We are learning in numerous ways how hard it is, in a digital age, to keep control of information. Voice messages, emails, corporate documents, medical records, DNA, government secrets – all are vulnerable to hacking, snooping and simple spillage. From the moment a hacker (or, possibly, a whistleblower) passed a vast store of US government and military records to WikiLeaks it was always on the cards that this data would eventually spill out indiscriminately into the open. This week most of it has – accelerated by WikiLeaks itself, which chose to publish the state department cables in unredacted form.
This paper, and the four other news organisations involved in publishing heavily edited selections from the war logs and cables last year, are united in condemning this act. From the start of our collaboration, it was clear to the newspapers – and apparently accepted, if reluctantly, by WikiLeaks's founder, Julian Assange – that it was necessary to redact the material in order to minimise the potential risk to vulnerable people who might be placed in harm's way by publication. That joint exercise, which ended last December, has never been shown to have placed an individual's life at risk.
But, with the well-documented rifts in the original WikiLeaks team last year, the data was not secured. One copy was obtained by Heather Brooke, the freedom of information campaigner. It now appears that last December another WikiLeaks employee was responsible for a further leak when he placed the unredacted cables on a peer-to-peer site with an old password – motivated, it seems, by the arrest of Assange on allegations concerning his private life. It is not clear that even Assange – distracted by his legal actions over the Swedish sex allegations – knew of this act. This, to be clear, was not the original file accessed by the Guardian last year, which was, as agreed with WikiLeaks, removed from a secure file server after we had obtained a copy and never compromised.
A handful of people knew of the existence of this republished file and, realising its potential for harm, they did not publish any clues as to how it might be accessed. WikiLeaks, by contrast, tried to blame others for the leak, hinted at how it could be accessed, and then finally decided to publish it all to the world in an unredacted form.
Some WikiLeaks devotees and extreme freedom of information advocates will applaud this act. We don't. We join the New York Times, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El País in condemning it. Many of our newspapers' reporters and editors worked hard to publish material based on the cables in a responsible, comprehensible and contextualised form. We continue to believe in the validity and benefits of this collaboration in transparency. But we don't count ourselves in that tiny fringe of people who would regard themselves as information absolutists – people who believe it is right in all circumstances to make all information free to all. The public interest in all acts of disclosure has to be weighed against the potential harm that can result.
It had never been entirely clear whether Assange thought he had a consistent position on this issue. At various times he has scorned those who urged redaction; at others he has portrayed himself as an advocate of responsible redaction. He shows little or no understanding of the legal constraints facing less free souls than himself, often voicing contempt for publishers constrained by the laws of particular jurisdictions. At its best Wikileaks seemed to offer the hope of frustrating the most repressive and restrictive. But the organisation has dwindled to being the vehicle of one flawed individual – occasionally brilliant, but increasingly volatile and erratic. There was no compelling need, even with the recent disclosures of the internal leak, for WikiLeaks to publish all the material in the form in which it did. Julian Assange took a clear decision this week: he must take the responsibility for that.
Editorial of The Guardian