Journalism in the Public Interest

How WikiLeaks Could Change the Way Reporters Deal With Secrets

Journalists often consulted with sources on whether to release sensitive information, but the WkiLeaks case changes all that. 


For the past several decades, there has been an informal understanding between the reporters who uncovered newsworthy secrets and the government intelligence agencies, which tried to keep them from public view.

We would tell senior officials what we'd learned. And they would point out any unforeseen consequences that might arise from publication, such as the death of an American informant. Ultimately, the call on what appeared rested with editors. But it was a decision informed by more than our own guesswork.

The release of more than 75,000 classified documents by WikiLeaks this week makes that arrangement seem as quaint as vinyl records and typewriters. Julian Assange, the organization's leader and avowed opponent of the war in Afghanistan, told Amy Goodman, host of the radio program Democracy Now, that he saw no reason for reporters to take such precautions. (Update: Democracy Now is also broadcast on TV.)

"We don't see, in the case of a story where an organization has engaged in some kind of abusive conduct and that story is being revealed, that it has a right to know the story before the public, a right to know the story before the victims, because we know that what happens in practice is that that is just extra lead time to spin the story," Assange told Democracy Now.

The New York Times, one of three global news organizations given early access to the documents, followed its customary practice, and before it published anything approached the administration for comment. Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, told me in an e-mail that the White House ultimately answered three of its questions in writing. He said those statements were also provided to The Guardian of Britain and Der Spiegal of Germany, the other two publications.

According to Keller, the White House also asked The Times to pass a message to WikiLeaks requesting that it withhold from release anything "that would endanger lives."

"We pointed out that we were doubtful of our leverage with WikiLeaks," Keller wrote. "But we did pass the message on."

Wikileaks has said it is reviewing an additional 15,000 documents subject to what it described as "a harm minimization process demanded by our source." It said "these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually, in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits."

Several publications pointed out Thursday that the 75,000 documents WikiLeaks has already put online makes it possible to identify Afghans who have cooperated with Western forces. The New York Times reported it had found "dozens" of instances in which informants, potential defectors and others could be unmasked.

It is entirely possible that some of these people will be killed as a result of the publication of these once-secret documents. In Iraq and Afghanistan, even the suspicion of collaboration with American forces has triggered executions.

It has always been difficult to find a balance between the demands of security and robust journalism. Senior intelligence officials were never comfortable with the notion that the press had a right to overrule their judgment of what should be kept secret. For their part, reporters worried that officials would exaggerate the dangers of publication to block embarrassing stories.

When I was a national security reporter, I agreed several times to delay publication of a story or omit certain details. Once, I delayed an article disclosing that Jordanian intelligence had planted an operative inside a Palestinian terrorist group.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post agreed to withhold certain details from a searchable database that included the locations of thousands of facilities performing top secret work. "One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items," the Post told its readers, adding that it did not heed the complaints of another agency that "objected that the entire Web site could pose a national security risk but declined to offer specific comments."

The ferment over WikiLeaks brings the government and journalists closer to confronting a question neither side really wants to join: Is there anything more society could do, or should do, to prevent the release of properly secret information?

Suspicions have been deepened whenever the government declassified large quantities of documents and it became clear that the "secret" stamp was frequently wielded to conceal mistakes and misconduct, not information sensitive to national security.

There have been some notable clashes between the press and government over secrecy. In 2005, The New York Times brushed aside protests from the Bush administration and revealed that the National Security Agency had been intercepting communications involving American citizens without court approval. The Bush administration argued that the program was legal and an essential weapon in the war on terrorism. Times editors pushed ahead, even after being told they would have "blood" on their hands if there were another terrorism attack against Americans. Public reaction to the Times revelation ranged from praise for uncovering the program to suggestions that Times editors be tried for treason.

Ultimately, the administration did nothing.

The issue of how the press should handle nationally significant government documents was joined in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case when the Nixon administration attempted to prevent The Times and Washington Post from continuing publication of a secret history of the Vietnam war. By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court held that such prior restraint violated the First Amendment.

But four justices raised the possibility that courts could apply a 1950 provision of the Espionage Act that, while it didn't call for blocking publication in advance, made news organizations criminally liable for publishing secrets derived from communications intercepts or code-breaking. This law, passed at the outset of the Cold War, is routinely violated but has never been enforced. It is notable because it focuses on publication. Every other part of the Espionage Act, which originally passed in 1917, focuses on punishing the individuals who pass "information relating to the national defense," to a "foreign government."

