By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

WikiLeaks and the media’s responsibility

Julian Assange

The latest WikiLeaks document dump gives us all much to think about. Unlike the earlier materials, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest revelations might actually make it more difficult for the United States to conduct foreign policy.

Is the world safer or less safe today now that we know King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has urged the U.S. to take out Iran’s nuclear-weapons-in-the-making? Or doesn’t it matter? And would the documents be seen in a different light if the New York Times, the Guardian et al. had done nothing and let WikiLeaks release them on its own accord?

Like most journalists, I want to see as much information out there as possible. When government officials talk about the need for secrecy, I’m naturally suspicious. Yet as Timothy Garton Ash observes in the Guardian, secrecy is surely a tool that the State Department needs to use on occasion. He writes:

How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A State Department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are “going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.” The conduct of government is already hampered by fear of leaks. An academic friend of mine who worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice told me that he had once suggested writing a memo posing fundamental questions about U.S. policy in Iraq. “Don’t even think of it,” he was warned — because it would be sure to appear in the next day’s New York Times.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., sounds as though he wants WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be tried and executed. I think we can safely dismiss rants like that while still wondering whether there was a legitimate need to keep these matters secret.

I have not yet come up with an answer to that question. What I do know is that information technology now makes it possible for a group like WikiLeaks to dump far more dangerous documents than these into the public realm. Say what you will about traditional news organizations like the Times, but at least they give the government an opportunity to make a case as to why such documents shouldn’t be released.

One thing’s for sure: if the government is serious about keeping its secrets, it needs to do a much better job of protecting them.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Glad you brought this up, Dan. I had the same conversation with my wife last night, and came to the same conclusions you did.

    My fear is that the transparency brought on by the latest set of documents will be one-sided; that China, Pakistan, Russia, Brazil, India, Israel, etc. are essentially off the hook (unless someone brazen enough in those regimes is willing to do the same — and so far, no one we know of has come forward).

    One has to ask, what is WikiLeak’s end goal? World peace? Or just no secrets?

  2. Christian Avard

    Dan, I’m curious what you thought of Simon Jenkins’ article. It seems to be one of the most circulated articles on the Internet right now, especially Twitter. One of his more agreeable points is this

    ‎”Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets. Were there some overriding national jeopardy in revealing them, greater restraint might be in order. There is no such overriding jeopardy, except from the policies themselves as revealed. Where it is doing the right thing, a great power should be robust against embarrassment.”

    To read more click here.

    The other big question I have right now — and I’m just throwing this out there — is will these leaks have the opposite effect than one intended? In other words, will it increase the lies and bury the truth even deeper? If so, how do we get around it because Wikileaks — or some other organization — will have to come up with new methods to whistleblowing with information. Know what I mean?

  3. Jeff Inglis

    Dan – I think a key to protecting documents is making sure that they actually do need to be – and remain – secret. A lot of leakers let stuff out because they think it’s silly/stupid/secretive to keep that particular information from public view. I have yet to see (though the WikiLeaks material may offer) the leak of a document entitled, say, “Names and addresses of covert CIA agents” – though I have little doubt that such a document (or one like it) exists. Seems to me that the people who encounter that document understand why it is secret and help protect it as a result. But when secret documents reveal lies told in large meetings among government officials of different nations (see: Yemeni claims of responsibility for US missile strikes), it seems likely that the documents’ custodians don’t agree that it should be kept secret.

    We overclassify and under-declassify documents, and have for a long time, a practice continuing under the Obama administration. But that means that much of our classified material is really unimportant and can be made public with little damage. The government damages its credibility when it claims that everything should be secret – and by extension encourages leakers to remedy the wrong.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian and @Jeff: I trust news organizations like the New York Times and the Guardian to make judgments that keep the national interest in mind when deciding whether to go with a story or not. I do not trust Julian Assange’s motives. In this case, news organizations were pushed into reporting stories they might not have been comfortable with because WikiLeaks was going to release the documents anyway. For example, I don’t think revealing King Addullah’s pleas for action on Iran is in the national interest. And I wonder whether Hillary Clinton is going to have to resign for engaging in some pretty routine skulduggery.

