Published December 17, 2010
The fallout from the WikiLeaks disclosures of classified American diplomatic cables contines. As does the news related to to the prosecution of Julian Assange. And as the public discussion continues, it's time to take stock: What exactly is the takeaway from “Cablegate?” Has WikiLeaks been good for the country, or for The New York Times?
David E. Sanger, one of the Times reporters who sifted through the latest WikiLeaks dump and wrote stories based on the leaked material, said in an interview on NPR that it “was never an easy decision to publish national security information,” but claimed that “at the end of this process, what we did was responsible, it was legal and it was important for a democratic society.” He likened the WikiLeaked cables to the Pentagon Papers, which “enabled us to understand very differently a war that America was in very deeply.”
Yes, to Sanger's first point: The Times' decision to publish WikiLeaked material was certainly legal. Although the 1917 Espionage Act makes it illegal for an organization to publish classified material, the government has to show an “intent to harm the U.S.," which sets a high bar.
Regarding the WikiLeaker himself, the mysterious mad genius Julian Assange, the law is tricky. The government may find a way to prosecute him, as a foreign citizen operating on foreign soil, but it will be difficult to do so, despite the intense political pressure among U.S. officials and politicians.
As for Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the dual-citizen intelligence analyst who allegedly leaked the cables to Assange, there is little doubt he will be tried for either espionage or treason, or both.
On Sanger's other two points, that The Times acted responsibly in publishing some of the leaked cables' contents and that doing so was good for democracy, the picture is much more ambiguous.
It's probably good to know that North Korea has provided Iran with missile technology that might make it possible for Tehran to threaten Russia and Western Europe; that China doesn't have very much knowledge about or influence over the “Hermit Kingdom,” but is skillful (and insecure enough) to hack into Google China; that Pakistan possesses enough highly enriched nuclear fuel to build several dirty bombs and that the United States has been frustrated in its attempts at securing this cache; and that access to classified information needs to be more tightly restricted.
But for all the good these revelations about our allies and adversaries do, they come at high cost, largely by stripping away the veils that American diplomats need to conduct their business around the world, particularly against Islamic terrorism.
Causing a diplomatic controversy or embarrassment to diplomatic officials, which editor Keller made light of in a “Note To Readers,” is not just a matter of “gotcha.” Rather, it strikes at the ability of our envoys to deal with their foreign counterparts in a confidential and effective manner.
As Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote in National Review Online, “democracies like ours have a vital need for secrecy in the conduct of foreign affairs and war. And Wikileaks, which appears to be beyond the reach of our laws, is engaging in an assault on democratic governance.”
Diplomacy is vital to our democracy, but it's not necessarily a democratic process.
Naming names of diplomats who have issued candid assessments of sensitive foreign affairs and foreign leaders, under the expectation of confidentiality, will destroy or diminish the trust and credibility of our envoys, and work against candid communication and sound policymaking.
Disclosing information about the endeavors of human rights activists and political dissidents in authoritarian regimes -- not the United States of Julian Assange's fantasy, but real jackboot places like China and Burma -- will put them and their work at risk. In the end, there is likely to be less transparency, not more.
Has WikiLeaks nonetheless been good for the New York Times? If precedent holds, it may win a Pulitzer Prize for this effort, as it did in 2006 for its story about NSA electronic surveillance.
But some polls indicate that 70 percent of the public view what WikiLeaks did as wrong. Indeed, a Fox News poll on Friday finds that when voters were asked whether “the owner of the website” who received and leaked the classified government information should be arrested and put on trial, two-thirds (66 percent) think he should. While the public, according to the same poll is "far less harsh in their judgment of news organizations -- like the New York Times -- that published the leaked information, as only 38 percent would push for punishment of those media outlets." Still it's hard to imagine that this disapproval of WikiLeaks
can't help but rub off on The Times.
The decision to go with the leaked material has exposed a double standard regarding leaks: the paper would not publish the 2009 “Climategate” e-mails because they were private and stolen, but the Wiki cables were fair game, even though they were classified and stolen.
The Times will lay bare the secrets of our diplomats but guards its own secrets carefully, and refuses to acknowledge books that spotlight its own institutional flubs.
And there's the self-stroking parallel between the WikiLeaked cables and the 1971 Pentagon Papers, which The Times published only after establishing that no live military secrets would be exposed.
Doesn't anyone in that shiny new Times building have a sense of history that transcends journalistic mythology?
The real damage to The New York Times, however, lies in its relationship with the despicable Julian Assange. Referred to in the past by the paper as a “whistleblower” and now as “anti-secrecy activist,” he is in reality an anti-American cyber-guerrilla whose aim is nothing less than to take down the United States government -- which he places among various “authoritarian conspiracies” in his Unabomber-like manifestos-by throwing sand in the gears of state communication.
A vengeful megalomaniac with a messiah complex, Assange has alienated almost all of his original close colleagues. He has been condemned by Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, hardly reactionary entities, for ignoring their warnings to redact names in past WikiLeaks and thus exposing pro-American civilians and human rights activists in Afghanistan to reprisals. He is also facing criminal charges of sexual misconduct.
There was a day when The New York Times put an emphasis on the moral character of the people working for it, even as “stringers.” But in the case of Julian Assange, stringer extraordinaire, character doesn't seem to matter. As the Daily Beast put it, the Times has resorted to “colluding with nihilists who traffic in stolen information.”
In effect, The Times has outsourced its journalistic responsibility to WikiLeaks, which can only further tarnish its integrity.
"" adds another entry to a lengthening list of questionable decisions on stories related to national security, such as the NSA wiretapping story and the SWIFT terror-finance story, which have left the impression of either willful naïveté, dubious news judgment or deficient patriotism.
It's one thing for journalists to challenge the government, to serve as a check on its power. It's another to assume a knee-jerk oppositionalism that's out of touch with the middle register of the country and with wartime exigencies. Far from being rooted in responsibility and idealism about how our democracy functions, the stories are the rotten fruit of a punitive liberalism that takes the U.S. government to be so inherently evil that only the Fourth Estate, led by The Times and the odious Assange, can rectify the nation's sins.
Yesterday, Bill Keller distanced himself from Assange, declaring at a Harvard forum that he didn't see Assange as a“kindred spirit.”
Yet as the old saw goes, sleep with dogs and you wake up with fleas. Unlike Manning and Assange, it's unlikely that The Times will stand in any court docket over this episode, but when one or both do, The Times will be standing next to them, morally at least.
William McGowan is a journalist and author of "Gray Lady Down: What The Decline And Fall Of The New York Times Means For America." (Encounter Books.)