Despite warnings from the U.S. government that the publication of secret diplomatic cables could put the local reporters and human rights activists identified in them at risk, WikiLeaks this week published the name of an Algerian reporter who accused Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of manipulating a 2006 parliamentary election during talks with American diplomats, according to a journalists' rights group.
The reporter's name was redacted on Thursday, two hours after the New York-based advocacy group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), asked a lawyer representing WikiLeaks, Mark Stephens, to remove it. The disclosure shows that despite measures by WikiLeaks and some news organizations to prevent exposure of individuals at risk, some vulnerable names continue to slip through the cracks.
"This was a case in which the mere fact of interacting with U.S. diplomatic officials in this particular country could put this journalist at risk," Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director told Turtle Bay. "It seems to us that by deleting the names they mitigated that risk. Whether they completely eliminated it, I can't say."
The January 2007 cable, approved by then deputy chief of mission, Thomas F. Daughton, recounts the reporter's claim that the Algerian leader used his influence to ensure the re-election of Abdelkader Bensalah as Algeria's Senate leader, making him the first in line to succeed Bouteflika if he stepped down. The reporter, according to the cable, told U.S. officials that "the result was predetermined once President Bouteflika signaled to the senators that he wanted Bensala to retain his position." The reporter added that the "senators privately complained that out of respect to Bouteflika, no other candidates had presented themselves. Many told her the election became a formality rather than an exercise in democracy, which was a shame in their view."
Simon said his organization's review of the initial cache of documents shows that one other reporter has been mentioned in the reports -- Washington Post associate editor and author Bob Woodward, who joined then National Security Advisor James Jones during high-level talks in Islamabad with Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari. The names of about 10 others, including reporters in Syria and Turkey, had been redacted from U.S. cables before they were posted.
Simon cited another case, however, in which a published cable from Caracas identified an unnamed Venezuelan reporter as a health reporter for a well-known Venezuelan newspaper, making it easy for the government -- which has hostile relations with the United States -- to figure it out. "There may be enough identifying information for people to identify," Simon said.
The Venezuelan reporter, according to the December 2009 diplomatic cable from Caracas, provided American officials with insights into the decaying state of the country's public hospitals, describing them as "increasingly dangerous places, where underpaid, undersupplied, and understaffed doctors work in unsanitary conditions to provide medical services to Venezuela's poor. Due to shortages of basic medical supplies, doctors ask patients to purchase their own needles, disinfectants and gauze."
Simon said he is not concerned about the publication of Woodward's name because he is well-known for his access to top American officials and is unlikely to suffer reprisals. But he voiced concern that naming foreign journalists from repressive countries could endanger them. "We are focused on the threat of whether this kind of identification could lead to physical or legal harm, and I don't think that's the case with Woodward."
A June 26 cable from Islamabad, signed by U.S. ambassador Anne W. Patterson, recounts efforts by the Pakistani pressed to tout his efforts to combat the country's extremists, and asks his American counterparts to supply his military with a helicopter battalions and drones. "Journalist Bob Woodward (Traveling with the NSA Jones delegation) joined the meeting and asked Zardari why he had sharpened his attack on the extremists in the last six months," according to the U.S. cable. "Pointing to the death of his father-in-law Zulfikar Bhutto and assassination of his wife, Benazir, Zardari said he had been confronting extremism (or the ideology from which it was birthed) for more than thirty years."
On Saturday, the State Department's top lawyer, Harold Koh, warned WikiLeaks that its publication of secret U.S. diplomatic communications would have "grave consequences" and "place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals," including soldiers, journalists, human rights activists, and bloggers.
In a "Question and Answer" forum on the website of Britain's Guardian newspaper, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange challenged allegations that his actions have placed individuals in danger. WikiLeaks, he said, has "a four-year publishing history. During that time there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities. This is despite much-attempted manipulation and spin trying to lead people to a counter-factual conclusion. We do not expect any change in this regard."
Assange said the latest batch of cables "have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor." It was unclear whether WikiLeaks played a direct role in the redaction process. But Assange said that the whistleblower group played some oversight role in reviewing the news agencies redaction procedures to ensure the process was working.
Asked by email to explain why the Algerian reporter was named in one of the cables, WikiLeaks' attorney Mark Stephens suggested that Le Monde, one of several newspapers that has received advances copies of the U.S. cables, was responsible for redacting the name. "Ask Le Monde," he wrote. "I understand that they did the redaction on these." But a source at Le Monde said yesterday that the paper had not posted the Algerian cable. "We have not run any story on Algeria yet, and we only redact or clear memos that we use for a story that runs," the source said, on condition of anonymity. "So we didn't redact the name."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.