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State Department's Crowley Argues Wikileaks Isn't Internet Freedom

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, January 12 2011

State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley offered an extended take on the topic of Wikileaks yesterday in a speech and Q&A session before students in the Washington Center's politics and media seminar that happened to be captured by C-SPAN's cameras. That video's above and here, and here's the text of his prepared remarks.

Crowley obliquely pushed back against the idea, hinted at, at least, by Evgeny Morozov for one here, that a United States State Department that strenuously objects to what Wikileaks has done isn't a United States State Department that can be purport to be champions of "Internet freedom" around the planet, as Secretary Clinton has done. What's an issue here, argued Crowley, is a crime, not an expression of freedom:

Some in the human rights community in this country, and around the world, are questioning our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom in the aftermath of WikiLeaks.  I am constrained in what I can say, both because individual cables remain classified, and the leak is under investigation by the Department of Justice. But let me briefly put this in context and then I will open things up for questions.  WikiLeaks is about the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It is not an exercise in Internet freedom. It is about the legitimate investigation of a crime. It is about the need to continue to protect sensitive information while enabling the free flow of public information.

Crowley also sought to create a little daylight between the Wikileaks approach and government transparency movements:

Transparency does not mean there are no secrets. Whether you are a government or a business, there is proprietary information that is vital to your day-to-day function. Coca-Cola has its secret formula. Google has its search algorithm. Their success is based on these secrets.  As a government, we are no different. In the conduct of our diplomacy, we have confidential interactions around the world every day. These conversations, with government officials, civil society activists, business people and journalists, help us make sense of the world and inform our policy-making. These confidential exchanges are rooted in our values and serve our national interest. They are based on mutual trust, trust that the confidence will not be betrayed.

And Crowley also subtly drew a qualitative distinction between Julian Assange and allies' disclosure of State Department cables and more targeted leaks like, say, Daniel Ellsberg's pushing out of the Pentagon Papers, a distinction that had much to do with quantity:

We have encountered leaks before, and worked through them. We will do so in this case as well. But this case is different, in its volume and scope. Unlike the past, where someone might have smuggled out a document or file about one subject and given it to one reporter, in this case, the database contained documents that touched every part of the world, every relationship we have around the world and almost national interest.  The reaction has varied country by country, but human nature being what it is, there will be impact for at least a time. Governments will be more cautious in sharing sensitive information. Why is this important? It was the sharing of information last year that enabled the United States, working with other governments, to intercept a plot to blow up cargo aircraft over Chicago.  If less information is shared in the future, our policies and our actions could be less effective.

Wikileaks was, as you might imagine, the topic of many of the questions that the students threw Crowley's way after he wrapped up what he'd come to say.

In one bit of what might be new news, in response to a student-reporter's question about weighing public's right to know institutionally-held information, Crowley described himself as the "chief negotiator, if you will, between the United States government and the New York Times over what to do about these cables." Crowley described those each of those engagements as a "productive conversation" that in aggregate form a "constructive interaction within a relationship that by its very nature is going to have some tensions."

Again, the full text of what Crowley had prepared to say is here.

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