Poll: Large Majority Believe Releases By WikiLeaks Should Be Illegal

A new BBC World News America/Harris Poll finds that Americans are divided, with no consensus, as to how much freedom the media should have to publish confidential government documents.

However, a sizable 69 percent to 18 percent of all adults agree that "publishing these documents could pose a security threat to the United States and therefore should be illegal."  At the same time a 48 percent to 40 percent plurality believes that "the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment...gives organizations and individuals the right to post any information given to them." The public is clearly split on some of the key issues raised by the publication of government cables by WikiLeaks, and some people give somewhat contradictory responses depending on how the issue is presented.

These are some of the findings of a new BBC World News America/Harris Poll of 2,019 U.S. adults surveyed online between December 17 and 21 by Harris Interactive.

Some of the other main findings of this poll are:

  • A 47 percent to 39 percent plurality of all adults disagree that "WikiLeaks is helping to provide transparency in government which is important and good;"
  • A 48 percent to 39 percent plurality disagrees that "publishing these documents could be embarrassing or hurtful to any given administration, but it's not dangerous;"
  • When it comes to the role of the media, the public is split between the 39 percent of all adults who agree and the 43 percent who disagree that all investigative journalism should be regulated by government; and,
  • On one issue there is a very clear answer: by more than 4-to-1, a 62 percent majority believes that "the government should keep some secrets for national security, international diplomacy and other reasons" as opposed to only 13 percent who believe that "the government should keep no secrets at all...."

Perhaps the best indication of how the public is divided by some of the issues raised by the WikiLeaks debate is the three way split regarding who should decide what can and cannot be publicly released. Just over one third, 35 percent, think the government should regulate what is released.  One third, 32 percent, thinks that each media outlet should decide what to publish and one third, 33 percent, say they are not sure.

The poll also finds that Democrats and Independents are somewhat more likely than Republicans to support the right to release and publish government documents, and that younger people are much more likely than older people to do so.

There is no consensus as to what should be done in response to the WikiLeaks releases and their publication in the media or to regulate future leaks of confidential government documents. It is probable that the public's reaction to these and future leaks, and to the preferred roles of the government and media will depend on the context and the perceived consequences of the published documents.  If, for example, people believe that the leaks seriously endanger national security, they are likely to oppose the leaking.  If, on the other hand, the leaks merely embarrass the government or other countries, the public will be much more likely to approve of the leaks.

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