Is There a Right to Know?
The question at the heart of the WikiLeaks scandal.


Andrew C. McCarthy

Why redact anything? That is the question that springs to mind in reading the self-justification offered by the New York Times for lending its megaphone to Wikileaks.

The paper is now publishing breathless reports, accompanied by verbatim excerpts, drawn from about a quarter-million sensitive U.S. government documents. This dump is much like the tranche of intelligence files leaked in October to the Times and other reliable media — “reliable” in the sense that Wikileaks’ anti-American founder, Julian Assange, was confident these outlets would publish information whose revelation embarrasses the United States and endangers those who cooperate with our government.

Assange’s leaks are intended to be thematic. The first focused on American combat operations in Iraq. The new burst targets American diplomacy and is thus more wide-ranging. But each instance elucidates that our government, regardless of who is steering it, must operate in a dangerous world where, particularly in Islamic countries, there are bastions of virulent anti-Americanism. Our friends — be they regimes, spies, well-wishers, or allies of convenience — cooperate with U.S. officials at great risk to themselves.

For that reason, the Obama administration implored the Times not to publish the materials — since, despite the fact that the entire cache of documents is available online, having the paper of record provide a reading guide to them greatly extends the damage done by their disclosure. The Gray Lady has largely rebuffed the president, except for an accommodation here and there. The paper explains its rationale this way: “As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

Yet, it turns out the Times is plenty presumptuous. Its mawkish invocation of the public “right to know” comes only after the editors pat themselves on the back for what they’d have you see as their admirable restraint in withholding “information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.” Of course, the administration’s precise point in pleading for nondisclosure is to protect U.S. informants and security — and it knows far better than the Times could what revelations are likely to trigger threats.

The point, though, is that despite its self-serving blather about your supposed right to know everything that government does in your name, the Times isn’t opposed to suppressing information. It is opposed to government officials having the power to decide what gets suppressed. The Times wants that power for itself.

Should a newspaper, or any media outlet, have that power? That depends on whether you think there really is a public right to know. The Times’s claim of such a right is disingenuous, but the concept is a serious one. Our government, after all, is supposed to be our servant, not our master. The government was created by the American people, not the other way around. The federal government was, moreover, quite intentionally designed with severe limitations, not least the First Amendment’s command that Congress “make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]”

So how could it be that government may tell people what they are at liberty to speak about, or tell a newspaper what it may publish? The answer to this question is political, not legal. Because we are conditioned to think of politics as dirty and every problem as a legal issue, this is more difficult for us than it ought to be. But it is simply a fact that the legal niceties here are very unsatisfying.