Month: December 2010

Does Wikileaks remind us of the Pentagon Papers?

Should governments keep information secret? Yes, as with any relationship and in any situation where one knows others do not like them, some information must be secret. Not to be too brief, but relationships with other countries can be damaged, and some people might even be injured. The world is a big and dangerous place and there are all types of people with lots of different motivations.

So what about Wikileaks? Is it a service of transparency and honesty or something insidious that must be stopped? We in the US have a tradition of free speech. And further, this is not the first time such a thing has happened to us. There are many court cases on government leaks. From Veronica Plame to the Pentagon Papers to the numerous cases during the first two World Wars, release of government information has been problematic to the government and a subject of public debate. But the US is a strong country, and we learned lessons over the years. One lesson we learned is that much like a parent must take responsibility for their children, the government must take responsibility for the safety of its data. We have also learned that individuals have always been held accountable for the leaks. And that is as it should be. If the government loses its data, it is responsible. The person who commits the theft, is of course also responsible.

But so far, the US has not had a strong tradition of holding the publishing news organizations responsible for the dissemination of the data. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers with the way being cleared by the US Supreme Court (New York Times v. US 403 US 713 (1971). And Wikileaks sought out the major news organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian in the UK, etc. to assist with its publication of leaked material.

I bring up this thread as I think about privacy, about the government role in keeping itself and its population (including me) safe, and about the traditions of free speech. Should the government keep its data safe? Certainly. What happens when it loses its data? Who is held responsible? Is it OK to use a “prior restraint” to stop the publication (so far the USSC says “no”)? Does the leaked information ever enter a “public domain?” What is the balance between the journalistic concept of the public interest and national security? These issues have been debated for decades. Time to debate them again.

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