In one corner are governments asking editors not to publish highly sensitive information. In the other corner is a person who never served in the armed forces, has no training in assessing intelligence material, and has strong motives to publish the information for glory or gain. Are these the kind of people to be entrusted with making the final decision about what will or will not cause “unnecessary harm”? Even assuming that the editors of major publications act responsibly, what about all the other media?
Rusbridger explicitly addresses the question of who this group of trusted editors is to include: not just the stodgy, old-fashioned members of the club, but in effect all self-proclaimed editors who hang out the shingle, including activist advocates. Rusbridger admits that Snowden leaked to the journalist Glenn Greenwald because he comes “from a completely different kind of journalistic tradition,” generally understood as being a form of “advocacy journalism” that combines opinion with reporting. Such journalists are by definition more interested in advancing their agenda than in balanced reporting, vetting sources, and, above all, balancing the advancement of their cause with concerns for with American and British national security.
In closing, Rusbridger suggests that the problem with modern surveillance is not necessarily evil government officials but young hotshot technical types who invent new forms of surveillance that old folks—those who run the agencies or oversee them—don’t understand. Rusbridger points out that he himself had to ask for help from those more technically savvy to understand the issues. “I may be doing [Senator Dianne] Feinstein and [former U.K. Defense Secretary Malcolm] Rifkind a disservice,” Rusbridger writes, “but I suspect they would have struggled to understand the documents” leaked to the press regarding the details of what the various surveillance agencies were doing. To protect the government from the underhanded techno-subversive types, an unfettered press is needed to unmask them. In making this claim, Rusbridger seems to have in mind British MPs, who indeed have very few staffers to back them up. But the situation is different stateside, where the 24,000 staffers for members of Congress include an army of technically savvy young people within their ranks. The threat of the young techies is a novel argument that I doubt we shall hear much more about.
We do need to further debate some basic questions: Are there materials that should not be published? Who decides what these are? And what is to be done with those whose agendas lead them to publish material that is harmful to the safety of the people? And what is to be done about those who stamp classified on material they find damaging to their reputation or political fortunes—but are otherwise harmless?
Unfortunately, Alan Rusbridger has not moved us an inch closer to answer these questions. But he has helped to undermine our security and that of many others, and he is not done.