Chicago event recap: Is WikiLeaks good for freedom?
Some say WikiLeaks is guilty of serious crimes and the people behind the website should be prosecuted for the dissemination of classified government data. Others contend that either the information they’ve leaked has not damaged our national security in a meaningful way or, even if it has, Wikileaks should not be prosecuted because they did not steal the information themselves; they merely published it.
Debating this issue on Tuesday, February 22nd in front of a crowd of 25 Chicago AFFers were Pat Hughes and Tom Tresser. The moderator was AFF-Chicago committee and chapter member John Yackley.
This past fall, Mr. Tresser ran as the Green Party’s candidate for Cook County Board President. He is also a DePaul University professor and is currently teaching a course there on using the internet for social and political activism. Tresser argued against criminalizing what Wikileaks has done. He felt that accepting the information that was brought to them and then posting it was not only not a crime, but that by doing so, WikiLeaks had performed a useful function.
Pat Hughes, who ran in the Republican Party primary this past fall for President Obama’s old Senate seat, took a hard line against Wikileaks. He believes that, as a sovereign power, the U.S. has the right to protect state secrets. To this end, he argues the U.S. can and should prosecute not only Julian Assange but WikiLeaks’ other top officials.
Hughes’s central point was this is really WikiLeaks vs. the American people and not WikiLeaks vs. the American government. He argued that the U.S. Constitution establishes that the federal government has the obligation to protect and defend its people, and that allowing an entity to divulge state secrets weakens that protection, obligating the government to pursue WikiLeaks.
Tresser argued that justification for what WikiLeaks is doing partly comes from the past actions of the U.S. government itself. Noting that he was a youth during the Vietnam war, Tresser pointed out that the government’s track record of lying to the public during and since that conflict is irrefutable and that WikiLeaks is a means, maybe one of the only, for exposing government lies. Tresser said the national security argument is “a big big blanket that’s been used to cover up a lot of bad stuff in the past.”
To this, Hughes said that although our government sometimes either does not tell us the whole truth or even lies, the plain truth is that this may often be necessary for national security. For example, U.S. government recently admitted was involved in military action against suspected al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. For perhaps both political and strategic reasons, the Yemeni and U.S. governments did not want this collaboration made public. Hughes finished this point by saying that even if you feel we need more transparency, the remedy surely cannot be to allow WikiLeaks to be the arbiter of what gets leaked and when.
To the central question of whether WikiLeaks is protected by the First Amendment, Hughes said “no” emphatically, and then pointed to the Espionage Act of 1917 as the likely basis to prosecute Assange and others. He said the act roughly states that even “any unauthorized recipient or custodian of classified documents” is violating that law if it can be established that that party had intent to use the information to injure the United States. Hughes did admit the “intent” clause might not make a successful prosecution, but said nonetheless that a trial to argue that point was justified.
When pressed as to whether there would be some very important secret whose release would unequivocally be damaging to America’s national security, Tresser said, “Certainly…there can be a situation where the national security of the country could be at stake…[but] I haven’t seen it in the WikiLeaks case.”
The audience was asked before the debate as to whether they were pro, anti, or neutral on WikiLeaks. Pre-debate, a few more were “pro” Wikileaks than were “anti” or “neutral.” Post-debate, the audience was again asked how they felt. To the credit of both panelists, most of those who were neutral on the question had formed a stronger opinion, with roughly half moving to the pro and half to the anti camp. Tresser’s position attracted four new votes and Hughes’s obtained three.
You can always judge the success of an AFF roundtable debate by observing how many questions are asked by the audience. Following this debate, the questions were plentiful, and interest was high. The question of WikiLeaks is difficult and isn’t settled, but, now, AFF-Chicago members have a better idea of where they stand.
Join us on March 24th (6-8 PM, Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Chicago) for an event you wont want to miss, featuring a potential presidential candidate for 2012. Subscribe to Room 101-Chicago for details as we announce them.