Should leaked documents be cited on Wikipedia?
A request for comment (RfC) has been filed over the use of classified documents on Wikipedia as the whistle-blowers' website WikiLeaks continues to publish 250,000 cables, detailed correspondence between the United States Department of State and its diplomatic missions around the world. The contents of the cables describe international affairs from 300 embassies dated from 1966–2010, containing diplomatic analysis of world leaders, an assessment of host countries, and a discussion about international and domestic issues. The documents, leaked to The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País and Le Monde, have been the subject of much controversy in public, with a number of politicians calling for the prosecution of Julian Assange—editor in chief of WikiLeaks—for leaking the documents. Several days after the RfC was started, there had been much debate over the legal and moral aspects of citing the embassy cables and other leaked documents on Wikipedia.
Wnt (talk · contribs) highlighted ethical concerns, saying that private security systems for storing secret documents are "starkly and diametrically opposite to everything that Wikimedia stands for." DKqwerty (talk · contribs) disagreed, saying, "If leaked classified information is presented to effect any kind change within any institution, then it's certainly not being presented in a neutral fashion (or at least not for neutral purposes). I hope that I didn't misunderstand your comment, but if I haven't then it's implications fall far outside the bounds of neutrality." Wnt replied by stating that "if we accept that the ethics concerns raised by some opposed to using the documents are irrelevant to Wikipedia. However, if we allow ethics to become an issue, then we must think through that issue and recognize that freedom of inquiry is in fact the most ethical policy."
One view, strongly endorsed by a number of contributors, was that of ErrantX (talk · contribs). "The issue of legality is one naturally brought up ... Even if it were, no one here is sufficiently qualified to make an absolute judgement on the matter; this is why the WMF exists," they said. "We can safely work under the assumption that anything 'borderline' will be noticed, considered and commented on by the foundation – and that in lieu of such comments we can assume they have no qualms about our actions. Of course, if editors are still concerned it seems reasonable to explicitly raise it with the [Wikimedia] foundation." ErrantX further questioned the reliability of the cables, saying that they would not class WikiLeaks as "a de facto reliable or unreliable source," and the leaks must be judged on a case by case basis. They said sourcing an article "purely to a cable with no secondary sourcing is unacceptable," and "just because one of the news outlets has picked up the cables content does not mean it is definitely truth." They added: "We should treat each cable with the relative weight of their reliability, context, contents and verifiability. Where a cable is reasonably likely to contain accurate information and a secondary source has taken the same stance then I think we can safely make use of it as a reliable source."
Editor Rd232 (talk · contribs) agreed with ErrantX, adding, "because of the way the cables have been published, with involvement of major newspapers, we can accept that the published cables accurately represent the documents produced by and for the US government; so they are acceptable primary sources." However, they said, "it remains the case that they are documents produced by and for the US government in a particular context of diplomatic communication, and are not reliable for statements of fact; they are essentially statements of opinion." Ohconfucius (talk · contribs) also said that, because the files had been published in respected newspapers, they had little concern over copyright. On the ethical issues of using the cables as sources, they said, "I consider that ethical issues are not relevant to us here, for it is WL that released, and one media station per country has done the spreading. Thirdly, as to authenticity, I am happy to say The Guardian reports the cable saying '[the Sizewell B nuclear power plant] is considered a terrorist target'. Proper attribution is the key here."
ResidentAnthropologist (talk · contribs) suggested WikiLeaks documents could be used as external links in articles, but not as sources. "We should not use the documents as sources due to the high risks of misuse in accordance with the primary sources rule. As much media coverage as there has been and continues to be," they said. "We should have no shortage of secondary sources to cover the contents of the documents." Enric Naval (talk · contribs) opposed this suggestion, however, saying, "I am not comfortable with blanket forbidding the citing of any cable. We don't do this with other types of primary sources." Silver seren (talk · contribs) said the legal issue of the documents would not be a problem for the Wikimedia Foundation. "I am setting aside the classified issue, because it is my opinion that classified information once published is considered to be public access," they said. "Wikileaks can get in trouble for publishing it, possibly, but we cannot since we are essentially a tertiary source for the information. The government would have to sue all of the newspapers, magazines, and journals that also copied over and published the information ... before we could be prosecuted. Of course, that is under the assumption that they are even allowed to prosecute for such as the dissemination of the info, which they are not."
One opinion disputed by several contributors was that of The Four Deuces (talk · contribs), who said no-one could independently verify them. "I see them as unreliable primary sources," they said. "We have no way of knowing that they are genuine and must rely on secondary sources to determine their veracity. If no reliable secondary sources mention a document then it lacks notability. I do not however see any ethical problems with them, since they are in the public domain, especially if we only report what has been picked up by news media." Elonka (talk · contribs) said that, even though they were created by US officials, they may not actually be in the public domain. "Classified documents are still classified documents. Permission has not been given for their public display," she said. Cyclopia (talk · contribs), addressing the issue of verifiability, said, "We also have no way to know if any given new scientific article contains genuine results or is the result of a fabrication: yet we usually assume they're meaningful unless proven the contrary. The default position of both news organizations and governments is that cables are indeed genuine unless differently declared."
The discussion continues.