Stars and Stripes ombudsman defends right to WikiLeaks access

Mark Prendergast, ombudsman for the U.S. military’s official newspaper Stars and Stripes, has a convincing piece arguing that U.S. military personnel, and particularly U.S. military journalists, should have the right to read the WikiLeaks cables: Putting reporters and editors under strictures intended for keepers of the nation’s secrets contradicts the fundamental purpose of journalism: to ...

Mark Prendergast, ombudsman for the U.S. military's official newspaper Stars and Stripes, has a convincing piece arguing that U.S. military personnel, and particularly U.S. military journalists, should have the right to read the WikiLeaks cables:

Putting reporters and editors under strictures intended for keepers of the nation’s secrets contradicts the fundamental purpose of journalism: to seek information, not avoid it.

More pointedly, this action imperils the editorial independence and First Amendment freedoms that Congress demanded of the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes two decades ago and then acted to ensure by authorizing an ombudsman to provide “aggressive and objective oversight.”

Mark Prendergast, ombudsman for the U.S. military’s official newspaper Stars and Stripes, has a convincing piece arguing that U.S. military personnel, and particularly U.S. military journalists, should have the right to read the WikiLeaks cables:

Putting reporters and editors under strictures intended for keepers of the nation’s secrets contradicts the fundamental purpose of journalism: to seek information, not avoid it.

More pointedly, this action imperils the editorial independence and First Amendment freedoms that Congress demanded of the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes two decades ago and then acted to ensure by authorizing an ombudsman to provide “aggressive and objective oversight.”

Journalists are supposed to report before they write. That means gathering as much information as they can – in breadth and depth – and consulting primary sources whenever feasible.

Prendergast also dismisses the argument that it poses a security risk to allow military personnel to read the already posted cables: 

Ignorance is not bliss. It is ignorance. And it is dangerous.

“War is based on deception,” the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu is reputed to have said. “Know your enemy and know yourself.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I want to know what my enemy knows – especially about me.

The government needs to strengthen measures to protect national secrets and interests. But forbidding Americans to read what is available to the rest of the world is wrongheaded – especially when that is directed at people whose very work is to keep the rest of us informed.

It’s one thing to try to control what journalists can write. It’s another to say what they can read.

The toothpaste is out of the tube. It can’t be put back. The government should just replace the cap, preserve what’s left and move on.

Thankfully, unlike his colleagues in the Air Force,  Prendergast can still access sites like the New York Times and FP that report on the cables. Overall, the Pentagon and the State Department’s efforts to keep their employees from knowing the things that the rest of us can read in the paper every day has to be one of the most baffling responses to the WikiLeaks debacle. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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