WIKILEAKS: High-tech terrorists? Or journalists?

January 5, 2011

Students examine samples of some widely publicized documents released by WikiLeaks; competing views of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; and what WikiLeaks and the New York Times say about their handling of the materials. Discussion questions and subjects for class debate follow.

To the Teacher:

This is an eminently teachable moment for students to examine the actions of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the online organization he heads. The first student reading below provides samples of some widely publicized documents released by WikiLeaks; the second offers multiple and competing views of Assange and WikiLeaks; the third answers some basic questions about the organization and what they and the editors of The New York Times say about their handling of the WikiLeaks materials. Discussion questions and subjects for class debate follow.


Student Reading 1:

Sample WikiLeak documents

From the documents

President Hamid Karzai has an "inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building." He has a "deep-seated insecurity as a leader" and is "not a reliable partner for the United States." These are excerpts from diplomatic cables to Washington offering assessments of the Afghan leader by U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

"Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide," Secretary Hillary Clinton wrote to American diplomats in the Middle East. She referred to such militant groups as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the Mumbai, India, attacks in November 2008 that killed and wounded hundreds.

But the Saudi government, a US ally, is reluctant to halt this support, Clinton told the diplomats. One reason is that militants seeking donations enter that country during the hajj pilgrimage to holy places. This is "a major security loophole since pilgrims often travel with large amounts of cash and the Saudis cannot refuse them entry into Saudi Arabia."

Clinton described two other US allies in the Middle East as the "worst in the region" (Qatar) and as a "key transit point" (Kuwait), and urged diplomats to redouble their efforts to prevent Gulf money from reaching militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Military documents report Iraqi police and soldier mistreatment of prisoners that includes "cigarette burns, bruising consistent with beatings and open sores" and "whipping a detainee across his back with an electrical cable." Such reports were frequently marked "Frago," a "fragmentary order" that "orders coalition troops not to investigate...unless it directly involves members of the coalition...No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ."

Another cable quotes Ali Abdulah Saleh, the Yemeni dictator, who brags about US attacks in Yemen against suspected terrorists, "We'll continue to say the bombs are ours, not yours."

Some cables are gossipy: Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi, wrote Gene Cretz, US Ambassador to Libya, "does not like long flights of more than 8 hours duration...He also does not like to fly over water...Qadhafi relies on his long-time Ukrainian nurse, 38 year old Galyna Kolotnystska, who has been described as a 'voluptuous blonde.'"

But most of the diplomatic and military documents, like those on Saudi Arabia and Iraq, report on a wide range of significant world events—possible war crimes planned by the Uganda government; the ability of oil giant Shell to inject staff into the Nigerian government's main ministries and get access to what politicians are doing in the oil-rich Niger Delta; a BP gas leak disaster in Azerbaijan that it kept quiet 18 months before the US Gulf oil disaster.

Anyone can read these classified diplomatic and military documents because they appear in document caches obtained by WikiLeaks, posted on its website and shared with newspapers in the UK, France, Spain, and, in the US through the New York Times.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Select one or more of the excerpts from diplomatic cables and military documents. Consider them closely through the eyes of government officials. In each case, why do you think government officials would not want this cable or document made public?

  • An evaluation of Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan
  • Saudi support for terrorism
  • Iraqi mistreatment of prisoners, as observed by the US military
  • US bombings in Yemen
  • Shell's infiltration of the Nigerian government
  • The BP gas leak in Azerbaijan

3. Now consider the same cable or document from the point of view of an American citizen: Do you think the information is important for citizens to know about? Why or why not?

Student Reading 2:

Competing views of WikiLeaks


After WikiLeaks released caches of documents on Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, President Obama said, "While I'm concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is, these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan. Indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall."

WikiLeaks and The New York Times have responded to concerns about "sensitive information" that could "potentially jeopardize individuals and operations" by editing out names and certain actions. But if, as Obama says, "these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan," then, at least in the president's view, publication of them does not appear to harm national security.

