Take it from a Pentagon papers hawk: it’s OK to regret the WikiLeaks dump, and to deplore the dumpsters even as you defend, indeed admire, our democratic press and its freedom. It’s been 40 years since the New York Times had to defend itself against government censors and threats of prosecution under the espionage acts for publishing a top-secret cache of Pentagon documents tracking the duplicitous path to an unwinnable war in Vietnam.
But that was another century. The leaker then, Daniel Ellsberg, was not breaching secrecy for its own sake, unlike the WikiLeakers of today; he was looking to defeat a specific government policy. Moreover, he was acutely conscious of the risks of disclosure and did not distribute documents betraying live diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. And it took him years to find a credible medium of distribution, which is now available at the push of a button. The government cried damage and suffered almost none; Ellsberg wanted to hasten peace and failed.
This week’s dump of documents seems more likely to complicate America’s diplomacy and may more surely damage some national interests. But damage is a two-sided coin. Secrecy can also hurt mightily and information is a volatile commodity: its effects are simply unpredictable. Disclosure may defeat a worthy policy but a secret may protect unworthy ends. Government should not be gratuitously hampered but its discomfort should never shield it from accountability.
The right standard for managing this uneasy balance was asserted in the Pentagon papers case by the late Justice Potter Stewart, when he wrote for the decisive centre of the US supreme court. He was sure the Pentagon papers’ publication was not in the national interest, he said, but he could not find that it would “surely result in direct, immediate and irreparable harm to our Nation or its people”. So despite repeated demands that we emulate Britain and criminalise the publication of official secrets, Stewart’s tough test still governs the tense collaboration and competition between the American government and press.
Whatever any leaker’s official culpability, the New York Times has prevailed in America’s courts by proving that sophisticated reportage of foreign affairs routinely requires officials and reporters to traffic in classified secrets. The sad fact is that these technical breaches of security are essential to public understanding of current events and also to government’s achievement of public support. So government has acquired the habit of classifying everything it does, thinks, plans or contemplates in the realm of foreign policy and must then break its vows and help to unravel those secrets to advance its purposes.
As Justice Stewart shrewdly observed, the checks and balances governing domestic politics are sadly absent in the realm of foreign affairs. Congress is easily browbeaten into patriotic silence when the war drums roll. Even our courts are thoughtlessly deferential to presidential prerogative when the national interest is invoked. That is why Stewart held that “the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government”.
A wise government would therefore decide – for moral, political and practical reasons – to insist on avoiding secrecy for its own sake. “For when everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion … Secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.”
And here we are at his predicted destination. Lead us secretly into one war too many, and see how we wallow in one or another disclosure too many.
Of course it will sting if some foreign leaders hesitate for a time before exchanging confidences with US officials. Diplomats may lose face, or even careers, for having written indiscreetly about their hosts. But there are few facts or observations in these leaks that a US official would not confide, without attribution, to a respected journalist.
As Dean Rusk, a former secretary of state, once told me, there was really little in his cables that he had not already read in the Times. It is hardly news that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not securely held; or that Sunni Arabs dread a nuclear-armed Shiite regime and would gladly hold our coats while we fight Iran; or that China covets Iran’s oil more than it fears North Korea’s military sales. It is mainly the direct quotation or loose formulation of those confidential messages that risks some damage.
Mindful of such possible damage to foreign informants or intelligence methods, the papers given the WikiLeaks files censored certain passages and heeded some concerns of the US government. But facing a flood of documents on the internet, the papers had an obligation to publish well-digested accounts of the material. Information once lost to a government cannot be returned like stolen goods; by definition it informs those who receive it.
So the theft of secrets may be deplorable, and their massive concerted distribution may appear irresponsible. While the journalist in me recognises a clear duty to publish and be damned, the citizen in me also recognises a mess too far. I well know that no family, business or government can function without some genuine secrets. The trick is to focus on the genuine and to treat truly essential secrets accordingly.
Governments must finally acknowledge that secrets shared with millions of “cleared” officials, including lowly army clerks, are not secret. They must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make. What common sense has so far failed to teach, technology will surely now command. Chase away the WikiLeaks enterprise and another web-savvy crowd will reopen for business within hours. The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets. An ambassador needing to protect a confidence needs to limit his audience to a few superiors. A diplomat looking to educate the government at large needs to hide his authorship of widely circulated reportage.
It is up to government, not the press, to guard its secrets as long as it can, and to adjust to a new reality when it fails. It is the duty of the press to publish what it learns, and to find news where it can when it is denied.
Max Frankel, a former executive editor of the New York Times. He was Washington bureau chief 1968-72 and pivotal in the publication of the Pentagon papers, a record of the US’s role in Vietnam, 1945-67.