Predictably, this week's release of thousands of classified documents by WikiLeaks — which also provided them to the New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegel and the Guardian in London — has fired up those who believe secrecy fosters national security and who shudder at the idea of journalists rummaging through classified material. Typical was the comment from tiresome Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). WikiLeaks, he maintained, is armed with "an ideological agenda implacably hostile to our military and the most basic requirements of our national security."
To which one is tempted to say: So what?
What motivates WikiLeaks to post classified material is barely even interesting, much less important. Rather, the germane question is whether the United States and its allies are best served by secrecy or debate. And the answer is obvious: No democracy can or should fight a war without the consent of its people, and that consent is only meaningful if it is predicated on real information.
That is not to say classified material should be published in haste or with indifference. Thankfully, WikiLeaks and its media colleagues appear to have behaved thoughtfully in their handling of these documents. The New York Times sought and received guidance from the Obama administration on especially sensitive materials, and even WikiLeaks redacted thousands of pages that included names of people whose safety might be jeopardized. Those are the actions of responsible journalists.
The WikiLeaks materials have been likened to the Pentagon Papers, an exaggeration but not an entirely inapt comparison. The new documents offer insight primarily into the war-fighting of the recently departed George W. Bush administration; the Pentagon Papers ended with the Johnson administration and were not published until Richard Nixon was president. But much of the WikiLeaks material emanates from the field, so although it makes for gripping reading, it lacks the deep policy implications of the Pentagon Papers.
In 1971, the Supreme Court rebuffed Nixon's attempt to thwart publication of that historic report, and Justice Hugo Black concurred with an opinion that offers timely rebuttal to Lieberman and others who deplore the publication of these latest documents. In crafting the 1st Amendment, Black wrote, the founders understood that security was not best protected by secrecy but by scrutiny.
"The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people," Black wrote. "Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."