BROOKE: As Norton reports her beat, she’d rather not be on the government’s radar. But she wouldn’t necessarily know if she was. This week, the Guardian reported that Google handed over the personal email accounts of three Wikileaks staffers to the Justice Department, under a secret federal search warrant. DOJ wanted it all: deleted emails, unsent drafts, and all the accompanying data, including the source and destination, the time and the length of the emails. The warrant was granted almost three years ago - but the targets of the investigation were, until very recently, kept in the dark. Ed Pilkington is Chief Reporter for the Guardian US. He says that while Wikileaks has been subject to federal scrutiny for years, this case stands out because of the sheer scope of the government’s demands.
ED PILKINGTON: I mean, in the old days, the FBI, they would turn up in your house, they would hand you a piece of paper, and say, "We are searching your house for specific things as listed in the warrant." This was equivalent to the FBI coming to your house when you’re not there, taking absolutely everything - the furniture, the kitchen implements, the pictures on the wall - and not even telling you until three years later.
BROOKE: Before we get any further in this discussion, can I be forgiven for feeling a little ho-hum about this. I mean, it doesn't surprise me! It seems as if everybody is now open to the same kind of scrutiny. A kind of fatigue seems to set in. One revelation from Snowden after another, and then its - [sigh] - What’s the difference?
PILKINGTON: I think you’re right - there has been an element of ennui, of exhaustion. But there’s also been a residual element where the demand for greater security in privacy is, I think, at a higher level. The tech companies are responding to that. If you show that you’re better than your rival at ensuring people’s privacy, there’s a competitive edge.
BROOKE: Now some, notably Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, argue that this Wikileaks revelation is in fact a major attack on press freedom. And that its shocking that the media world hasn’t raised its voice in outrage about it. He says that its probably because Wikileaks is dismissed as a journalism institution and Julian Assange is a very unsympathetic figure…
PILKINGTON: Yeah, I think when Wikileaks first burst onto the scene around 2009-2010 with this huge Chelsea Manning leak, there was almost a hysteria around Wikileaks. There was a complete sort of panic. Who is this new group - were they hackers, were they criminals, were they anarchists, were they going to try and bring down the old order? I think now, four years later, there’s a little bit more sophistication in our understanding of Wikileaks. We’ve come to see that a lot of what they actually do has similarities with what we do. Wikileaks carefully calls all of its staffers journalists, I think partly because it gives them legal protections - and we’re now seeing Wikileaks thinking about legal action in this case with Google and the US government in which they would say that the First Amendment rights of journalists have been breached in this case. But I think they’re also calling themselves journalists because they don't want to be split away from the body of the media in America and around the world. I think what's been happening is - well, we all know this - that the media world has been turned upside down, traditional media organizations have been closing, new ones have been rising out of nowhere, and in the wake of all that, we’ve got a whole new legal terrain, too. Just think about leaking: its now vastly easier for government officials to leak huge amounts of information. At the same time it is vastly easier for the FBI to digitally survey people and to grab all their data as they we now know they tried to do with the Wikileaks staffers. So there’s this war going on between journalistic operations and the government trying to secure their own databases.
BROOKE: If, as you say, there’s an escalating war because of the advancing technology between leakers leaking classified information - and let me stipulate that most classified information doesn't have to be -- in trying to stop those leaks or to punish those who do leak, isn’t the government doing what it's mandated to to?
PILKINGTON: Well, the Obama administration is doing it far more aggressively than any other previous US administration…
BROOKE: That is true; there have been eight prosecutions under the Espionage Act. But wouldn’t that possibly simply be a result of this kind of escalation? There have been so many more, and so much huger leaks!
PILKINGTON: Yeah, I think the government has a job on trying to secure vast databases of information that can now be downloaded in seconds. I think on the other side of the question, the journalistic job is still as important as it ever was. And I think there is a difference between someone like the Guardian and Wikileaks, in this regard. We don’t believe in anarchically handing out all information. So in a way it's upped our game too as journalists. Because it's our responsibility to make sure that what we actually publish is responsible, it's in the public interest and adds to the sum of the public knowledge rather than causing trouble for governments just for the sake of it.
BROOKE; So, given that, should Wikileaks be allowed the same latitude of an organization that does apply that sense of responsibility and public service to what it releases?
PILKINGTON: I think Wikileaks should be entitled to the same legal protections as everybody else. So Wikileaks staffers should be entitled to First Amendment protections. They should be protected from catch-all, grab-anything warrants.
BROOKE: Those are citizens rights. Those are the rights we grant to everybody. There are particular rights, as in the case of New York Times reporter James Risen, who did not have to go to jail for reporting a story based on a leak, but his CIA source, Jeffrey Sterling, who did explicitly break the law, will go to jail. The government really shrinks from imprisoning journalists. Do you think that Wikileaks should have the same kind of protection that James Risen had?
PILKINGTON: The DOJ under Eric Holder has introduced new guidelines for how the government deals with journalists. I mean, Eric Holder promises the DOJ will not come after “journalists doing their job” - that was his expression. He hasn’t defined what a journalist is! Now again, I think in the last five years it has become increasingly difficult to answer that question easily. So I think what’s important is to ask “What do journalists do?” If they publish, in the public interest, information that the public has the right to know, they’re doing the work of a journalist. If they endanger the lives of government officials without due diligence, then I would argue that's not the role of the journalist. And I think Wikileaks, which is a grown-up organization, quite capable of defending itself, has to answer, which side of that is on, in every single case in which it's confronted by government prosecution or investigation.
BROOKE: Have you noticed that most of the coverage of this story seems to be about how mad Wikileaks is at Google, and less about the stuff that we’re talking about?
PILKINGTON: Yeah. It's perhaps an easier target. People have a personal relationship with Google, not least if they have a gmail like I do. Google is storing all my private emails, all my work emails, everything about my life is there. So if I feel that Google is doing something to damage my privacy I’m going to be very angry about it. I think there’s an element of people thinking, "Wow, that could have been me." Speaking personally, that’s quite a pertinent question. Is it possible that the FBI came after with warrants for my email data and no one’s told me that? If that were the case I’d like to know about it.
BROOKE: And of course nowadays, virtually everyone is both a consumer and a creator of information.
PILKINGTON: Precisely and that again begs the question: Where does journalism end and the citizen’s social media feed begin?
BROOKE: Ed, thank you very much.
PILKINGTON: Thank you.
BROOKE: Ed Pilkington is Chief Reporter for the Guardian in the US.