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Dec. 7, 2010

CONTACT: K.E. Schwab




SRU faculty incorporate WikiLeaks information into classes     


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – The online release of what may eventually amount to 250,000 allegedly newly stolen government documents on the WikiLeaks Web site, including classified embassy cables, has attracted worldwide and local attention. Slippery Rock University faculty are already incorporating the information into their classes to keep students abreast of world developments.

           Online WikiLeaks grabbed news headlines and generated controversy when thousands of secret government documents editors began making them public worldwide via the Web. The latest round of releases involves numerous nations in the Middle East and Asia.

           “I am focusing my attention on the cables because I saw a lot of them in my government work. On one level, it is great to have access to them, but having said that, the issue also eats away at me because of the problems they may cause,” said Eric Tuten, assistant professor of history. Tuten, who joined SRU in 2006, worked for the U.s. government in the Middle East and often reviewed embassy cables.

           Tuten, who served as a Fulbright-Hayes scholar to Egypt in 2007, said he has started making note of certain documents from the WikiLeaks’ Web site so he has examples to show students in current and future classes. “I teach ‘The Contemporary Middle East,’ a course that deals with the history and culture of the region from the 1800s to present day. I will be assigning my students to read certain cables so they better understand issues we are discussing in class,” he said.

           “Of course, some of the cables have already caused problems for some foreign service personnel who are now targets of criticism. Every country has its secret. In the best of all possible worlds, I wish everything could be open, but the fact of the mater is governments deal with pretty heavy issues and have to make tough decisions, so, at times they actually have a need for secrecy. They have to talk with clandestine sources to get vital information, and they often have to keep some information secret to retain and protect their contacts.”

           “I am not sure myself how I should deal with this information. It is out there, so there may be nothing wrong with using it. Yes, I am concerned about specific names of U.S. personnel getting out because it could lead to them being targeted and possibly even killed. Hopefully, that won’t happen,” Tuten said.

           “I do see this information as a teaching tool, especially for students interested in government work. On one hand, they can get some sense of intelligence writing; on the other, it is a great opportunity to talk about the ramifications of leaking information,” he said. “These events raise some very pertinent, but sticky, issues.”

           “One major concern I have with WikiLeaks is that all governments are involved with clandestine activities, but in this case only U.S. documents are getting released. Thus far, WikiLeaks has been unable to obtain documents from Russia, China or other nations,” Tuten said.

           “There are ethical and professional concerns to address. I truly have a love-hate relationship about the information release,” he said.

           For Donald Kerchis, assistant professor of political science, the information release has provided an abundance of lecture fodder. Kerchis, also a Fulbright scholar, teaches “American National Government” and “International Relations.”

           “For several weeks, I have been offering a three-minute clip in class related to the WikiLeaks information. This week the information dealt with leaks regarding China and North Korea. There are some very sensitive documents and issues that have been very embarrassing for the Chinese government,” he said.
           “This Web site is looking to promote transparency and a democracy from that standpoint and doesn’t seem to be picking and choosing what documents it releases: Everyone and everything is fair game. In my ‘American National Government’ class, we are taking about First Amendment rights compared to say national security and how there is always a trade off between freedom and security. I’d be hard pressed to show how to get more of one, without getting less of the other,” he said. “The documents show the importance of thinking globally.”

           “The government’s Thanksgiving pat-downs and the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] body scans at airports show the degree of government involvement in our lives and essentially address the question of ‘How far to go.’ When leaks show the United States government is involved in illegal activities such as water board torture, I think the American public has a right to know. I want to know. I think WikiLeaks is a great forum for debate about dumping documents into the public sector,” Kerchis said.

           “In reality, I am not sure we have learned a whole lot that is new from the latest document release, but it certainly is embarrassing to many in government to actually see it in print,” Kerchis said. “People involved in international diplomacy know these kinds of things get said everyday.”

           “I am using the Web site to show students the impact of such information on Afghanistan and Iraq and how it might put American soldier’s lives at risk as well as the issue of if you are breaking international law that too is harmful to the U.S.,” he said.

           “It is all about balance. I don’t advocate the way it is being done, but by the same token, if I had to err on one side or the other, I’d rather err on the side of transparency. Not reporting the information because it does not cast the U.S. in the best light is not the right way to deal with the issue,” he said.

