It will take time to assess the real harm caused by this dump of some 92,000 classified documents into the public domain by Wikileaks. But as I argue this morning, the Obama administration’s warning that there would be damage seems highly credible. It’s hard to fault the New York Times in this instance. After all, this material was going to be published anyway by Wikileaks, which is where responsibility lies.
The larger point one might draw from this episode is that democracies like ours have a vital need for secrecy in the conduct of foreign affairs and war. And Wikileaks, which appears to be beyond the reach of our laws, is engaging in an assault on democratic governance. Our best hope of avoiding future such episodes is to do a better job of protecting secrets. Part of this involves tighter security and harsher penalties for those who leak vital secrets. Another no less important part is tackling our government’s penchant for overclassification and mis-classification, which breeds disrespect for legitimate secrecy and creates a climate in which even leaks of highly sensitive information are taken as a norm. None of this is a satisfactory solution to our problems in this realm. But a satisfactory solution has not yet appeared on the horizon.
Given its scope, this particular leak will no doubt cause our country material harm. But we should not forget that our openness is also a strength. Now that all this information is in the public domain, it can certainly encourage a better informed public discussion of the war. If we are going to pay a price for too much openness, we should try to reap whatever benefits we can as well.
– Gabriel Schoenfeld is author of Necessary Secrets.