WikiLeaks “Speaking and Writing the Truth”





Alan Singer is a Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, Hempstead NY. He has a PhD in History from Rutgers University. He is the author of Social Studies for Secondary School, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2008) and New York and Slavery, Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY, 2008). He is a columnist on educational and New York issues for the Huffington Post.

Congressman Peter King (R-New York), the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security committee, has called the release of classified government documents by the website WikiLeaks "extremely damaging to U.S. interests" and is demanding that the attorney general prosecute WikiLeaks and its founder for violating the Espionage Act.  He also wants Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to brand WikiLeaks, whose founder is an Australian citizen, a foreign terrorist organization.

Declaring WikiLeaks a foreign terrorist organization would silence them as a news source and give the United States government authority to seize their funds and arrest anyone who provides them with help, contributions, or assistance.  Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that his office was investigating the leaks and the Obama administration is reportedly planning legal action.

Under pressure from U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, Amazon.com, which rents server space to other companies, has already cut WikiLeaks off of its server to limit access to its website.  Amazon claims this action was taken because WikiLeaks posted documents it does not legally control and which might cause injury.  WikiLeaks responded that if Amazon is “so uncomfortable with the First Amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

Conservative Republicans in the Tea Party movement and on the United States Supreme Court like to hold up the nation’s founders to support their interpretations of the Constitution and views on individual rights.  What would the founding fathers do (WWFFD) about WikiLeaks releasing thousands of classified records documenting American foreign policy missteps and government abuse of power and truth during the last decade?

In 1735, William Cosby, the British governor of colonial New York, put John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, on trial for seditious libel. The newspaper had published articles which, although factual, were highly critical of the colonial government.

Zenger’s views on freedom of the press were spelled out in an editorial printed in the second issue of the newspaper.  “The loss of liberty in general would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the whole.  Even a restraint of the press would have a fatal influence.  No nation ancient or modern has ever lost the liberty of freely speaking, writing or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves.”

Two months after the newspaper began publication, Governor Cosby ordered that it be publicly burned by the town’s hangman.  Zenger was arrested and held in jail for eight months.   His wife, however, continued to publish the Weekly Journal.

Unfortunately for Zenger, criticizing the government, regardless of whether the statements were true or not, was illegal.  When Zenger admitted he had published the offending facts, the judge, handpicked by Cosby, instructed jurors, “the Jury must find a verdict for the king.  For supposing they were true, the law says that are not the less libelous for that."

In his summation before the jury, Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton defined a belief in freedom of the press that was later incorporated into the United States Bill of Rights and has become a cornerstone of American liberty.  Hamilton argued that “while men keep within the bounds of truth, I hope they may with safety both speak and write their sentiments of the conduct of men of power; . . . were this to be denied, then the next step may make them slaves.”

Hamilton concluded:

The question before the Court and you gentlemen of the Jury, is not of small or private concern, it is not the cause of a poor Printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying:  No!  It may in its consequence, affect every Freeman . . . It is the cause of liberty . . . every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.

Following Hamilton’s closing remarks, the jury retired briefly and then returned with a verdict of not guilty.

Similar issues were raised in 1971 when the Nixon administration tried to block publication of secret Pentagon papers on the origin of the Vietnam War by the New York Times and other national newspapers.  The documents had been leaked to the press by former Pentagon consultant Daniel Ellsberg who wanted the American public to know the truth about United States involvement in Vietnam.

In a six-to-three decision, the court majority argued that any attempt by the government to block news articles prior to publication “bears a heavy burden of presumption against its constitutionality" and ruled, the "Government has not met that burden."

In a concurring opinion, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black both honored the original intent of the founding fathers and the text of the first amendment to the Constitution that prohibits Congress from making any laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Black issued a clarion defense of freedom of the press during a time of war when there are issues of national security involved:

In the First Amendment the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.  The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.  The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.  The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.  Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.  And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the Government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell . . . In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.

