By now, just about everybody sentient has heard of WikiLeaks.

The humble website—devoted to the publication of anonymous submissions and all manner of leaks pertaining to sensitive governmental/corporate/religious material, etc.—has sent world leaders from Washington to London to Moscow to Tripoli into damage-control tizzies, first publishing the inside accounts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then releasing thousands of America's most sensitive diplomatic cables.

WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, has also been in the news, after a suspiciously convenient sex crime investigation in Sweden had Interpol issuing a Red Notice for his arrest and extradition last summer.

And so, naturally, all of this has a lot of smart people talking about what this all means. Specifically, what the future of journalism, publishing and national security might look like in a wired world where information—even highly sensitive, classified information—is increasingly accessible and spreading faster than ever.

Hence, the latest entry in Oregon Humanities' Think and Drink series! It's tonight, at Rontoms, and it's called... "Implications of WikiLeaks on Government Security and Journalism."

In anticipation, I tracked down the two experts who'll be speaking at the event, blogger Aaron Bady and University of Oregon journalism professor Peter Laufer, for a quick Q&A.

First! Aaron Bady, the blogger and brains behind

Back in November, just as WikiLeaks was becoming a household name, Bady, a relatively unknown blogger, posted on his blog an essay titled “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy—To Destroy This Invisible Government.” Picked up by the Atlantic Monthly, Bady’s piece received international attention, unearthed new theories behind Assange’s motives, and piqued quite a few pundits' interest.

How aware of WikiLeaks were you, before the breaking of the Assange case?

I was aware, but not following it very closely. I think my experience was like a lot of people, in that I saw the collateral-damage video [WikiLeaks posted a video that allegedly shows tjhe US military firing on civilians from an Apache helicopter], which led me to start paying closer attention. I wrote the essay when the WikiLeaks wave had already gathered momentum, and a lot of people were already talking about it.

WikiLeaks has certainly provided us with a resource that’s pretty remarkable, but in addition, I think the main thing is how they partnered with big newspapers, which then essentially publicized their content for them. I think this has been a huge part of WikiLeaks’ success—that they made this into a larger media event that ultimately made people look closer [at WikiLeaks].

Not to sound hysterical, but what measures do you see various governments taking as a means of potentially controlling, or even combating, sites like WikiLeaks?

There’s different ways to answer that question. Because one thing you can do is to seize control of the Internet, like they did in Libya yesterday [Monday, February 21]. It’s interesting to see that playing out in the Middle East and North Africa right now, not that it seems to be working that well. I think in the US that net neutrality is something that has been going on for a long time. It’s interesting that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has led to people talking about the 1917 Espionage Act. There are bills in the House and Senate right now that are seeking to expand the government’s powers to prosecute people for publicizing this kind of information, or leaks. And what they’re really responding to is WikiLeaks, because WikiLeaks is on such a large scale compared to anything before.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that leaks have been covered by the media for a long time now. Leaks are part of the conversation that happens between government, journalists, and citizens. What a gigantic step then, it would be, to be able to criminalize publishing certain kinds of information. It’s one thing to criminalize a person who is a private in the army. He can be prosecuted because he’s in the army and it’s his job to protect classified information. It’s different for someone to receive the info and publicize it, based on the provider’s claim that it’s classified information.

What did you think when you heard about Assange’s arrest? Do you think it’s possible there is some kind of conspiracy surrounding the sexual misconduct charges brought against him?

I think we have to get our heads around the fact that—if the charges are true—that even if a person has done bad things, it doesn’t mean that everything he has done is bad. Regardless of what he’s done in his personal life, the facts of what he’s exposed remain. It’s important that he receive a fair trial. There may or may not be a conspiracy behind his arrest, but it’s also not ridiculous to consider that a conspiracy may be at hand. Making an example of Assange, after all, might be one way to prevent copycat organizations.

Do you think Assange’s hope is that governments will ultimately wreck themselves due to leaked information and paranoia?

If it becomes a permanent fear on the part of the state department (that leaks will get out) they will certainly change how they operate.

What is telling is that WikiLeaks has shown us just how hostile the US government is to free speech when it is a kind of free speech that they don’t like. We’ve heard people calling for the assassination of a person [Assange] when it’s difficult to figure out what exactly you would even charge this person with.

What do you think about Visa/MasterCard pulling out of WikiLeaks? Is it a good example of just how intertwined corporations and government have become?

Yes. And it makes me think of how, for a brief period of time, WikiLeaks was hosted on an Amazon site. I think it was Joe Lieberman who called Amazon and told them to kick WikiLeaks off of their servers. There’s nothing legal about what Joe Lieberman did. He called up a corporation and said “Would you take one of your customers off of your server as a favor to the US government?” And they did.


Second! Dr. Peter Laufer, James N. Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

He is the author of several books on social issues, including Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border and Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq.

The advent of the Internet means that information, like what we’ve seen with WikiLeaks, is more accessible than ever before. Your thoughts on this?

First of all, it’s spectacular, these developments in terms of tools for journalists and the public. But I think it’s important to see them as extensions as what we’ve always done, as journalists. WikiLeaks has found a bunch of material and made it easily accessible. Throughout history, those who have favored this kind of transparency have found material and made it accessible. As you correctly say, because of the nature of tools like the Internet, getting the information might not require meeting in an underground garage and using code words or spending hours, days, and weeks pawing through government records, as it used to. Which is probably terrific, but at the same time it’s quite the document dump, and requires the same amount of legwork to ascertain what’s in there, and what’s of value, and what’s just noise. Not to, in any way, minimize its value. I’m all but a First Amendment absolutist, and as a journalist I believe that transparency always trumps the alternative. But it’s not like the world has changed.

What measures do think certain governments might take, as a means of controlling information?

I don’t think this is without precedence. Governments have always sought to control information, no matter the distribution. There have always been devices used as an attempt to slow the flow of information. It’s a combination of the public’s desire to know, combined with the tenacity of journalists, that gets the information out. And it almost always gets out. It’s going to get out.

So if the Internet gets shut down right now as we talk, like in Libya, that’s obviously unfortunate. But we are going to get the information, via different ways, be it by telephone or carrier pigeons. It’s going to get out. These kind of draconian interpretations of technology that we’re taking for granted, the whole oh no, the Internet is going to be shut down — I’m not in any way suggesting that I’m a proponent of that. But we have historically proved that there are workarounds.

And technically, the US government is not going to shut down the Internet, because of the complexity of the way the system is designed. But even if it were to attempt to, unless things changed drastically and beyond belief in our culture, it would not be able to. That’s not what goes on when you think about the history of our country. That’s not going to happen.

What did you think when you heard that Julian Assange was being brought up on rape charges?

I didn’t think much of it. If the question is do I think there’s a conspiracy involved, well, I wouldn’t be surprised. But would it make me think less of the work he’s doing because he’s a rapist? No. You separate the two. And if there is an attempt being made right now to silence or discredit him, someone else would just pick up the workload.

But he’s innocent until proven guilty.

Well, thank you for your time, and good luck with the event.

My pleasure. And just one other thing: This is a fine, fine event put on by the Oregon Humanities, Think and Drink. I’m campaigning for it be changed to Think and Drink and Drink and Drink.

I think that’s a great idea… think and keep drinking. Thanks again.