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Has WikiLeaks finally gone too far?

Has WikiLeaks finally gone too far?

UPDATE: The Times’ and the Guardian’s coverage of the cables is up.

Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor and commentator for the Guardian, castigates British editors for their critical coverage of WikiLeaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower site that is about to release some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables into the wild:

Aren’t we in the job of ferreting out secrets so that our readers – the voters – can know what their elected governments are doing in their name? Isn’t it therefore better that we can, at last, get at them?

It’s a fair question. I must confess that, like plenty of other editors, I can’t wait to read this batch of documents. Unlike with the last two dumps, which consisted mainly of raw reports from the field about events that had already been widely reported, it seems there are genuine revelations this time around. Already, news outlets are reporting that we can expect unvarnished American views of the shortcomings of British leaders, critical comments about Nelson Mandela, remarks about Islam that may come across poorly, allegations of corruption among Russian politicians, and so on. For news junkies like me, it promises to be good reading. I know I’m going to be up late tonight.

As a general precedent, though, it’s troubling. U.S. diplomats should be able to share their assessments candidly with the folks back in Washington without fear of waking up and finding their cables splashed across the front page of the New York Times. People who take great risks to share sensitive information with embassy officials won’t come forward if they worry that the Kremlin, or the Mugabe regime, is going to punish them for their candor. And sometimes too much media attention can get in the way of quiet progress, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, where do you draw the line? Obviously, aggressive news outlets like the New York Times publish revelations every day that cause heartburn for U.S. officials — often thanks to sources whose motivations may or may not be good ones. That’s our job. Had FP gotten its hands on these cables, no doubt we would be publishing many of them (after doing proper due diligence and allowing the State Department to make its case). We’re certainly going to comment on their contents. News is news.

But is there a principle that says it’s OK to publish one-off scoops, but not 250,000 — or for that matter 2.7 million — of them all at once? The former feels like journalism; the latter seems grotesque and irresponsible, more like "information vandalism," in the words of secrecy expert Steven Aftergood. And even if responsible papers like the New York Times have a chance to review and contextualize them, there’s no way they can dot every i and cross every t in the time allotted. There’s just too much.

WikiLeaks breezily sidesteps these sorts of questions, arguing that the global public ought to have a right to read classified documents anytime, from any government. But that may be ex post facto rationalization for a decision to publish documents the group was handed on a silver platter. It clearly doesn’t work as a general rule — otherwise, there would be chaos. And it clearly doesn’t work unless you’re convinced, like Julian Assange apparently is, that everything the U.S. government does is inherently nefarious.

What do you think? Readers, please weigh in via comments, or email me at blake[dot]hounshell[at]foreignpolicy.com.