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Who Had Prior Access to Wikileaks’ Iraqi War Data?

As I sat down this evening to write the second half of the What and How of the Wikileaks column, I thinking about what I would say and I realized that the story has already gone stale. Two weeks later. Wikileaks is off the front pages of newspapers and dropped from the tongues of commentators.  The most immediate media releases on the Iraqi war data tranche of Wikileaks were on October 22, 2010.

So the column is about something else. The column is about the news behind the news. Armchair journalism, to be sure. But not a rehashing of what said about what was said. Rather what was missed. And what wasn’t said. And we will see, with a little digging and probing, what this will reveal.

In our time I think there is a great deal of concern on the part of thinking people at the veracity of what is reported but also the depth of reportage (or lack thereof). The competition to get news to the front page, to the headlines, to the “this just breaking”  of television, means that speed operates frequently without any thought whatsoever, prior to or during coverage.

For completeness sake, to round off the previous column, we can quickly answer the question still hanging from it: the how of Wikileaks. The questions associated with the how are: How does Wikileaks conduct its business? How ethical is it? How effective is it? Does it live up to the standards it sets itself?

Wikileaks, simply arising from the nature of its mission, should have squeaky clean ethics. Wikileaks fails on two counts. It willfully endangered lives with the lack of redaction of names in the Afghan data. The organization is tearing itself apart as a result. Secondly, the head of such a body should behave with the decorum befitting such a body. Julian Assange’s behaviour, both is words and deeds, leaves something to be desired. He departure from Sweden and his descriptions of those who once worked with him do nothing to add to the stature of Wikileaks. One wonders, in fact, if Wikileaks is not already mortally wounded from internal strife.

A page from reasonably discusses the how of Wikileaks. Bill Thompson in his Digital Planet column at the BBC voiced his concern back in March 2007 before Wikileaks was launched. He also explains what Crytome is and mentions the man behind it.

Now, the story behind the story. First we have to find out if there is one.

In attempting to find the about of Wikileaks, an interesting thing emerges. The original About page of Wikileaks is only available on a web archive.

The present About page of Wikileaks is quite different. A comparison is instructive.

Let’s ask a question. How many people know who Wikileaks handed over the keys of the data to, in advance of going public with the news of Iraqi war data?

I thought I knew: The New York Times, The Guardian newspaper in England, Der Spiegel in Germany and Le Monde in France. You get a prize for being able to include the fourth name. Most newspapers, while mentioning the first three, seldom mentioned Le Monde. Part of the reason lies with the fact that Le Monde was quite at a loss to know what to do with the information. So it did very little. Le Monde felt that the French public would not be very interested and maybe Le Monde was right.

There is still one news media source missing from the list: Al Jazeera. None of the news sources I follow mentioned Al Jazeera. However the Los Angeles Times did: “In addition to the Times, the documents were made available to the Guardian newspaper in London, the French newspaper Le Monde, Al Jazeera and the German magazine Der Spiegel, on an embargoed basis.” This, as we will discover, is not a complete list.

The NYT uses the phrase “a number of newspapers” in most  its articles on the Iraqi war data. The New York Times expands on this only once: A Note From the Editors, (October 22, 2010) ” The New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel and the French newspaper Le Monde were given access to the material in June, on the condition that the contents not be made public until now.” No mention of Al Jazeera. Why not?

Al Jazeera themselves stated they had access to the material.

The Pentagon also knew in advance of the public release. How did they know? Wikileaks is itself a very news leaky organization. Best way to get people’s attention. Warn them in advance, though not too far in advance.

The discussion of the media coverage is sloppy. I have found it almost impossible to come across thoughtful discussion. Here is a Columbia Review of Journalism article, A Primer on Early Wikileaks Coverage.

Maybe it’s too soon. To be fair, the CRJ review is datelined October 22, 2010. At this speed of coverage, not even the US Midterm Elections get covered this quickly. “Wikileaks shared the documents with a number of news organizations before they were widely released. Here’s a basic rundown of those outlets’ initial coverage. (The French newspaper Le Monde was also given access to the documents. Unfortunately, nobody here reads French.)

