WikiLeaks, the MSM and national security

The White House says the release of 91,000 secret military documents is a breach of federal law and a potential threat to U.S. military personnel.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 10:03 AM

Question of the day: Should the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel have done it?

Should they have collaborated with the organization known as WikiLeaks in publicizing 92,000 pages of secret documents about the war in Afghanistan?

The White House wasted no time in denouncing the leaks as "irresponsible."

The news organizations can argue, above all, that these documents provide vital information about a struggling war effort. Aren't Americans entitled to know that the Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against U.S. aircraft, or that our alleged ally Pakistan has allowed some of its spies to secretly organize anti-American militants in meetings with the Taliban?

The three newspapers can also make the obvious point that WikiLeaks, which answers to no one, was going to post this material on Sunday with or without them. In that case, why not make an effort to assess the raw material and put it in context?

Having watched media outlets struggle with such questions since the Times, followed by The Washington Post and Boston Globe, published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, I've concluded that administrations are awfully quick to proclaim that national security has been breached. Much of the time, that is a weapon they use to bludgeon critics and deflect political embarrassment.

Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney denounced such leaks, sometimes threatening to prosecute the news outlets involved. But it was hard for me to believe, for instance, that the Times shouldn't have exposed the Bush administration's secret domestic surveillance program -- even if Cheney said it "always aggravated me" that the paper won a Pulitzer for its efforts. Should The Post have not disclosed that the CIA was maintaining secret prisons abroad? That struck me as a public service.

None of this means that the Obama administration (which has also been prosecuting leakers) doesn't have a legitimate complaint. But let's take a look at its public stance, as reported by Politico:

"White House National Security Adviser James Jones issued a statement that begins: 'The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.' . . .

"An administration official went further in an e-mail to reporters: "I don't think anyone who follows this issue will find it surprising that there are concerns about ISI [Pakistani intelligence] and safe havens in Pakistan. In fact, we've said as much repeatedly and on the record."

That seems to me to be inherently contradictory. It's hard to simultaneously argue that national security has been jeopardized and that some of this is old news.

What's clear is that WikiLeaks -- "an amorphous, international organization, based in Sweden," according to Wikipedia, itself an innovative force -- has utterly changed the landscape. It is not a news organization, not subject to the usual checks and balances, but in some ways has more power than any news organization. It is a global power unto itself.

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