The Obama administration had, after some revisions, agreed to support it, and the House had overwhelmingly passed a version. All that remained was Senate floor passage. A lead lobbyist for the bill told CJR in August that he believed there were “close to seventy” votes in favor of the bill. Even with that filibuster-proof majority, he nonetheless expected that they’d have to face a drawn out cloture process, even if Senate leadership was willing to call a vote on the bill. How many of those votes have evaporated in the climate brought on by WikiLeaks, and how eager was anyone to have that fight?
There’s no indication that the law will be passed by this Senate in its waning days. The Radio Television and News Directors’ Association, a major trade group that supported the bill, recently cast doubt on the bill’s chances in the next Congress, pointing to the decreased Democratic Senate majority, the November losses of several bill supporting legislators, and the control of the relevant House committee passing to an anti-bill Republican.
That’s to say nothing of the introduction of legislation by Senators Lieberman and Kyl to modify the Espionage Act to make publication of classified information a crime, or other similar efforts.
It seems that virtually every government official who has ever had to grapple with the government’s classification system—from front-line grunts to cabinet secretaries to archivists and presidents—has concluded that the system is irrational, that information that would be harmless—or even beneficial—if made public or shared more widely is improperly classified. Beyond dysfunction, classification can be abused to hide waste, wrongdoing, poor decision making, or flat illegality.
The classification system has been established by our democratically elected officials to obscure the hand of the state. Sometimes it rightly keeps us safe, and sometimes it wrongly keeps us in the dark.
The hard part is knowing when classification stampings are not only sincere and well-founded, but outweigh other concerns about a democratic society’s right to be informed about the operations of its government.
Given the current state of affairs, one can and should question the efficacy of the checks and balances that have been constructed to ensure that classification serves the public foremost. The fact remains that such mechanisms exist and do from time to time allow greater public access where that should be the case.
But the fundamental problem is that the government cannot be trusted to make these decisions for themselves. (The classification system itself, full of anodyne or merely embarrassing documents, is the best example of this fact.)
Editors and journalists have always had to weigh these competing interests when deciding whether or not a classified document or other sensitive information should come to public light. There’s something uneasy about the idea that these professionals—who have no formal training—get to make this call. But it’s clear that the press has exposed vital stories—in the last decade alone, warrantless wiretapping, detainee abuse, and black-site prisons—that were classified programs.
There are certainly other stories that we don’t know, because journalists decided it was unsafe to tell them.
One of the main lines of attack against WikiLeaks is that in a handful of releases of classified information it has unnecessarily jeopardized the safety of individuals and of society.
In the Afghanistan case, while the organization agreed to withhold some documents out of safety concerns, the released documents did expose some Afghans who work with U.S. forces, and put them at risk. On the U.S. government’s own word, there’s no evidence that any came to serious harm.
WikiLeaks’s handling of the State Department cables has been markedly different. Rather than make the mass of documents available in a single bulk disclosure, WikiLeaks has instead been publishing cables drip by drip, redacting sections of some after weighing input from the newspapers who sought comment from U.S. officials. Of a 250,000-document trove, just a small fraction have been put online, many with redactions recommended, in full or in part, by the news organizations who had access to the documents and who likely went to the government for comment.
Assange spelled out his motivation for using this method in an interview with The Times of London.
“In our case nearly every single redaction [to the cables] has been done for political reasons. It’s not a moral question. It was done to prevent journalistic opportunists and the U.S. Government from trying to distract from the main game,” Assange said.
That quote suggests that Assange might not see the moral necessity of redacting the names of innocents who could come to harm from having their names exposed. Nonetheless, for now, WikiLeaks is releasing documents with more caution.
Replicating WikiLeaks is easy, and there’s nothing to say that every future iteration of something like WikiLeaks would do the same. It’s a frightening prospect.