The website has endangered the lives of Afghan informants
Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks website that on Monday released some 92,000 classified military documents, has told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that he “loved crushing bastards.” We wonder if the “bastards” he has in mind include the dozens of Afghan civilians named in the document dump as U.S. military informants. Their lives, as well as those of their entire families, are now at terrible risk of Taliban reprisal.
The past decade has seen more than its share of debates about the government’s right to secrecy, the public’s right to disclosure, and where the line between them should be drawn: Think warrantless wiretaps, Swift bank codes and terror financing, Valerie Plame, Judy Miller. We’ve had our say on all of these issues.
But the WikiLeaks story is a new and troubling event. Our initial reaction was that the documents expose no big lies about the war and, judging from what we’ve seen so far, no small ones either. They reveal nothing that wasn’t already widely known about Iranian and Pakistani support for the Taliban. In other words, their value in terms of the public’s right to know is de minimis.
But the closer we and others have looked at the documents, it’s clear that the WikiLeaks dump does reveal a great deal about the military’s methods, sources, tactics and protocols of communication. Such details are of little interest to the public at large, and they are unlikely to change many minds about the conduct, or wisdom, of the war. But they are of considerable interest to America’s avowed enemies and strategic competitors such as Russia and China.
“If I had gotten this trove on the Taliban or al Qaeda, I would have called this priceless,” says former CIA director Michael Hayden. “If I’m head of the Russian intelligence, I’m getting my best English speakers and saying: ‘Read every document, and I want you to tell me, how good are these guys? What are their approaches, their strengths, their weaknesses and their blind spots?'”
In his defense, Mr. Assange dismisses concerns about harm to U.S. national security, calling it ridiculous. That may be his right as an Australian national, although Australia deploys some 1,500 troops to Afghanistan and has lost more than two dozen men in combat. But Mr. Assange also says he takes threats to individual safety seriously, and he boasts that he has withheld or edited thousands of documents as a precaution against potential harm.
If so, he hasn’t done a very good job of it. Yesterday, the Times of London noted that “in just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to U.S. forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.”
The newspaper goes on to note that “named Afghans offered information accusing others of being Taliban. In one case from 2007, a senior official accuses named figures in the government of corruption. In another from 2007, a report describes using a middleman to talk to an alleged Taliban commander who is identified. ‘[X] said that he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces, which is why he hides when we go into [Y].'” The deletions here were done by the London Times, not WikiLeaks.
Perhaps the various countries that host WikiLeaks’ servers can provide these informers and their entire families with refugee status now that their lives are in jeopardy. We’d say something similar about the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, which coordinated publication of the documents with Mr. Assange. The Times has made a show of seeking to corroborate the information it published, and to delete information the paper believed was especially sensitive (including the names of Afghan informants). It went so far as to urge Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents.
We don’t believe in prior restraint, but it is worth asking whether the Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel are really serving the public, much less allied security interests, in validating Mr. Assange’s methods by flying in publishing formation with him. “I don’t know, and I’ll bet they [WikiLeaks] don’t know, if publication of this mass of material is in some ways genuinely harmful to national security,” Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer, told the Journal yesterday. “That’s one of my problems with their modus operandi.”
Mr. Abrams went on to defend the behavior of the Times, which he credited for urging Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents. However, years after the Times exposed the Swift financing operation—an act we criticized at the time—we have still found no public benefit from that report. The most notable consequence is that Europe stopped cooperating with the U.S. on the program.
The Pentagon now says it is aggressively pursuing the source of the leak, and we hope the leaker is found and punished. As for Mr. Assange, governments should not be in the business of prosecuting publishers, a la Britain’s Official Secrets Act. But publishers should also understand that their rights to publish depend in part on publics that believe their media are doing a public service.
If American voters come to believe that newspapers or websites are cavalier about putting U.S. soldiers or allies at risk against our enemies, politicians will follow the public mood. The press will put its own freedom in jeopardy.
Wall Street Journal, Editorial
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