The Problem With the Times' Decision to Publish the Latest WikiLeaks Report

By David Shenk
As with many others, I'm still trying to figure out what I think about the New York Times' very difficult decision to publish excerpts from the latest WikiLeaks trove. The editors there have clearly behaved so responsibly in so many ways that it, firstly, serves as a great reminder about the Times' vital importance in this chaotic information world.

I do, though, think there is some sloppy thinking in their published justification. At its core: 

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.

It sounds measured and thoughtful, but let's dig a little deeper. 

First, what is the public interest here? The editors seem to indicate that it is synonymous with the public's right-to-know—which, of course, is crucial to ultimate democratic accountability. But is accountability the most immediate concern? Chronologically, accountability must take a back seat to function. The public first needs a government that works. And a functioning government, like any functioning system, requires discretion. Diplomats simply cannot be diplomats without the ability to choose their words carefully. What the Times shrugs off as "diplomatic controversy" and "embarrass[ed] officials"  is actually central to what diplomats do. Private communication is the lifeblood of diplomacy. It shouldn't stay private forever, but in real time, diplomats have to be able to do their jobs—for the sake of the people.

The second mistake, I think, comes in how the Times very narrowly defines "dangers to the national interest." They seem mostly concerned with short-term physical dangers—the lives of individual sources, loose nukes, ongoing military operations, etc. These are very worthy concerns, but what about other gigantic dangers around the corner: 

  • Of Pakistan becoming a rogue state.
  • Of Iran obtaining nukes.
  • Of renewed chaos in Baghdad.
  • Of full-scale war in and around Israel. 

Preventing these events all requires cohesive diplomacy, which is clearly compromised by some of these disclosures. 

I respectfully suggest that, next time, they consider a slightly wider definition: not "danger" but "harm to the national interest." Does it harm our vital interests by compromising ongoing discussions with key leaders? If so, what is the specific value of immediate public knowledge that may override that recognized harm? 

Of course, all of this must also be considered in the context of WikiLeaks publishing anyway. As the Times says:

Of course, most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides....For The Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public.

Does WikiLeaks actions render these publication considerations moot? I don't think so. I admire the Times' efforts to redact certain explosive elements, and their urging others to do the same. But beyond that, the main question facing the Times is whether to give certain revelations particular prominence. Without defending WikiLeaks in any way (I think they are highly irresponsible), it is important to recognize that there is an enormous difference between dumping tens of thousands of pages of material on the Internet and shining a bright light on specific revelations. 

Very difficult considerations in uncharted information waters. I commend the Times for acting so thoughtfully, and urge it to clarify some of the basic public interest issues for the inevitable next episode.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/the-problem-with-the-times-decision-to-publish-the-latest-wikileaks-report/67110/