In 1938, in Lovell v. City of Griffin, GA, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes defined the press broadly as, “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.”  That definition currently includes websites.  Branding the website and news source WikiLeaks a foreign terrorist organization would silence them as a news source and give the United States government authority to seize their funds and arrest anyone who provides them with any help, contributions, or assistance.

I stand with John Peter Zenger and Andrew Hamilton.  Liberty requires truth.  I stand with Daniel Ellsberg and Justice Hugo Black. “The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.”

I made a $50 donation today to the American Civil Liberties Union expressly for the defense of the First Amendment rights of WikiLeaks.  As Patrick Henry said to the Virginia House of Burgess in 1765 in a speech protesting against British impingement on colonial rights, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/10/2011

Noone pronounce one thing that should put to rest all arguments about Iraq's and Afghan's wars: they are both wars of American AGGRESSION, according to the UN charter, signed and fiercely supported (when targeting the respective actions of the so-called enemies) by the US.
It is also a paramount of hypocrisy to
blaim anyone for endangering lives of American troops and their local collaborators, after attacking two country for no reason other than imperial design to divide, conquer, and control, killing directly or indirectly hundreds of thousands of local people, TOTALLY destroying national livelihood, societal fabric, and infrastructure, etc.
The US governments are undoubtedly greatest war criminals of the 21st century and they are going to be remembered as such by history.
It is almost unavoidable that the US or/and Israel will unilaterally use nuclear weapons within next decade...


Andrew D. Todd - 12/13/2010

See Keegan, p. 303, for a reference to the "whitening" of the LeClerc Division.


Andrew D. Todd - 12/13/2010

Well, I was using a reference in _John Keegan's _Six Armies in Normandy_, but that would refer only to the comparatively small French participation in the Normandy Landings and the subsequent break-out. Of course, these troops would unavoidably have had to be quartered in England before the landings.


Mark E Stout - 12/13/2010

As an intelligence historian and a former US intelligence officer, I can assure you that US intelligence agencies are very concerned about the well-being of their human sources. They are concerned 1) because it's the right thing to do and 2) because having a reputation for not taking care of sources is believed to make it harder to recruit new sources in the future.

And, by the way, French colonial troops DID take part in the liberation of France. Something slightly over half of the ~200,000 man French First Army that took part in Operation Dragoon in August 1944 was made up of colonial troops, including goumiers to whom you referred. French General de Lattre brought the goumiers along because they were accomplished mountain troops. He did this over the objection of the Pope who did not wish African "savages" to serve on European soil.


Mark E Stout - 12/13/2010

As an intelligence historian and a former US intelligence officer, I can assure you that US intelligence agencies are very concerned about the well-being of their human sources. They are concerned 1) because it's the right thing to do and 2) because having a reputation for not taking care of sources is believed to make it harder to recruit new sources in the future.

And, by the way, French colonial troops DID take part in the liberation of France. Something slightly over half of the ~200,000 man French First Army that took part in Operation Dragoon in August 1944 was made up of colonial troops, including goumiers to whom you referred. French General de Lattre brought the goumiers along because they were accomplished mountain troops. He did this over the objection of the Pope who did not wish African "savages" to serve on European soil.


Joe Gioello - 12/12/2010

Dr. Singer makes several good points. In historical hindsight, I agree that publishing the Pentagon Papers was a good thing. I only wish it were done a few years earlier. However, although the article makes sense for a large portion of the material released via WikiLeaks, there is some material which will put our troops in harm's way. Admiral Mike Mullin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stated, "I would hope that those who are responsible for this would, at some point in time, think about the responsibility that they have for the lives that they're exposing."

For example, some of the documents released list Afghanistan civilians who have assisted our military. I don't want to think about what will happen to them and their families because of this. This will in turn mean more American Troops who will die as a result of not having intelligence which is vital to future operations. Obviously the response, "well we shouldn't be over there anyway" is not a sufficient answer.

Lincoln was called a tyrant for suspending Writ of Habeas Corpus but history proved he was not. He used these extreme measures because the necessities of war required it.

