WikiLeaks and the dangers of zealotry

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The Internet Age has given us much to celebrate: finding old friends and making new ones; communicating in seconds what previously might have taken hours or even days, and having breaking news at our fingertips, to name only a few .

As to the latter, the sensational publication of leaked Iraq and Afghanistan wartime documents by WikiLeaks’ spokesman and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, has several potentially chilling consequences for the U.S. and its allies: two critical ones being the health and well-being of both U.S. intelligence agents and their informants, as well as the willingness of high-level diplomats — American and otherwise — to engage in candid discussions because of fear that their private discussions may be compromised. In this sense, the Internet has presented us with serious ethical and legal challenges.

As to the first such consequence, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in his 2010 book Necessary Secrets, presented his own challenge to newspapers and other media who choose to “publish and let others perish,” as he phrases it, or, as he quotes a newspaper editor, to publish “no matter the cost.” He discusses the case of the late Philip Agee, who as a former CIA officer published Inside the Company — CIA Diary (1975), which disclosed the names of numerous American and British intelligence officers — resulting in the deaths of several of them. Agee, consequently, spent the remainder of his days looking over his shoulders in Havana, where he arranged tourism packages for Americans seeking loopholes around American laws prohibiting Cuban travel. He was excoriated as a “traitor” by then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush.

In the case of the July 2010 WikiLeaks archive publication, MSNBC quoted the Times of London stating that “the leak of 90,000 U.S. intelligence documents has put hundreds of Afghan lives at risk because the files identify informants working with NATO forces,” and that in just two hours of searching the archive, reporters found the names, villages, and fathers’ names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing intelligence to U.S. forces. Assange originally denied that a release of informants’ names had occurred, but was contradicted repeatedly by the London Times findings. Military officials, including the highest ranking U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, have also stated this would cause potential informants to be reluctant to volunteer intelligence because of a lack of trust.

The other, and, at first glance, more innocuous aspect of the WikiLeaks controversy is the gossip. We’ve repeatedly heard the embarrassing revelations of the “two-faced” Pakistani counter-terrorism policy; U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton musing about the “feckless” and hard-partying Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and charges that Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s brother “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” But what are the longer-term and more substantial consequences of revealing the inner workings of statecraft? As Philip Terzian rightly observes in a recent dispatch from The Weekly Standard, “in the wake of this latest document dump from WikiLeaks, it ought to be understood that security classification is not intended to hide facts from the public, or conceal wrongdoing, but to allow government officials — posted overseas, in the executive branch, on active service — to speak with candor. This applies to diplomats reporting from their posts or lawyers responding to an inquiry from the president.”

The so-called Pentagon Papers, the historical archive of the Vietnam War leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by RAND Corporation military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, took place prior to the advent of the Internet, and didn’t have the immediacy of effect the current controversy has. There was time in between installments to fight its publication in court (ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court). And even though it was potentially damaging to our ongoing war in Southeast Asia, it had neither WikiLeaks’ enormity nor its recklessly raw and un-redacted composition. In a callous effort to satisfy both his own apparent zealotry and Americans’ hunger to know the facts about our Middle Eastern incursions, Assange has dangerously and irresponsibly flouted prudence and jeopardized our diplomacy and intelligence operations.

Let us be clear: the WikiLeaks archive also contains very grave revelations about atrocities committed against civilians, and other potentially illegal acts; but in emphasizing the need for exposing such criminality, I find myself in agreement with attorney Alan Dershowitz, who in a May review of Gabriel Schoenfeld’s book presciently predicted the rise of Assange and other “anonymous ‘publishers’ who are accountable to no one and yet have the power to reveal secrets with impunity, if not always with credibility.” His argument is that in functioning democracies, “there will always be tensions between the government’s need to keep secrets and the news media’s need to reveal them … This is as it should be. Constant tension between the government and the press is an essential requisite of our system of checks and balances.” In short, being responsible about releasing information, in the end, may get the intended result; but may also keep our operatives and allies alive and our diplomacy on track. And that is as it should be.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.