      And you have to keep the hypotheticals uppermost. WikiLeaks or an organization like it could release far more damaging documents than these.

      @Christian, it is a truism that the burden of secrecy is on the government, not on the press. That doesn’t tell us anything useful, although it will come in handy if there is a lawsuit or a criminal prosecution.

  4. Dan, In my own blog, I refer to Jonathan Schneer’s analysis of The Balfour Declaration and the Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Would the course of history have been changed by knowing back then about all the behind-the-scenes manipulation and deception, especially by the British, which sowed the seeds of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict? Does it help or hurt to know today the price that the United States is willing to pay to reduce the Iranian nuclear threat? Surely there are costs to revealing secret documents, but I also feel I understand a lot more about how the Obama administration is conducting foreign policy with the Wiki release. And the non-explosive but embarrassing personal assessments of one character or another have to be understood as real life underlying diplomatic-ese.

  5. Heather Greene

    Robert Gibbs just said in the White House Press Briefing that this administration has tried to promote transparency. Apparently forgot this:

    Also wish the press would push back harder on the “Wikileaks puts lives at risk” stuff.

    Bad P.R. for the Obama administration or making our unpopular wars less so isn’t the same thing as willing trying to kill people. And even if you believe it, the fact nothing happened the last time ought to make you pause and rethink that position. I think the American public needs to realize that al Qaeda is like the KAOS from the “Get Smart” TV series. There are some estimate that actual al Qaeda members within Afghanistan are in the single digits. They are pretty rag-tag actually always have been.

    The idea that professional diplomats aren’t aware that there is gossip about them and only just realize it now with Wikileaks and therefore won’t conduct open foreign policy with the only remaining superpower is just silly. Invading Iraq or Gitmo or you-name-the-issue (heck, the condition that Indigenous Americans live in) have a zillion and one times of a worst effect on American policy.

  6. Gene Cassidy

    Maybe there is a legitimate need to keep these documents secret from our point of view, but that’s not necessarily a view shared outside the West. You are right to be suspicious of taking Assange at his word. He says he releases documents as a means of trying a type of journalism only recently made possible. But what Mike Benedict said is spot-on: “…China, Pakistan, Russia, Brazil, India, Israel, etc. are essentially off the hook…” They have no Julian Assange. He has no access to them. And if he or another like him did dump those countries’ documents, their reaction would likely be more brutal than suspicion of misguided motives or method.

  7. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: I don’t think revealing King Addullah’s pleas for action on Iran is in the national interest.

    I do. Didn’t we just sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion dollars in warplanes and armaments? Haven’t we sold them hundreds of billions worth in the past? What do they do with this stuff?

    They want to do something about Iran, more power to them. But it’s not our problem.

  8. Bill Hanna

    BP Myers says: “They want to do something about Iran, more power to them. But it’s not our problem.” Is there anyone who believes that if Saudi Arabia decides to further destabilize the Middle East–and with U.S. weapons, no less–it won’t be our problem?

  9. Bob Gardner

    I thought it was pretty well established that possessing secret information was not a crime. Why the fuss?
    @ Dan “And you have to keep the hypotheticals uppermost” is a wonderful sentence. I probably will use it myself some time, but I promise to give you credit.

  10. BP Myers

    @Bill Hanna says: Is there anyone who believes that if Saudi Arabia decides to further destabilize the Middle East–and with U.S. weapons, no less–it won’t be our problem?

    Objective reality reveals Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the guts to further destabilize the Middle East. That’s why they’re asking us to do it.

    Meanwhile, the Saudi-funded madrasas foment on . . .

    (Off-topic, Dan. Sorry.)

