Keeping Secrets

Ken AshfordWar on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

It's kind of amazing that nobody knew that New York Times reporter David Rohde had been kidnapped by the Taliban on November 10, and remained in their custody for several months.  Well, the New York Times and the government knew of course, but they (rightly) decided to keep the information quiet.  They figured that publicity would add to Rohde's value as a hostage and impede efforts to free or rescue him.

What I find remarkable is thatthe kidnapping managed (for the most part) to remain a secret on the Internet.  Now that Rohde is free, a few bloggers with connections to mainstream media have now reported that they knew, but they agreed to keep it hush-hush.

The New York Times has an interesting side story about battle at Wikipedia, the open source news and information encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and how the main editors struggled to keep the Rohde information off Wikipedia:

A dozen times, user-editors posted word of the kidnapping on Wikipedia’s page on Mr. Rohde, only to have it erased. Several times the page was frozen, preventing further editing — a convoluted game of cat-and-mouse that clearly angered the people who were trying to spread the information of the kidnapping.

Even so, details of his capture cropped up time and again, however briefly, showing how difficult it is to keep anything off the Internet — even a sentence or two about a person who is not especially famous.

The sanitizing was a team effort, led by Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, along with Wikipedia administrators and people at The Times. In an interview, Mr. Wales said that Wikipedia’s cooperation was not a given.

“We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source,” he said. “I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”


On Nov. 13, news of the kidnapping was posted and deleted four times within four hours, before an administrator blocked any more changes for three days. On Nov. 16, it was blocked again, for two weeks.

“We didn’t want it to look unusual in some fashion that would draw speculation, so we would protect it for three days, or up to a month, which is pretty normal,” Mr. Wales said. He added, “Weeks would go by before there was a problem.”

On Feb. 10 and 11, two users added the kidnapping information several times to Mr. Rohde’s page, only to see it removed each time, and they attached some heated notes to their additions. “We can do this months,” one said.

To their credit, they were successful.  Which speaks well, I guess, of the information highway.  It's not quite the free-for-all one might think, and occasionally, people stop and do the right thing.