Yesterday, WikiLeaks began unleashing a document dump of over 250,000 diplomatic cables, a leak even larger than the Iraq and Afghan war logs it revealed this July. This summer, the Taliban used names and locations in WikiLeaks documents to hunt down local Afghan informants. Yesterday’s revelations will have just as troubling consequences.
WikiLeaks’ higher goal is noble. But it is not a news outlet. It provides document dumps, furnished by anonymous sources. It regurgitates sensitive, life-threatening information with no analysis and context. Even as we embrace increasing openness, we cannot abandon responsibility.
This newspaper praises the discretion of other news outlets covering the cables. They have protected the names of confidential informants, as well as revelations that could compromise national security — treating sensitive information responsibly while serving the public interest.
But by naming and shaming individual diplomats, WikiLeaks has thrown a wrench in the operation of diplomacy. The leak does not serve a greater good that justifies endangering an intelligence operative. From a policy standpoint, Cablegate changes little. The off-the-cuff remarks provide insight into foreign policy, but they are not official statements of that policy.
The privacy of unfiltered and unmonitored dicussion allows sound public decisions to coalesce. Consider the academic freedom we enjoy at Yale; what we say while safe from public remonstrance allows us to form opinions over time.Snapshots taken during the process of diplomatic decision-making do not predict or presuppose policy outcomes. Cablegate gives us snippets, not a scandal. These internal debates and decision-making processes need to retain some privacy — otherwise, frank discussions will be reduced to packaging and sound-bites. Indeed, the leak, which WikiLeaks hopes will promote free speech, may have the opposite effect. The shell-shocked diplomatic community will respond to the embarrassment by increasing classification levels and stonewalling the press.
As student journalists and citizens, we regard transparency and freedom of the press highly. But WikiLeaks’ behavior is nothing like the probing reporting that cut through the sinister secrecy of Watergate or responsibly handled the Pentagon Papers leaks. Julian Assange, the organization’s head, takes a cavalier attitude to collateral damage. He claims to understand what is appropriate secrecy better than the diplomats and agents whose careers and lives depend on that secrecy.
As our generation reaches political maturity, governments will find it much harder to keep secrets. Private Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of stealing the classified files, allegedly copied them onto a fake Lady Gaga CD. The largest government leak in history was handed to The Guardian on a two-inch flash drive. There is much about this new world worth embracing. But as long as the Assanges of the world play fast and loose with the privacy and security of others, it will be the responsibility of careful and courageous news outlets to unveil without endangering, and for whistle-blowers to turn to journalists before provocateurs.
The government and military have compelling reasons to keep certain secrets out of the prying public eye. When our leaders employ cynical scare-tactics to mask injustice, malice or incompetence, good journalism should not be afraid to pry or expose. But the recent leaks represent a reckless kind of public action, one that focuses on its narrow benefits and ignores its terrible costs.