However, some of the items included in the first student reading would appear to reveal information unknown to the public. For example: the substantial role of Saudis in supporting terrorists and Saudi Arabia's reluctance to crack down on such donors; Iraqi torture of prisoners without comment or interference from American observers; the US bombings in Yemen, a country that it is not at war with.

Prominent politicians from both parties attacked WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange as "a high-tech terrorist" (Senator Republican Leader Mitch McConnell) and WikiLeaks as "a foreign terrorist organization" (Republican Congressman and next head of House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King).

Writer Tom Engelhardt responded to such comments: "If this is 'terrorism,' a question arises (or at least should arise): Who has been terrorized?....The answer, I think, is clear enough — not the American people, but the Washington elite who have, in these last years, put in place a version of secrecy so wide-ranging that most of the government's significant operations abroad (and many at home) have been cast into the shadows beyond the sightlines of the voters in this supposed democracy." (, 12/14/10)

Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman (CT) and Diane Feinstein (CA) called for Assange to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Engelhardt's response: And don't think it's just a matter of Julian Assange or WikiLeaks in the gun sights either. The Espionage Act of 1917, under which Assange may be charged, was a classic suppressive response to antiwar opposition during World War I. It remains dangerous. Prosecuting Assange under it or any other terror statute would indeed prove an ominous development."

Shortly after the first WikiLeaks release, Attorney General Eric Holder opened an investigation that he said "will allow us to hold accountable the people responsible for that unwarranted disclosure of information that has put at risk the safety of the American people."

However, the staff of the Columbia University School of Journalism issued a statement that declared: "While we hold varying opinions of WikiLeaks' methods and decisions, we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables WikiLeaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment. Any prosecution of WikiLeaks' staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity."

"If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA's secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome."

Responding to WikiLeaks for the Defense Department, press secretary Geoff Morrell said: "We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us, and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us."

Public opinion poll

A Washington Post-ABC poll revealed that 68 percent of those polled say the WikiLeaks' exposure of government documents harms the public interest. Nearly as many - 59 percent - say the US government should arrest Assange and charge him with a crime for releasing the diplomatic cables.

"A generational gap was evident among those polled, with younger Americans raised in the internet age expressing distinct views on the matter. Nearly a third of those ages 18 to 29 say the release of the US diplomatic cables serves the public interest, double the proportion of those older than 50 saying so. When it comes to Assange, these younger adults are evenly split: Forty-five percent say he should be arrested by the United States; 46 percent say it is not a criminal matter. By contrast, those age 30 and older say he should be arrested by a whopping 37-point margin." (Paul Woodward,, 12/15/10)

Facebook and WikiLeaks

Two New York Times reporters compared Mark Zuckerberg, a founder of Facebook and Julian Assange, the leader of WikiLeaks: "Uncommon levels of self-belief, and superior coding abilities, aren't the only parallels between the two men. Both are leading the technological assault on privacy." The two organizations obviously differ in size and purpose but "share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public...

"Whether either Facebook or WikiLeaks will live up to their leaders' divergent but comparably idealistic hopes is questionable. Extra status updates can bring friends closer or just irritate, and personal data shared only can reveal more than is healthy. Likewise, making ambassadorial dispatches public can shine a disinfecting light on a government's role in unsavory deals - or hurt efforts to forestall damaging conflicts, and put undercover agents in harm's way...

"Both Facebook and WikiLeaks are in the vanguard of exploiting the internet's power to collect and broadcast once-confidential information. Whatever the constraints eventually imposed on either model, the genie is out of the bottle. Already, privacy is the person - or rather the casualty - of the last year." (Agnes Crane and Robert Cyran,"Concept of the Year,", 12/16/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What arguments about the WikiLeaks' publication of classified government information are most convincing to you? As students respond, note their comments in chart form on the chalkboard: For WikiLeaks; Against WikiLeaks; Mixed feelings about WikiLeaks.

3. If you think that WikiLeaks' release of classified documents damaged Americans and their government in some way, name one or more specific examples and the nature of the damage caused. If you need more information, how might you find it?

