w:Pentagon Papers] and the [w:Plame affair] are but the most in/famous). There are (admittedly weak) laws on the books to protect whistle blowers but none really to protect military whistleblowers (hence PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged cable leaker, has been held without charge at Quantico Marine base since July, 2010). These cables are not “stolen” per se, but leaked information. Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous leaker of government secrets, has praised wikileaks and their work.

4) Researchers and the public are justly intrigued with this kind of information. The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series is one of libraries’ most highly sought-after titles so it only makes sense that library users would want access to the cables and their cache of diplomatic information far in advance of any FRUS publication — which is supposed to be “no more than 30 years after the event recorded” but which is currently far behind schedule in violation of the law (see Aftergood, “State Dept Series Falls Farther Behind Schedule”). These materials will certainly be sought-after by researchers and the public in the future. But who will ensure that they have that access if libraries do not?

Sleeman uses the cliche of the information on the web being like “toothpaste from a tube,” saying that, once information is “out there,” it “isn’t going back.” But this cliche is only half of the story. While it is true that one cannot guarantee that information, once released, can be successfully erased, it is also true, and more importantly so, that one cannot guarantee the preservation or integrity of information without explicit effort. This has important ramifications for libraries as they address the needs of their users. In a year (or 10 years, or more…) when a researcher wants to see the WikiLeaks documents behind news stories and books, will the researcher have a place to go where those documents have been preserved and authenticated as unaltered from the WikiLeaks release of those documents? Or will documents have disappeared or become unreadable or altered over time because they lacked adequate curation? Will there be documents, but no way to know if they are the ones that were used by earlier researchers? When FRUS releases some of these cables, will researchers be able to compare them to the WikiLeaks versions to verify accuracy of earlier research?

Libraries have a role to play in preserving information over time for their users. Sleeman would ignore these issues; he says, “I am not willing to embrace the many calls in the library community to harvest and preserve this material locally.” To me that seems like a short-sighted response, inadequately justified with ad hominem rhetoric.

5) Wikileaks staff and volunteers are transparency activists.

WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth. We are a young organisation that has grown very quickly, relying on a network of dedicated volunteers around the globe. Since 2007, when the organisation was officially launched, WikiLeaks has worked to report on and publish important information. We also develop and adapt technologies to support these activities.

WikiLeaks has sustained and triumphed against legal and political attacks designed to silence our publishing organisation, our journalists and our anonymous sources. The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. We agree, and we seek to uphold this and the other Articles of the Declaration.

WikiLeaks about page

We cannot, of course, *know* the motivations of Assange or other WikiLeaks staff or those who leaked the documents any more than we can know the motivations behind other leaks or even the motivations behind the official release of documents in FRUS. Journalists and librarians can, however, document what we do know and provide that as context to any document or publication. As librarians, we do not “embrace the WikiLeaks initiative” when we point to it or even when we add the documents themselves to our collections. Libraries have information on all points of view created for all kinds of reasons. Part of what we do is document the record of society for others to use and evaluate. Our role as librarians is to select what is significant and give it context. (Part of that context is the bibliographic metadata that describes information and its source; part of the context is the rest of our collections that we build by subject and discipline.) Isn’t it self-evident that the WikiLeaks material has become significant regardless of the motivation of those who leaked it?

Perhaps a close analogy here is to the collections of emails of scientists studying climate change (which *were* in fact stolen, not leaked). In both cases, I can see different libraries making different decisions about including WikiLeaks or those emails in their collections. I would hope that libraries that chose to collect the emails would include the several official reports that exonerated the scientists from the wrong-doing that the thieves attempted to impute. In the case of WikiLeaks, I would hope that a library would include news reports, State Department publications, and robust metadata etc., giving additional context to the cables.

6) Unintended Consequences:

There was a fascinating debate hosted by DemocracyNow in December, 2010 between Steven Aftergood and Glenn Greenwald in which Aftergood laid out many of the same arguments that Sleeman does about agencies becoming more restrictive because of the cable leak. However, I think Greenwald’s arguments countering this are equally feasible.

Again, however, Sleeman is misdirecting us from the issues facing libraries. Now that the information is available and has been widely used and quoted, libraries need to deal with the existence of the information. While it is interesting to think about whether or not the information should have been leaked and what the consequences of the leaks might be, those issues are unrelated to the issue of preservation of and access to that information.

7) Quality, Provenance, Authenticity:

Sleeman says, “Yet many in the library community seem eager to point to, to acquire, and to preserve this content without any of the usual assurances regarding quality or origin that we would otherwise require when making a collection development decision.”

The State Department has not claimed that any of these were invented, modified, falsified or otherwise not authentic. If anything, the official response has implied that the cables are indeed authentic.

In the digital age, it is *particularly* important that libraries document the how and where and who of acquisitions so that users can evaluate them accurately. It would be wrong for libraries to say “here are cables released by the State Department” but it is right to say, “here are cables released by WikiLeaks and claimed to be leaked from the state department.” That is an accurate description of their origin.

Related to this, let’s be clear: no librarian is suggesting that we should raid the State Department of all its cables. Instead, many librarians are saying that, given the prominence, public availability, and apparent authenticity of this material, and, given that reputable news organizations have published the cables as well as articles based on these materials, these are legitimate materials for us to consider providing to our users.

One option that libraries have in a situation like this is to select and acquire digital files and preserve them without making them publicly available yet. Think of this as preserving with an embargo — something that many libraries’ special collections units do on a regular basis. This ensures that the materials are preserved, but allows the library to put off the decision to make them available until more information on their authenticity and provenance and legal status is available. Preservation does not happen by accident. Preserving the materials now for possible future release is both prudent and cautious.

8) Preservation:

Sleeman does not address the preservation of these materials. Perhaps he hopes that, even though the toothpaste is out of the tube, it will slowly wither away and get lost. As noted above, I think it is important that the recently released WikiLeaks information be preserved for future scholars. The fact of the matter is that someone will have to preserve this information if it is to remain accessible. As noted above, preservation does not happen by accident.

That means the key question we should be asking is: Who will preserve it?

I am not suggesting that every library should collect these materials. Many libraries will find these materials out of scope for their collections. The strength of a community of libraries with many different collections is being able to make preservation decisions based on the needs of our users. If we rely on others (other organizations, other libraries, other individuals) to preserve material that is important to our users, we may find that we are losing important information (for a similar case in point see “While BBC Wants To Kill Off A Bunch Of Websites, Geeks Quickly Archive Them”).

If we rely on a very small number of huge digital repositories, we may find ourselves without an adequate voice in their preservation decisions.

By building our own digital infrastructure, we put ourselves in control of decisions that affect our user communities. That, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. With that infrastructure in place, we should make decisions about WikiLeaks based on the needs of our users — not based on our like or dislike of Julian Assange.

For readers who want an overview of the issues, I would recommend these additional links:

“Breathtaking” USAF Claim that Accessing WikiLeaks Violates Espionage Act

“Americans who have accessed the WikiLeaks web site may have violated the Espionage Act, under an extreme interpretation of the law advanced by Air Force officials last week.”

“If a family member of an Air Force employee accesses WikiLeaks on a home computer, the family member may be subject to prosecution for espionage under U.S. Code Title 18 Section 793.”

This is a breathtaking claim that goes far beyond any previous reading of the espionage statutes.

“That has to be one of the worst policy/legal interpretations I have seen in my entire career,” said William J. Bosanko, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, by email.