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.
But the idea that the solution to this potential problem lies in uprooting freedom of speech, and the status quo that has allowed the press to be a persistent, comprehensive watchdog of the national security state is frightening, too.