Wik­iLeaks plus Fed's dump equals data over­load

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Amity Shlaes

Last week­end Wik­iLeaks.org re­leased about 250,000 clas­si­fied U.S. State Depart­ment ca­bles. Within days the col­lec­tive Amer­i­can brain was chal­lenged by an­other info-dump. On Wed­nes­day, the Fed­eral Re­serve posted the de­tails of more than 21,000 of its trans­ac­tions with fi­nan­cial firms and other busi­nesses dur­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, in an un­prece­dented move re­quired by the new Dodd-Frank law over­haul­ing fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion.

The first ques­tion prompted by this doc­u­ment flood is whether re­leas­ing such pre­vi­ously un­avail­able in­for­ma­tion is right or wrong. Most Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly feel un­qual­i­fied to make this call. The sec­ond ques­tion, equally im­por­tant, in­volves ef­fi­ciency. How is this quan­tity of ma­te­rial to be sorted out, and does the old news in­dus­try still play a role in that work?

In 1971 Daniel Ells­berg needed the New York Times to dis­sem­i­nate the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, a crit­i­cal anal­y­sis of the Viet­nam War. A short time later, Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein needed the plat­form of the Washington Post to de­liver a long, com­plex story like Water­gate, and to give their com­bi­na­tion of in­nu­endo, sur­mise and fact a layer of le­git­i­macy.

To­day, it's dif­fer­ent. If the con­test is about the sheer vol­ume of ma­te­rial, news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines have al­ready lost. The ocean of in­for­ma­tion that Wik­iLeaks and its heed­less founder Ju­lian As­sange have re­leased makes the 7,000 pages of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers look like a New Eng­land pond. It turns out places with­out mul­ti­layer hi­er­ar­chies, mar­ket­ing de­part­ments or ed­i­to­rial pic­nics are able to find read­ers if their ma­te­rial is juicy.

There is a sim­ple way to de­cide the mat­ter of right and wrong. Dis­clo­sure is fine in­so­far as it is le­gal. It's time to re­spect the law and use it as a guide­post.

The orig­i­nal leak of ca­bles was clearly il­le­gal. The data al­legedly flowed to Wik­iLeaks from Bradley Man­ning, a pri­vate in the U.S. Army, who is sus­pected of dis­sem­i­nat­ing clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion. Crim­i­nal charges against Man­ning are likely to in­clude vi­o­lat­ing Ar­ti­cle 92 of the Uni­form Code of Mil­i­tary Jus­tice, which says that any sol­dier who "vi­o­lates or fails to obey any law­ful gen­eral or­der or reg­u­la­tion" shall be pun­ished "as a court mar­tial may di­rect." Man­ning may also be charged with vi­o­lat­ing Ar­ti­cle 134, which cov­ers "dis­or­ders and ne­glects to the prej­u­dice of good or­der and dis­ci­pline in the armed forces."

An ef­fi­cient re­sponse is to as­sume those laws ex­ist for a rea­son, and if Man­ning vi­o­lated them, he should be pun­ished. The guess­ing game about how much dam­age the leaks might cause was al­ready eval­u­ated, by the au­thors of such laws. And un­less the guilty party -Man­ning or some­one else --is con­victed, copy­cat leaks are likely. Those leaks could con­tain dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion, even if the cur­rent set of leaked ca­bles don't.

There­fore, the per­pe­tra­tor, who­ever he is, de­serves to be con­demned. If In­ter­pol or any other law en­force­ment in­sti­tu­tion can prove that As­sange's WikiLeak ac­tiv­ity is il­le­gal, then he should face the con­se­quences, too. The flam­boy­ant As­sange, though, is mere hand­maiden to who­ever leaked the ma­te­rial.

The Fed sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent. The cen­tral bank, at least early on, wasn't any hap­pier to dis­close data than the State Depart­ment. Bloomberg News re­porters sought for years, first through Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests, then through a law­suit, to get the Fed to be more trans­par­ent about its bailout ac­tiv­i­ties. Fed of­fi­cials re­fused. Mean­while Congress passed the Dodd-Frank law in July, which man­dates the Fed to dis­close its de­ci­sions about whom to res­cue, and how. The most un­for­tu­nate as­pect of this pro­vi­sion is that it's retroac­tive. Those who re­ceived fi­nan­cial help as­sumed de­tails of the trans­ac­tions wouldn't be pub­lished. From now on, those who ap­proach the Fed will know bet­ter. Still, there is room for Congress to change the law. When it comes to the ques­tion of the old me­dia's fu­ture, the law, or eth­i­cal cul­ture in a larger sense, is also a good guide­line.

Let's face it: As­sange's ar­ro­gance re­calls the less at­trac­tive side of Wood­ward and Bern­stein. At times jour­nal­ists of the post-Water­gate in­ves­tiga­tive va­ri­ety have used their own non­trans­par­ent, some­times il­licit, meth­ods such as prom­ises of anonymity and bul­ly­ing to squeeze in­for­ma­tion out of of­fi­cials. Cru­sad­ing re­porters jus­ti­fied their modus operandi by telling them­selves that only they could de­liver such valu­able in­for­ma­tion.

It turns out that dis­grun­tled ser­vice­men or bank ex­ec­u­tives don't need news­pa­pers. They don't even need Wik­iLeaks. All they need is YouTube.

The in­for­ma­tion flood doesn't nec­es­sar­ily doom news in­sti­tu­tions. Hav­ing lost the race to the bot­tom to As­sange and oth­ers, the news me­dia will have to com­pete by adding value in a more dig­ni­fied way, by hon­or­ing a more noble as­pect of the "Wood­stein" legacy.

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