Notes & Comments January 2011
The Wikileaks puddle
On the media’s irresponsible dissemination of the leaked cables.
We probably cannot add anything new to the discussion of Wikileaks—the wholesale publication of classified documents on the internet by self-proclaimed “internet activists.” The organization responsible was founded in 2006 and has won several awards, including the Economist’s 2008 New Media Award. That seems a long time ago. The only awards the organization is likely to pick up now are prison terms for its enablers, especially for its director, the ineffably creepy Julian Assange. As we write, Mr. Assange, an Australian journalist and political activist, is in British custody for possible offenses unrelated to his campaign against “government secrecy.” We propose to leave the case of Mr. Assange to one side. The fact that he has become a rallying cry for what the historian Ronald Radosh calls the “left-over Left”—the filmmaker Michael Moore, for example, publicly pledged $20,000 towards Mr. Assange’s bail—tells us a good deal about the political complexion of the controversy.
Two other issues seem worthy of underscoring. One concerns national security. The latest cache of diplomatic documents Wikileaks published were stolen by the army private Bradley Manning, who simply downloaded the material from his workstation in Baghdad and copied them onto CDs. Manning was, according to one report, “disillusioned with American foreign policy,” you see, so he downloaded a quarter-million classified documents and gave them to Wikileaks. By all accounts, Manning is a pathetic specimen, but here’s the question: doesn’t the United States maintain any security over material it considers classified? It is unclear how sensitive most of the leaked material actually is—some tidbits, like the fact that Canada is a close ally of the United States—do not seem to merit eyes-only treatment. But what if he had got access, say, to plans for the F-22? We understand that America isn’t interested in the world’s most advanced fighter anymore, but plenty of other countries would be. The lack of security seems mind-boggling.
And then there is the press coverage of the controversy. In disseminating the classified material Private Manning pilfered, Wikileaks aimed not only to embarrass the U.S. Government but also to compromise our national security. How did mainstream media outlets respond? Many cheerfully published as much of the stuff as they could get their hands on. And when asked why, being American companies, they would publish material detrimental to the interests of the United States, they climbed up on the high horse of “the public’s right to know.” It is hardly surprising that The New York Times figured prominently in this rogue’s gallery. Bill Keller, Executive Editor at the Times, puffed that “it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.” Hypocrisy, thy name is Keller. As an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily pointed out,
That rationale was nowhere in sight when the administration pushed for cap-and-trade legislation, and a climate change treaty at Copenhagen was derailed by the unearthing of e-mails from Britain’s Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.
When Climategate broke, and emails revealed that scientists worldwide were deleting and doctoring data to “hide the decline” in global temperatures and engaging in an organized campaign to discredit climate-change skeptics and deny them publication in scientific journals, the Times pompously declined to print any of them or even give them credence.
As the Times Environment Editor Andrew Revkin explained in November 2009: “The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.” Oh. The fact that they shredded the Times’s editorial position in support of fighting global warming had nothing to do with it.
We don’t want to be too hard on the Times. Probably the fact that the Wikileaks documents were obtained illegally did give its editors pause. After all, Bill Keller felt constrained to offer a rationale for publishing them: how unusual is that? What tipped the balance, we feel sure, is that in this case the Times brass felt, rightly, that they could do material harm to our national interest. And at least since their shameful publication of the Pentagon Papers, that has proved to be an irresistible lure for our former paper of record.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 5, on page 1
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