Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Leaking is no laughing matter.
It may just be my age talking, but I am having a great deal of trouble squaring this WikiLeaks thing with what I learned in school about treason. Especially in times of war — that would be this time — making classified and secret documents public is usually an act of treason. And treason, as we all know, carries a severe penalty for those involved.
There has always been tension — on both sides, created by what is best for the citizens of this country — between the public’s right to know what is happening and the public’s need to be protected from enemies within and without our borders. Finding that balance has been a challenge but one that has managed to protect the public for most of our two centuries-plus existence.
The last big challenge I remember was the Pentagon Papers and the publishing of classified documents by The New York Times that gave proof that President Lyndon Johnson lied to the public and Congress about his conduct of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court, which was asked to decide whether the government could restrain the Times from publishing what the Pentagon believed were highly secret documents, ruled that the newspaper was free to publish as it saw fit.
In those days, the Times newsroom agonized over whether to publish and the effect it might have on the men and women in harm’s way. In the end, the editors came down in favor of exposing the lies that sent us to and kept us in the war.
In 2010, the facts are different. This is a case in which a young private in Iraq finds a way to download hundreds of thousands of pages of classified government documents, and then some fellow at WikiLeaks publishes them so the whole world can access our secrets. As best I can tell, there was no agonizing, no editing process and no determination made about which documents should be published and which shouldn’t.
That is both the great promise and the great fear of the Internet: It democratizes every manner and sort of information on one hand, and does it without so much as a thought about the consequences to innocent people on the other. We long ago gave up any semblance of personal privacy when we turned on our computers. Have we now given up our government secrets as well?
That brings me to this past week’s commentary about the WikiLeaks issue. There was a young woman on CNN who was commenting about the gravity of the latest leaks and the consternation felt around the world by diplomats and other leaders whose private words were made public. And we all know how embarrassing, at the very least, that can be.
I was struck by the distinction this young woman made between the release of military documents that could put our troops in harm’s way — which she admitted was wrong — and the seemingly innocent release of gossipy, Page Six-like diplomatic memos she claimed were just fun to read. Her conclusion was that their release was more comic relief than in any way jeopardizing the national interest. She could not be further from the truth.
First of all, whether the release of classified documents amounts to a serious crime like treason should never be determined by the humor quotient of the information itself. That may speak volumes about the way we classify our government documents — too easily classifying harmless paperwork as secret or classified, for example — but it should never justify what is and always should be a crime of great significance.
Second, since when did we get so sophisticated in this country that we could know with precision what kind of information could harm our national interest and what kind wouldn’t? That is one reason, I suspect, why it is just as easy to use the classified stamp on a document to protect it from public view than it is to explain why it was exposed. And why we give broad leeway in that endeavor.
In any event, the idea that somehow it is OK, a misdemeanor if you will, to make public the entire diplomatic pouch because there is nothing that could cause harm is a naive position and one that gives no credence to the concept of diplomacy and the efficacy of that effort.
I heard after the leaks this past week that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was spending an inordinate amount of her very valuable time — she should have been working on Middle East peace, the war in Afghanistan, the turmoil in South America, the imbalance of payments with our Asian partners, you pick the crisis — calling world leaders to apologize for the great discomfort they were feeling because their private words about the people with whom they must do business were made oh, so very public. And it was entirely the fault of the United States of America.
Consider, if you will, the way you talk about your neighbors when they are out of earshot. You know, what you tell your closest friend about how obnoxious the next door folks really are. Now consider how you feel when you walk next door to work out a neighborhood issue and your neighbor has just heard from your closest friend what you really think of them. How much cooperation do you think you are going to get?
Put that in terms of international diplomacy. Getting China to help stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Persuading Russia’s leaders to lean on Iran so it doesn’t start a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East. Meeting with an emir or two to figure out how we move forward in a world with oil prices inching upward.
Now, consider that the memos leaked have you — the one trying to get concessions — saying something you probably shouldn’t have, something he will absolutely hate, about the fellow you need to do you a favor. Get the picture?
How many lives could hang in the balance of those discussions?
My point is simple. We have laws against people exposing our secrets, no matter what we may think of those secrets. There are times when exceptions should be made. But, for the most part, those laws are for our benefit. The last thing we should do is dismiss the violation of those laws as a matter to be laughed about or to be compared to a gossip column.
Treason is no laughing matter.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.