Once again we encounter “a number of news organizations.” Begins to sound like a release from AP. Then the French are completely dismissed: “Le Monde was also given access to the documents.”

Apparently, Le Monde are not a “news organization”. News to the French, and indeed Sarkozy. Perhaps “news organizations” is code for English language news organizations. Moreover, the stunning complacency that is revealed by the wording “Unfortunately, nobody here reads French,” decodes to mean “anything said in the French-speaking world is not important.”

Unintended, mordant humour is at play here as well. We can be charitable and take that the writers, “CRJ Staff,” intend to mean, “nobody here .. in the United States .. reads French,” which is ludicrous.  What I think is actually meant, “unfortunately,” is that nobody on the staff of the Columbia Review of Journalism reads French, which, if true, is horrific! How do they review what comes out of Quebec? Maybe they don’t.

In any case the article in the CRJ then groups its comments under the following headings:

New York Times

Widely criticized for their US government friendly reporting of the Iraqi war data.

The Guardian

Apparently “a news organization.”

Al Jazeera English

Hello, where did they pop up from. Beat the French though.

Der Spiegel

Must also be a “news organization” to be given CRJ’s imprimatur, but no need to be able to read German. The Germans sensibly publish the stuff in English on Der Spiegel’s website, which, actually Le Monde did as well. CRJ didn’t bother to look.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Wait one sensible minute. I thought the CRJ and NYT in chorus said “news organization”? What is this. Who are they. I think we have our story.

CRJ says The Bureau of Investigative Journalism “a U.K.-based nonprofit, had three months to analyze the Iraq war logs.” And what is this? Justin Peters, presumably one of the non-French readers of the CRJ staff, in discussing The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s website coverage says that there is “at least one article that is translated in Arabic.”

What strange arithmetic journalists have: “several news organizations”, “at least one article”. Foxing the newspaper’s fact checker, no doubt.

Chanel 4, UK

Channel 4? “Yeah, BBC wouldn’t touch the stuff”, said a mythical Wikileaks non-spokesperson. There is not immediate indication from the BBC website coverage whether they were given prior access, or, if they were, whether they analyzed it.

So, here we have Wikileaks shopping around the world for “news organizations” to act as the mouth piece for their dubious trove of data. I say “dubious” because what value does the data have without analysis. But if you hand over the keys for others to analyze, you give up editorial control. And the data can be analyzed according to  the editorial policy of the newspaper concerned. NYT  – lush, smooth coverage, Guardian – strident headlines, followed underneath by muted, tentative journalism, Der Spiegel – milking the data to find every possible German angle, Le Monde – treating it as if it were bomb in their lap about to go off, Al Jazeera English – desperately trying to be fair to everyone, including the Arabs, and especially the Iraqis. I am not familiar with either Channel 4 coverage. Their prime coverage was in a television programme which I, living in the US, naturally don’t have access to.

But who else did Wikileaks hand the data keys to? Only trusted organizations, presumably.

In a truly up-to-date fashion, Wikileaks announced by Twitter (2.26pm October 22, 2010): “See TBIJ, IBC, Guardian, Spiegel, NYT, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Chan4, SVT, CNN, BBC and more in the next few hours. We maximize impact.”

Now we have to decode the alphabet soup of “the several news organizations.” We can dismiss “and more” as advertising spiel. There are eleven named. Eight are readily identifiable. The others take a bit of work. TBIJ – The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, SVT – Swedish Television. And IBC, hmm, IBC …got me stumped. (Iraq Body Count)

If there is a story here, I have not uncovered it yet. But, then again, maybe there isn’t one.

The loss of editorial control is very serious. The media given prior access had three months to sift through the data. Each media outlet chose to focus on a small section, rightly. But what sits on a sever somewhere, or several severs, is a very substantial amount of information. Why is that Wikileaks cannot team up with an organization such as the Pew Charitable Trust? (I give them only as an example) An organization which can properly analyze and report on the data.

But what I have found is that there were more than “the several news organizations” reported by our mainstream media. A seriously deficient form of shorthand was used. Did this slant the story?

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