Commentary: How can WikiLeaks divulge so much data?

The Charlotte ObserverNovember 30, 2010 

Questions that jump to mind in the latest WikiLeaks dust-up:

How insecure is America's intelligence apparatus if a 22-year-old Army private can download a quarter-million confidential documents without anyone knowing about it?

Why are Americans who want this information kept secret primarily directing their anger at The New York Times and not at Bradley Manning, the Army private who appears to have stolen the information, or at WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, who are releasing the information regardless of what the Times or other publications do?

How does the New York Times tout the information as an "extraordinary" look at world affairs when all of the biggest so-called revelations have been common knowledge to anyone who follows the news?

The latest WikiLeaks release - about 250,000 cables to the State Department from U.S. diplomats in 270 outposts around the world - raises important questions about how best to balance the government's unquestionable need for secrecy in national security matters with the public's right to know. It is a tension the nation has wrestled with before and, in an increasingly wired world, will again.

The debate pits two legitimate interests against each other, and thus there are no easy absolutes on what is right or wrong. News organizations and Internet operations such as WikiLeaks should not release secret information simply because they have access to it and can attract readers. They must recognize that publication will almost certainly hamper U.S. diplomats' ability to do their jobs. But neither do we want to live in a society where a strong centralized government is free to do all its business in private, with no one holding it accountable by revealing its workings to the public that owns it.

It's all reminiscent, in some ways, of the Pentagon Papers and the Times' and Washington Post's decision to publish that report on the Vietnam War in 1971. Those stolen documents were "top secret," unlike this most recent batch, and their release had far greater foreign policy impact than these are ever likely to. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the newspapers' favor.

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