It was clear to me in my years covering national security for The New York Times (1985-1990) that neither side really wanted to test the constitutionality of this statute. A significant percentage of the government's classified documents include material derived from eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. The Bush administration could easily have charged the Times with a criminal violation in 2005 over its revelations about an NSA eavesdropping program; it chose not to do so.

The WikiLeaks episode illustrates how much has changed in just a few years. Government officials hoping to leak classified material once had to make contact with a reporter, build trust and physically carry documents out of their offices to a safe location. An editor would then study the material and decide whether it was newsworthy.

Now, the aspiring leaker need only find a way to bypass the government's security procedures and zip an e-mail to a secure server. As the Washington Post series documents, the number of people with security clearances is exploding. Future leaks are inevitable.

It does not appear that many of the Afghanistan war documents posted this week derive from electronic intercepts. But someday soon, something will find its way on the Web that precisely fits the 1950 act. At that moment, whoever is president will face some very uncomfortable choices.

An excellent and balanced explanation of very
serious issues that concern us all.
Thank you.

The New York Times has a documented history of sitting on important stories at the request of politicians. Obviously, we do not know how many stories are killed by the the NYT and other corporate media at the request of government officials. But it is a good thing that the days of national security-beat journalists partnering with the forces they are supposed to investigate are numbered. Assange did an end-run around years of “traditional” media-government collaboration. ProPublica complained about the Afghanistan Wikileaks material after it appeared, but my question is this: Would ProPublica have published the Wikileaks material if Assange had offered it? Conversely, did Assange offer it and ProPublica decline?

National security my A**  Concerning the claim of needing to keep secrets, to protect the lives of our soldiers and the collaborators is absurd. Most of the collaborators are are being paid hefty sums for false, unverifiable and questionable information, that suits the purpose, of corporate thieves and murderers. The people who are living the experience over there know full well the extent of the egregious and unnecessary killings, as well as the corruption,  it is no secret to them. It is only secret from the American people. The intended protection is for our own corporate profiteers and their Govt. minions, who depend on secrecy and cover-up to accomplish their rape of any country with marketable resources or strategic locales, and the American taxpayer, who finances their risk, with ever dwindling resources the lives of their children. ...........Anyone remember THE IRON MOUNTAIN TALKS? ....They found no viable alternative to war. Essentially, War is good business,...... with the added benefit of population reduction, without public protest. ... Our greedy little sissy boys who avoided their military duty are now obscenely profiting from the misery they force on the world. I say, EXPOSE the guilty for what they are and prosecute THEM, not the ones who expose them. Reward the ones with courage to make a stand for truth and right.

bernard bujold

July 30, 2010, 4:52 p.m.

Every media in the world always at some point have withholded information which was never made public.
This is why the Internet is the greatest tool for the freedom of the information.
Whether it’s WIKILEAKS or another Blog, the Internet is the key of this new freedom.
Bernard Bujold -

I’m more concerned at the sophomoric “hooray”‘s (for bypassing alerting subjects to revelations about them). I’ve been a print and broadcast reporter (public radio - which will probably inspire more vitriol). While I sometimes bristled at getting “the other side” (for instance, in stories about child abuse), I would never have submitted a story without checking my facts - the “subject” or “object” didn’t have any right of killing a story but it is certainly important to avoid danger in publishing.

Wikileaks is not a surprising event, but inevitable. Since we started storing documents in electronic format, leakage was simply unavoidable. Among the people who already have access to a particular document, there will always be a chance that at least one of them would like to expose it. Earlier doing so involved taking considerable risk. Now it is simply a matter of sending an email. Services like and (where you can publish anything by just sending an email, without registration) makes the process absolutely easy, and fairly secure. Therefore, the real question is how would organizations that have secrets to keep deal with this reality? Will they find better ways to keep them secret, or are we slowly heading towards a time when one cannot assume anything can be a secret?

“(...) and Der Spiegal of Germany, the other two publications.”
Did you mean “Der Spiegel”?