  11. Matt Kelly

    Just so I’m clear on the important news WikiLeaks actually revealed…

    (1) Saudis finance Al Qaeda;
    (2) Nobody likes Iran;
    (3) The Chinese government probably masterminded the hacks into Google last summer;
    (4) We essentially had to bribe small countries to accept Gitmo prisoners nobody wanted;
    (5) China is planning for the day North Korea might collapse;
    (6) Arabs and Israelis don’t like each other.

    Can someone tell me exactly which one of these profoundly sensitive secrets is, you know, news?

    I’m trying and trying to get worked up about the WikiLeaks documents, but really– it’s all just common sense, more amusing for defrocking the high priests of diplomacy than anything else.

  12. Rob Bertsche

    This is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. But I wonder whether “keeping the hypotheticals uppermost” is indeed the soundest way of analyzing the issue. Hypotheticals can always be found that take a general principle to what seems, on the extreme facts hypothesized, to be its breaking point.

    I, too, appreciate the prudence displayed by the Times in giving the government “an opportunity to make a case as to why such documents shouldn’t be released.” But our system is founded on the insistence that the final decision should (in this case) be the Times, not the government — and that’s true whether or not the Times makes what history may deem to have been the “right” decision. If Wikileaks simply dumps the documents wholesale into the public sphere, that’s simply a harder application of the same principle.

    Governments will always want to keep secrets, and will always overclassify. The press (a group whose constituency expands by the minute) will always seek to lay those secrets bare — or, at the very least, must always have the right to do so. Sure, it can become a cat and mouse game, but it is the system we erected because we made a decision, as a nation, that government, inherently, cannot and should not be trusted.

    Dan’s final observation is the bottom line and, I think, the only comfort our system affords those who believe Wikileaks will systematically overstep the bounds of prudence: “One thing’s for sure: if the government is serious about keeping its secrets, it needs to do a much better job of protecting them.”

  13. Heather Greene

    Considering we have a President who says stuff like iPod is a distraction and rarely if ever mentions modern technology beyond getting a random biblical verse emailed to his BlackBerry daily, I worry that we are going to realize that the way we communicate is very different. There needs to more modernizing in foreign diplomats as well as domestically. Of course we pay-freeze POTUS around, that won’t happen. I’m sorry, I like the POTUS but his team really seems have a silly way of doing these negotiations with major press conference annoucing comprimises on their part without anything from the other side. Then you ask them about it and they mention the Somali prirates which nobody cares about yet will probably fill out a chapter or two of the memoirs of White House staffers. Okay, I’ll say it, the U.S. government shot and killed 3 poor and desperate men to save one man. A super nice man with a family which I happy as punch is back home, but just one man. Considering Somalia makes Afghanistan look like Sweden in term of good governance, the pirates problem is by-product of that rather just some super evil guys.

    Sorry for rant.

  14. Dan Storms

    I haven’t trusted my own government since around 1965, when I found that Vietnam was a huge lie as well as a blunder. I don’t trust them to have my best interests in mind, unless those interests happen to coincide with the military-industrial oligarchy. If they had our best interests in mind, why have we been mired in useless and expensive military actions/occupations since at least the ’60s? Why are unemployment benefits going to be cut for those who can least afford them while CEOs and bankers enjoy record earnings and bonuses, thanks in no small part to government aid and policies? Why am I and my grandchildren probably doomed to live in a hotter, less fruitful, more flooded world while coal companies blow the tops off mountains and oil drillers release poison into the land and sea with little consequence? Why does my government claim to be champions of transparency and freedom whil spying on us all, detaining people indefinitely on a whim, condoning torture, and conspiring with other nations’ oligarchs to hide the evidence? I should look to the hypothetical damage of Wikileaks first and believe the dire predictions of the ruling/chattering classes? I think not.

  15. Heather Greene

    Starting to feel that only difference between Wikileaks and a gossipy Politico article or a “behind the scene” book like “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is that at least with Wikileaks, the quotes are given in full and the source of the quote is named.

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