The ideals espoused by Dr. Singer in this article are noble. In a perfect world, we would be able live out these ideals. But the world is far from perfect, with the ongoing threat of Islamic Extremists, and so sadly, we don't have that luxury.


John M Shaw - 12/11/2010

Dr Staudt misleads readers by claiming Dr Singer’s analysis of the relationship between Wiki Leaks, the search for truth and the preservation of First Amendment liberties is a “red herring” (i.e., “a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue”). Zenger “wrote” and Ellsberg and Assange “leaked” truthful information that embarrassed and angered governmental authorities. The issue is the natural and unalienable right of free persons and the primary role of a free press to (paraphrasing Andrew Hamilton’s rationale) “expose and oppose arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth.”

There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that Wiki Leaks has put anyone’s lives in dangers, except perhaps those of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange (and his associates). As Congressman Ron Paul noted, “lying is not patriotic.” “Just as with the Vietnam War, the Iraq War was based on lies.” It is these lies and the deceitful policies they rationalized, defended and implemented that have “put lives in danger.” As noted by Glenn Greenwald, “the central goal of Wiki Leaks is to prevent the world's most powerful factions -- including the sprawling, imperial U.S. Government -- from continuing to operate in the dark and without restraints.”

This is why Thomas Jefferson asserted that an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.

"The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785.

"I am... for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.


Andrew D. Todd - 12/11/2010

The United States Government had several months notice of WikiLeaks release of most materials, the possible exception being the original Baghdad Attack Video. WikiLeaks habitually advertises in advance what kinds of materials it has, and will be releasing in the next year or so. Certain Bank of America employees, for example, who know who they are, have been put on notice that they would be well advised to find a country which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. The American government had abundant time to work out which materials Bradley Manning had access to, work out a list of compromised agents, and extract these agents. WikiLeaks attempted to negotiate with the United States Government about what names should be redacted, and, upon the United States Government's refusal to cooperate, set up its own redaction operation. Of course, the United States Government has very little interest in such measures as extracting vulnerable agents or redacting their names. Such people are expendable, once their usefulness is at an end. The United States Government merely wants to cover up its own misdeeds.

Here is one instance, involving a rather nasty case of a child-prostitution ring sponsored by the United States Government. It is apparent from the documents that Joseph Mussomeli, US assistant ambassador to Afghanistan, is at least an accessory after the fact to the crime of procuring children. Which aspects of this case does John Staudt believe ought to be covered up?

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101208/00221812176/so-wikileaks-is-evil-releasing-documents-dyncorp-gets-pass-pimping-young-boys-to-afghan-cops.shtml
http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2010/12/wikileaks_texas_company_helped.php
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/02/foreign-contractors-hired-dancing-boys
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/213720

Such incidents happen in wartime, of course. I can cite a parallel instance in J. Glenn Gray's _The Warriors_ (1959, 1970, Harper Torchbooks edition, pp. 67-68), a description of an ongoing child-rape issue involving French colonial soldiers in Italy, in 1943-44, in response to which "... the French general... merely laughed and said, 'this is war.'" Of course the United States Army did not feel compelled to tell Eleanor Roosevelt about it. However, it was eventually decided that the French colonial soldiers would _not_ be part of the liberation of France. The story eventually emerged, fifteen years later, when it was ancient history, and even then, the author could not bring himself to name names.


John Staudt - 12/11/2010

Dr Singer misleads readers by comparing Wiki Leaks with the John Peter Zenger trial of 1735 and The Pentagon Papers trial of 1971. The release of information in the earlier two trials did not irresponsibly put lives in danger. In fact, the defendants in the earlier cases did just the opposite; the information in question protected the rights, lives and liberty of others. Wiki Leaks endangers the lives of people, many of who are putting themselves in harms way as a service to others. I am surprised at this misuse of history by such a well-versed historian who could have perhaps chosen better examples to prove his case.


Mae Yanowitz - 12/10/2010

Professor Singer's article is timely, pertinent and inspirational.

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