I would give up my so-called privacy rights for full access to all corporate and government secrets. Complete transparency (outside the bedroom) would eliminate most crimes and wars. Btw, the blocking tools available on the WSJ site for its great story today on ad tracking show that pro publica is allowing Yahoo and Goodle Adsense to track me in order to sell my data. Not good. Perhaps the little NSA bot that is (undoubtably) reading this will be so kind as to delete my file.

Identifying covert agents, planted inside the enemy’s camp?  Giving aid and comfort to the enemy?  Sounds like treason, to me.

From the article:
“According to Keller, the White House also asked The Times to pass a message to WikiLeaks requesting that it withhold from release anything “that would endanger lives.”

“We pointed out that we were doubtful of our leverage with WikiLeaks,” Keller wrote. “But we did pass the message on.”

And farther down:
“It has always been difficult to find a balance between the demands of security and robust journalism.”

I have to admit I actually did laugh out loud when I came to the phrase “robust journalism”.  This from the same nitwits who sold us WMD in Iraq.  But, what’s a few dozen Afghan and Pakistani collaborators and their families when the New York Times needs readers and something to chat about over martinis.  What a pathetic, self-serving tome.  Heck of a job Keller.

Sean Lawlor Nelson

Aug. 3, 2010, 5:02 a.m.

I was interested to read your article and the responses.  Your article intelligently provides the perspective of an established journalist, and you provide some insightful information.
    I have to say I found the line: “Suspicions have been deepened whenever the government declassified large quantities of documents and it became clear that the ‘secret’ stamp was frequently wielded to conceal mistakes and misconduct, not information sensitive to national security” to be telling in a rankling way. 
      Take many now-public secret documents, for example the C.I.A. documents explaining the fraud that was the independent South Vietnam or the stalker files from the Hoover F.B.I., don’t reveal “mistakes and misconduct.”  They reveal crimes against humanity and evil.  And the vast majority of the American people know nothing about them because the mainstream media doesn’t tell them- not really.
      Now, I’ve seen what’s wrong with this society at the street level.  I’ve been the victim of lying, barbaric police; I’ve been hungry and homeless falling through the air where the social safety net should be.  I’ve been a young progressive watching the count-down to the 2nd Iraq war, hearing our leaders telling bald lies and wondering why the media didn’t correct them, watching “liberal” senators saying “aye, aye, aye” to The Patriot Act.
    So, even though I see the ramifications of releasing a whole data-base of classified military info, I can’t find it in my heart to judge WikiLeaks or Bentley Manning… who’s probably being tortured as we speak.

Now that we do know,Thanks to Wikileaks. It’s Time to Vote the Patriot Act out,along with those senators who passed it into law.GOD HELP US NOW !

Bernard Tuchman

Aug. 4, 2010, 9:47 a.m.

The primary moral responsibility is unambiguous.  The U.S. government was given advance notice of the release of the files.  It can also look through the documents now published to see if there is anyone who might be endangered by the release of the files as they appear on the web.  Those who worked for or helped the U.S. have the right to expect the U.S. government not to abandon them, but to provide sanctuary for them outside of the war zone.  That would help counter a long history of abandonment of supporters of the United States in failed wars—think of Vietnam, and Iraq.

Dave Manchester

Aug. 5, 2010, 11:19 a.m.

Here’s what happened when I tried to get a simple anwer from the Obama White House. -dcm

White House Won’t Protect Afghan Sources, Won’t Rule Out Killing Assange
-Capturing Bin Laden Takes Back Seat to Fighting WikiLeaks

UPDATED 080410

Last Thursday I thought I’d ask the White House a simple question. Is it more important to capture Osama Bin Laden, or to detain and “question” (under the PATRIOT Act, we all know what that can mean.) Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

I thought this was a no brainer. How wrong, I suppose, I was. ...

For the full post, see my blog Scribal Thrum, at

Short Link:

Dave Manchester

Didn’t the Times wait a YEAR to report the story about the wiretapping? A YEAR? Reason enough to consider Assange’s argument that it’s not for the media to decide when to release these details.When the intelligence and military apparatus sweep internet traffic through NSA servers and DARPA is on the job 24-7 and then some to rob Americans and global citizens in the name of the GWOT, then thanks be to Wikileaks for a new form of uber advocacy.
And you know, the Times handling of this entire story, from breaking news to now, suggests that it can’t be trusted to communicate the information we need if we’re to veer from the Pentagon’s total war agenda.

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