4. If you think Julian Assange should be arrested, with what crime or crimes should he be charged and why?

5. If you don't think Assange should be arrested, why? What is your response to those who argue that he has committed a crime by releasing information that puts Americans at risk?

6. If you think Assange committed a crime or crimes, do you also think the same or similar charges should be brought against the editors of The New York Times and any other newspapers that published the cables? Why or why not?

7. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." What do you understand this declaration to mean? If the government says that national security is endangered by the publication of certain information by a newspaper or a group, should it have the authority to set aside the First Amendment? Why or why not?
(The above questions are somewhat amended questions posed by Paul Woodward,, 12/15/10)

8. What do Crane and Cyran see as similarities between Zuckerberg and Assange? Differences? What do they mean by "the genie is out of the bottle"? Do you agree? Why or why not?

Student Reading 3:

Questions and answers on Wikileaks and the New York Times

Who are the WikiLeakers and where are they?

Julian Assange, the Australian man who founded the organization in 2006, is currently out on bail in the UK waiting to learn if he is to be extradited to Sweden on sex crimes he denies have any merit. The organization has a geographically dispersed network of a few staff members and hundreds of volunteers.

Why is WikiLeaks making classified information public?

The organization declares: "WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists. We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices." ( )

WikiLeaks has also said it has been careful to delete from all documents information that would compromise confidential sources named in them or national security.

How does the New York Times view its role in the WikiLeaks releases?

The New York Times editors commented on the documents and how they have dealt with them:

"About 11,000 of the cables are marked 'secret.' An additional 9,000 or so carry the label 'noforn,' meaning the information is not to be shared with representatives of other countries, and 4,000 are marked 'secret/noforn.' The rest are either marked with the less restrictive label 'confidential' or are unclassified. Most were not intended for public view, at least in the near term.

"The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times's redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online."

The Times also submitted the entire cache it received and submitted them to federal officials for its comments before publishing the materials. Those officials indicated names and items they thought should be deleted. The Times said it accepted some of these suggestions, but not others.

Where did the information come from and how did WikiLeaks obtain it?

WikiLeaks did not reveal this information. However, an army intelligence analyst, Pfc Bradley Manning, has been charged with "communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source" and is being held in solitary confinement, except for one hour of exercise a day, at the Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, awaiting a court-martial.

How many documents has WikiLeaks released?

According to The New York Times, "WikiLeaks has posted 391,832 secret documents on the Iraqi war, 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the Afghan conflict and some 250,000 individual cables, the daily traffic between the State Department and more than 270 American diplomatic outposts around the world.

"The website made the material on Iraq and Afghanistan available to a number of news organizations, including The New York Times, in advance. The Guardian shared the diplomatic cable collection with The New York Times. By early December 2010, WikiLeaks had posted only a few thousand on its site." (, 12/10/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider WikiLeaks' statements about its purposes and activities and how the Times says it has dealt with the WikiLeaks materials. Are these explanations satisfactory to you? Do any of their statements seem suspicious, irresponsible, or criminal? Why or why not?

For debate

Resolved, that WikiLeaks performs a public service by publishing government documents that provide information essential in a democracy for reasoned public discussion and possible citizen action.

Resolved, that WikiLeaks, by publishing documents stolen from the US government, should be prosecuted for its dangerous violation of national security.

For inquiry

Below are some topics. Students will need to develop focused questions to guide their inquiry into any of these topics. See "Thinking Is Questioning" for suggestions on helping students to develop good questions.

1. Afghanistan documents
2. Iraq documents
3. Other subjects noted in the reading, such as Saudi aid for terrorists
4. Julian Assange
5. Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers
6. Espionage Act of 1917
7. A poll in the students' school that can be compared to the one cited in Reading 3
8. WikiLeaks documents and national security
9. WikiLeaks documents and the First Amendment
10. Technology and privacy
11. Issues raised by the discussion questions following Reading 2.
12. The Obama administration's instruction to hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to read any of the classified materials posted by WikiLeaks on websites and published in newspapers unless they have the required security clearance




This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: