BY PETER SCHEER—Although the anti-war movement of the 1960s has few heroes still standing, Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst who leaked a secret history of the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers, is surely one. As such, Ellsberg’s full-throated support for Wikileaks, delivered as it dumped on the internet nearly 400,000 classified documents about the Iraq War, must have come as a welcome endorsement for the rogue website.
Does Wikileaks deserve Ellsberg’s seal of approval? The answer depends on whether we are talking about the “good” Wikileaks or the “bad” Wikileaks, because the whistleblower website combines both personalities: smart enterprise journalism, on the one hand; a reckless disregard for harm to genuine national security interests, on the other.
The good Wikileaks provided the trove of Iraq documents–subject to an embargo—to The New York Times, The Guardian in London, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in Paris, and the English language version of Al-Jazeera. The embargo assured that the chosen news media would have sufficient time, before publication, to analyze the voluminous records, to determine their authenticity, to place them in context, and to assess their importance as news.
By providing the records to only a few news outlets, each with exclusivity in its home market, and by insisting on a common deadline to protect each outlet from being preempted by the others, Wikileaks provided an incentive for the media organizations to invest in the story by assigning their top reporters and editors. This assured news coverage of exceptionally high quality hat the media would promote heavily to its customers.
Wikileaks’ strategy also assured that the news organizations had the time, if needed, to consult (on background) with US defense and intelligence officials for help in identifying the most sensitive information in the war logs–intelligence sources, persons cooperating with NATO forces, and military capabilities (if any)–so they could avoid unintended disclosures that might harm security.
The result has been a thoughtful and richly detailed first draft of history about the Iraq War that is very much in the tradition of the Pentagon Papers, as reported nearly 40 years ago in lengthy dispatches in the Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other publications receiving Ellsberg’s xeroxed stacks of records, each struggling to stay one step ahead of a Justice Department summons. Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, has been brilliant in manipulating the media to publish stories about the Iraq war that he wants.
That is the good Wikileaks. The bad Wikileaks, not satisfied with front-page stories in the New York Times and the other publications, and despite demands and threats from the US government, proceeded to dump virtually its entire set of 400,000 Iraq War documents on the open internet, where they are being painstakingly mined for information and insights by citizens, historians—and, yes, enemies of the United States.
There is no justification for wholesale unloading of classified information on this scale. While security risks can be managed (through redaction) in the online publishing of one or several classified documents, that is not true when releasing records numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Whatever Wikileaks’ motive—defiance of the Obama administration; demonstrating its independence of traditional media; or providing the public with unmediated access to primary source materials about America’s longest war–the risk of harm to individuals and to US security interests is unacceptable.
Ellsberg understands this. In 1971, when he delivered the Pentagon Papers to major US newspapers, Ellsberg did not give them everything he had. As he revealed at a First Amendment Coalition conference many years later, Ellsberg held back one volume of the Pentagon Papers containing the most sensitive, highly classified records.
Ellsberg’s restraint offers a lesson that Wikileaks needs to absorb the next time it is given classified records for wholesale release. If there is a next time.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, is a lawyer and journalist. The views expressed here are his own.