A Profoundly Bad Idea  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2011

A Profoundly Bad Idea   

Sen. Joe Lieberman and his call for a federal investigation of the Times over WikiLeaks. Posted: Wed, Dec. 8 2010

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Sen. Joe Lieberman has come up with a terrible idea.

The Independent from Connecticut wants the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for publishing articles based on the gargantuan collection of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Lieberman, who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, told Fox News: "To me, New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship. And whether they've committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department."

You don't have to be a big fan of bombastic WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his methods to realize how off-base Lieberman is.

Releasing classified material is serious business. Releasing the wrong classified material can have life-and-death consequences. Before making documents public, it's crucial to vet them with top officials to get a sense of which ones might truly be harmful to the national security rather than just be truly embarrassing, and which ones might get people killed. That's hardly the WikiLeaks MO. Assange has favored a blanket, not to say indiscriminate, approach.

Daniel Ellsberg, to whom Assange is sometimes compared, leaked the Pentagon Papers because of his profound disillusionment over a single policy, the Vietnam War, a cause he once championed. Assange has unleashed a torrent of information about, well, virtually everything, with the apparent objective of simply causing mischief for the United States. When he released documents about the war in Afghanistan, he didn't see fit to remove the names of confidential Afghan informants for NATO.

So you don't have to be Dick Cheney for the WikiLeaks deluge to give you pause.

But once that material is out there, the worst thing to do is just let it sit there. The recent drop of diplomatic cables so far hasn't produced a smoking gun. But it has provided a plethora of valuable nuggets about our relations with a wide array of other countries. Those nuggets in and of themselves, however, often don't tell you much. They scream for context and perspective and interpretation, for insightful parsing by expert reporters.

For journalism.

And so the New York Times would be remiss in its duty if it didn't report on the leaked material. A news outlet's mission is to publish information, not repress it. There has to be a very compelling reason to hold back.

There's no doubt that far too much information is classified by the U.S. government. But some of that material is secret for a reason. And so the WikiLeaks bonanza has to be handled very carefully.

In an interview with John Hockenberry on the radio program "The Takeaway," Times Executive Editor Bill Keller pointed out that the paper had made use of a small percentage of the cables that had been released. And he stressed it was careful about what it published. "We've written articles based on this material, what we've actually posted is the small number of cables and we've consulted with the State Department and edited those very heavily to remove anything that we think could actually put lives at risk or jeopardize national security."

With the previous WikiLeaks releases about Afghanistan and Iraq, the Times was one of a handful of papers handpicked by Assange to receive the material. While Assange had no control over what the paper published, having to abide by his ground rules at all no doubt was uncomfortable. This time, the Times didn't have that problem it didn't make the cut. Assange apparently was upset by a not particularly positive profile in October coauthored by legendary Times foreign correspondent John F. Burns. This time the Times received the cables from the British newspaper the Guardian.

The U.S. has the First Amendment for a reason. The last thing we need is the government going after a newspaper for doing its job.

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