Michael Kozak. pic: US Dept of State archive

The chief of the WikiLeaks Persons at Risk working group took the stand during the sentencing phase of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial to testify on how the State Department sought to assist individuals named in the US State Embassy cables disclosed by Manning to WikiLeaks.

Michael Kozak, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, held regular meetings with the WikiLeaks “Persons at Risk” working group from December 2010 to May 2011.

He stated the “greatest damage” to democracy and human rights by Manning “based on his experience”  was that it created a “chilling effect” where people coming to talk to State Department diplomats to promote and advance human rights and democracy in their own countries were no longer certain their names would “stay confidential.”

At another point, Kozak also said that one of the main concerns was that individuals talking to diplomats have an expectation that what they say is “going to be confidential” and they are not going to be endangered.”

He added this is similar to a “newspaper reporter. If you go out and reveal all your sources every time, not too many people will talk to you.”

In recent months, there has been great discussion in the United States about the “chilling effect” created by the US government and its “war on leaks.” The Obama administration has, thus far, managed to successfully target New York Times reporter James Risen, who an appeals court recently ruled should be forced to testify against his source in the leaks case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of violating the Espionage Act.

During May, it came out that the FBI had labeled Fox News reporter James Rosen an “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” of a leak allegedly committed by former State Department employee Stephen Kim, who is on trial and also accused of violating the Espionage Act. Kim is believed to have disclosed details on North Korea’s nuclear program to Rosen.

It also came out in May that the Associated Press had its phone records seized by the Justice Department in its investigation into a leak involving a CIA underwear bomb plot sting operation. The phone records seized were from 20 phone lines that were used by over 100 journalists and there was much talk about the effect this would have on sources.

Hearing Kozak talk, one might wonder what his thoughts are about the US government and its chilling of news sources. That is, if one buys into the comparison.

While press have an obligation to protect their sources, they do not typically write reports that are not read by the public and kept classified for at least twenty-five years. They want the public to read what they write and typically manage to make it possible for people to read what they report without endangering their sources.

If diplomats were really comparable to journalists, they would engage in more open diplomacy and more of their work would be available for public consumption.

When Manning pled guilty to some offenses on February 28, he stated:

…The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read and used a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other…

Should the State Department want to follow the lead of Manning and begin to practice open diplomacy, than they may consider themselves comparable to journalists. However, if they want to continue to operate in total secrecy and not allow Americans to ever read what they write about their work in countries, than they should probably draw more appropriate comparisons between themselves and spies who work at intelligence agencies.

Spies are just as likely to experience a “chilling effect” if their sources are revealed. They also are likely to find they must relocate to another country in order to do their work when their cover is blown.

For the diplomats who had to flee because what was revealed was embarrassing or created tension with governments, their experience was more like what would happen to exposed undercover agents and not reporters working to keep sources secret so they can continue to cover sensitive issues or stories.