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WikiLeaks: The Inside Story

February 04, 2011

Three prominent voices addressed the ongoing WikiLeaks saga in a wide-ranging panel Thursday evening at Columbia Journalism School. New York Times Editor Bill Keller, The Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger and former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith joined Tow Center Director Emily Bell to discuss Julian Assange, the controversial publication of classified materials and the implications for the future of journalism.

Watch it on C-SPAN

Tweet about this event using the hashtag #cjwiki.

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Following an introduction from Dean Nicholas Lemann, Bell asked Rusbridger to detail how The Guardian became involved with WikiLeaks. Rusbridger explained that Assange felt that mainstream media was useful "as a way of gaining more impact [and] making sense of the documents and so on."

Detailing the Guardian’s decision to work with The New York Times, Rusbridger said: "We had three reasons to bring in The New York Times. One was because the British media laws are not as robust as American media laws, so we thought that would give our joint enterprise a kind of legal robustness. Secondly we thought it would give us a kind of technological robustness if anybody was going to try to bring down this enterprise through a digital attack, it would be more robust with more than one organization. And thirdly, we rightly thought that this was going to be a massive task."

Keller described his working relationship with Assange, which deteriorated when the Times opted not to link directly to his website and published a profile that Assange characterized as a "smear." In the bigger picture, Keller warned that a prosecution of Assange could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

Keller said: "It’s very hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law in such a way that would be applicable to us, and I think that whatever one thinks of Julian Assange, American and other journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that intends to punish Assange for doing essentially what journalists do."

Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor, suggested that, as the law is written, Assange is essentially indistinguishable from traditional journalists. He described WikiLeaks as a key moment in the evolution of journalism and information technology over the last decade.

Goldsmith said: "This is more of an evolution than a sharp break from what’s been going on for at least the last 10 years. This is really the culmination of the digitalization of information and the fact that the costs of copying and distributing information have gone down to nearly zero. That, combined with the enormous growth of the secrecy system, has led to a dynamic where secret stuff has been flowing out of the government in an unprecedented way."

The evening concluded with the panelists taking questions from the audience, which included members of the press, Columbia Journalism School students and members of the public. Keller and Rusbridger promised much more coverage of Wikileaks to come.

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