           For Deborah Whitfield, professor of computer science, the WikiLeaks issue is different. “Those of us on the computer side have been aware of the ethical issues surrounding data access for months. We have always known this type of thing could take place, so we just see it as another distribution of data from a data base.”

           She said it is not as uncommon as often thought to have a service provider [owner of a network server used to host various Web sites] remove a client’s Web site from its server. “Those involved in computer science know that Amazon [a major Web site hosting operation] has the right to take something down from its server – the same with Facebook – if there are complaints of violating standards. Amazon took down the WikiLeaks Web site, possibly because of [U.S.] government pressure,” she said.

           Whitfield said she saw no problem in students reading and or writing about the documents on line.

           According to the Huffington Post, at least one university, Columbia, issued a mass mail advising its students not to discuss WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter because it could possibly endanger their hiring with the federal government if revealed someday as part of a background check. Three days later, school officials stepped back from that advice, citing a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech clause.

           Excessive demand on the service could also have resulted in the initial “denial of service” experienced by Internet users trying to access the WikiLeaks Internet site.   

           A Swiss-based service provider has re-posted the WikiLeaks site information and other servers are reportedly “mirroring” the site as a means of keeping the information available to the public.

           Joseph Harry, associate professor of communication and faculty adviser to The Rocket, SRU’s student-run, weekly newspaper, said the WikiLeak information has broken too late in the semester for most of his beginning journalism courses. “However, personally I find it fascinating for a lot of reasons, both good and bad, but mostly bad.” he said. The issue could be incorporated into future courses dealing with journalism ethics, he said.

           “The first document dump occurred in the summer and students were not here. The second dump came just too late in the semester. Students are just starting to deal with their reporting ethics and this is a major undertaking,” he said.

           “At first blush, WikiLeaks is not journalism, but it still involves all sorts of journalistic issues,” Harry said. “In part, the public is jaded by the release, but with the supposed pending release of information about global banks there may be a new interest growth.”

           “It is a new age with WikiLeaks. On one hand, it is opening different doors for information and it is opening more acceptance to more information. Confidentiality and secrecy are part of any organization. I think many will now be less inclined to write things down, so they can’t be obtained by organizations like WikiLeaks. People may be more careful about the discussion they have, and less discussion will be bad. In the case of the Middle Eastern countries, it is interesting to know they are more scared of Iran than we thought. Documents show they are just as scared as we are and that is good to know. However, it may mean the countries are more secretive in sharing their fears with the U.S. because of the leaks. For journalists, right now WikiLeaks is a gift,” he said.

           Harry credited Rocket columnist Spencer Cadden for a “pretty thoughtful column about the issue from both sides” in last week’s issue.

           The overall WikiLeaks operation has been in a constant state of flux in recent months, complicated, in part, by its reported founder/director Julian Assange facing a Swedish warrant for alleged sex crimes involving two women during separate incidents last August. Assange surrendered to British authorities Tuesday and is fighting extradition to Sweden. Supporters have said they will keep up the flow of documents in his absence.

           Some have speculated once in Sweden, the U.S. could ask for Assange’s extradition to the U.S. to face possible charges related to the information release. Some in the U.S. have called for the online operation to be labeled “a terrorist organization” and removed from the Internet.

           A London court has denied bail to the 39-year-old Assage on the sex charges, based, in part, on his reported Nomadic lifestyle and lack of roots, thus giving rise to the fear he could flee the country before his scheduled court date.

           The New York Times, and major newspapers in other countries, were given early access to WikiLeaks documents that offer behind-the-scenes comments by government officials and their opinions on major international issues, including those in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, before they were posted to the Internet. The newspapers have reported on the contents of a number of the documents held by WikiLeaks.

           It has also been reported that WikiLeaks offered the U.S. government the chance to review the documents prior to their Internet posting, but that the government declined.

           Since the documents were made public, there have been repeated calls for investigations to determine how WikiLeaks obtained the documents it is posting or if possession of such documents is in violation of U.S. or international law.

           The unrelated Internet information source Wikipedia describes WikiLeaks as “an international news media non-profit organization that publishes submissions of otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous news sources and leaks.” The WikiLeaks site was first launched in 2006 and is believed to already carry some 1.2 million leaked documents.


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