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WikiLeaks, the MSM and national security

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.

A NYT editor's note says that "the Times and the other news organizations agreed at the outset that we would not disclose -- either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material -- anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations. We have, for example, withheld any names of operatives in the field and informants cited in the reports. We have avoided anything that might compromise American or allied intelligence-gathering methods such as communications intercepts. We have not linked to the archives of raw material. At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site."

Talk about international diplomacy:

In an online chat, Executive Editor Bill Keller says: "We did not disclose anything that would compromise intelligence-gathering methods. We erred, if at all, on the side of prudence. For example, when a document reported that a certain aircraft left a certain place at a certain time and arrived at another place at a certain time, we omitted those details on the off chance that an enemy could gain some small tactical advantage by knowing the response time of military aircraft.

"The administration, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making these documents public, did not suggest that The Times should not write about them. On the contrary, in our discussions prior to the publication of our articles, White House officials, while challenging some of the conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the documents with care, and asked us to urge WikiLeaks to withhold information that could cost lives. We did pass along that message."

One prediction seems safe: People opposed to the Afghan war (which already has only shaky support in the Democratic Party) will use the mega-leak to try to discredit the U.S. effort. But I wonder if conservatives who howled about national security leaks during the Bush administration will be as exercised about this during the Obama era -- and whether liberals who cheered such leaks in the W. era will be more protective of Obama's position. (Too bad we can't go on Journolist to find out.)

At the Weekly Standard, Gabriel Schoenfeld is perturbed:

"Is the leak of 92,000 classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan now published by WikiLeaks and reprinted by the New York Times and some European publications a catastrophe? An affirmative answer is certainly suggested by a White House statement that says the document dump "could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."

"But previous administrations have issued similarly dire warnings about the consequences of publishing classified information. And they often turned out to be empty. Most famously, when the Pentagon Papers case came before the Supreme Court the Nixon administration persuaded seven justices that their dissemination by the New York Times caused serious damage. . . .

"Whatever care the Times took to redact information more sensitive than 'secret,' is wholly irrelevant. The real decision-making in this instance is the hands of WikiLeaks, and foreign publications like the Guardian and Der Spiegel, which also have access to the entire electronic trove. They are not likely to have the same scruples, such as they are, as the editors of our paper of record."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald fears the impact of the expose may be blunted:

"The White House has swiftly vowed to continue the war and predictably condemned WikiLeaks rather harshly. It will be most interesting to see how many Democrats -- who claim to find Daniel Ellsberg heroic and the Pentagon Papers leak to be unambiguously justified -- follow the White House's lead in that regard. Ellsberg's leak -- though primarily exposing the amoral duplicity of a Democratic administration -- occurred when there was a Republican in the White House. This latest leak, by contrast, indicts a war which a Democratic president has embraced as his own, and documents similar manipulation of public opinion and suppression of the truth well into 2009.

"It's not difficult to foresee, as Atrios predicted, that media 'coverage of [the] latest [leak] will be about whether or not it should have been published,' rather than about what these documents reveal about the war effort and the government and military leaders prosecuting it. What position Democratic officials and administration supporters take in the inevitable debate over WikiLeaks remains to be seen (by shrewdly leaking these materials to 3 major newspapers, which themselves then published many of the most incriminating documents, WikiLeaks provided itself with some cover).

"Note how obviously lame is the White House's prime tactic thus far for dismissing the importance of the leak: that the documents only go through December, 2009, the month when Obama ordered his 'surge,' as though that timeline leaves these documents without any current relevance."

PressThink blogger and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen makes some thoughtful observations about the New Media Order:

"If you go to the WikiLeaks Twitter profile, next to "location" it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world's first stateless news organization. I can't think of any prior examples of that. . . . WikiLeaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That's what so odd about the White House crying, 'They didn't even contact us!'

"Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what WikiLeaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does WikiLeaks."

It's kinda like asymmetrical warfare: no government to negotiate with.

In the New Republic, Andrew Bacevich looks at that question from the vantage point of those funneling the secret documents:

"Information warfare now includes actions taken by disaffected functionaries within government to discredit the officially approved view of reality. This action is the handiwork of subversives, perhaps soldiers, perhaps civilians. Within our own national security apparatus, a second insurgent campaign may well have begun. Its purpose: bring America's longest war to an end. Given the realities of the digital age, this second insurgency may well prove at least as difficult to suppress as the one that preoccupies General Petraeus in Kabul."

Slate's Fred Kaplan is in the old-news camp:

"Just because some documents are classified doesn't mean that they're news or even necessarily interesting. A case in point is the cache of 92,000 secret documents about the Afghanistan war that someone leaked to WikiLeaks. . . .

"Afghan civilians are sometimes killed. Many Afghan officials and police chiefs are corrupt and incompetent. Certain portions of Pakistan's military and intelligence service have nefarious ties to the Taliban. . . .

"If any of this startles you, then welcome to the world of reading newspapers. Today's must be the first one you've read."

Atlantic's James Fallows makes the comparison to Vietnam:

"Back then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, WikiLeaks worked with the Times -- and the Guardian and Der Spiegel -- to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data. WikiLeaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations' help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don't totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world's leading 'traditional' news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received."

At the Daily Beast, Philip Shenon tackles the question of whodunit:

"A 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst from Potomac, Maryland, is almost certainly the source of what could well be one of the most damaging leaks of classified military information in the nation's history, according to the former computer hacker in California who turned in the analyst.

"The former hacker, Adrian Lamo, told The Daily Beast he had no doubt that the young Army analyst, Bradley Manning, who had been posted in Iraq until this spring, was responsible for the massive leak of American military reports from Afghanistan that were posted online Sunday by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. . . .

"Lamo, who has been interviewed by the FBI and criminal investigators from the Defense Department, said he was also convinced that other people helped Manning in gathering and leaking the documents.

" 'It was not my impression that he had the technological expertise to carry out some of these actions,' Lamo said of Manning's efforts to gather classified information from military computer networks. 'I believe that somebody would have had to have been of assistance to him.' Asked who specifically might have helped Manning, Lamo declined to elaborate."

Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks, described the document dump in an interview with Britain's Channel 4 as providing "the whole map, if you like, through time, of what has happened during this war."

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists took on WikiLeaks last month:

"WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.

"Last year, for example, WikiLeaks published the 'secret ritual' of a college women's sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau. Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities 'exposed' by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has. Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group's confidential ritual just because it could. This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism. It is a kind of information vandalism."

False advertising

Speaking of leaked documents, here's the Daily Caller headline on the latest dump of off-the-record liberal e-mails: "Journolist debates making its coordination with Obama explicit."

Uh, not exactly. Here's how the piece ends, during a debate over whether Sarah Palin should be criticized for knowing little about housing policy:

"Luke Mitchell, then a senior editor at Harper's magazine, asked [Michael[ Tomasky if his paper would be able to help: 'Michael -- Isn't this something that can be fanned a bit by, say, the Guardian?'

"Tomasky didn't think it would work. 'The Guardian? You're kidding right?'. . . .

"Mitchell replied: 'Fair enough! But it seems to me that a concerted effort on the part of the left partisan press could be useful. Why geld ourselves? A lot of the people on this list work for organizations that are far more influential than, say, the Washington Times. Open question: Would it be a good use of this list to co-ordinate a message of the week along the lines of the GOP? Or is that too loathsome? It certainly sounds loathsome. But so does losing!'

"Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, the founder of Journolist, quickly jumped in: 'Nope, no message coordination. I'm not even sure that would be legal. This is a discussion list, though, and I want it to retain that character,' he wrote."

Conspiracy? What conspiracy?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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