I expect there will be a media shitstorm today about the secret government information obtained by WikiLeaks and made public Sunday on its website and via various newspapers and other venues, including The New York Times.
Do the thousands of confidential diplomatic cables and other documents reveal anything beyond an inside glimpse involving policy and relations — and concerns — about Pakistan, North and South Korea, Iran, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and so on?
Does the disclosure of the information compromise our nation’s national security and put the lives of Americans and others at risk?
I’ll let others opine on those questions. Clearly, most people, including me, don’t have the background or perspective on the issues to make an informed decision. That’s why we rely on a vigorous, aggressive and independent news media. Rarely will government officials collectively stand up and reveal anything by dropping their pants in public. Ah, gee. Just like the Founding Fathers planned it with the First Amendment.
But the disclosure of the information focuses again on the continuing tension between our government’s need for confidentiality in matters of national security — and the role of the news media — once called the press — in a free society.
And every time a situation like this emerges, it calls into question issues such as trust, transparency and journalism ethics and responsibility.
Here’s from an article in the NYT explaining the decision to print the information:
The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly. Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest. As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy.
On the other hand, we are less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.
In this digital age, it is going to be more and more difficult for government officials — and private citizens — to keep information secret and confidential, whether it involves national security or personal privacy.
My personal views on these issues were shaped 40 years ago when the New York Times and Washington Post printed stories described as the Pentagon Papers. From Wikipedia:
The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, was a top-secret United States Department of Defense history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The papers were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of the New York Times in 1971. A 1996 article in the New York Times said that the Pentagon Papers “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance”.
As someone who kinda came of age in a journalism school in the 60s during the Vietnam fiasco, I believe in a free press. And I’m not always very trusting of our government’s ability — regardless of which political party happens to be in charge at any given time — to share information and be candid with the American public.
And I remember very well the words of Hugo Black when he basically stood up for the press and press freedoms in his Supreme Court decision on the Pentagon Papers case. Again, from Wikipedia:
Justice Black is often regarded as a leading defender of First Amendment rights such as the freedom of speech and of the press. He refused to accept the doctrine that the freedom of speech could be curtailed on national security grounds. Thus, in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), he voted to allow newspapers to publish the Pentagon Papers despite the Nixon Administration’s contention that publication would have security implications. In his concurring opinion, Black stated,In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. […] The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.—New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 714 (1971).
As the TV Talking Heads and other pundits begin to slice and dice the disclosure of the information provided to WikiLeaks and subsequently to news organizations, let’s remember the words of Justice Black.
They are every bit as important now as they were 40 years ago.