A First Take on the Cables

We’ve given explicit marching orders to our editors and reporters not to get distracted by the ‘meta’ part of the wikileaks story and just focus on the details unearthed. So let me take the opportunity to perhaps contradict those marching orders and share some initial thoughts on the meta front.

First, we’re covering all the details we can find. So that puts some real limits on how much we can credibly criticize the way these cables came to light. I’m also not sure we would have made different decisions than, say, The New York Times, if we’d been given the opportunity to report out the cables in advance of their release. And of course we here at TPM like every other news organization routinely file FOIA requests on the reasoning that it’s in the public interest to get as much as possible of the inner workings of government exposed to the public.

But what Wikileaks is doing is categorically different. Many readers have written in to say — without knowing quite how to put their finger on it — that the indiscriminate nature of the release, just everything they could get their hands on — seems more like an attack on the US government itself than an effort to inform American citizens about what their government is doing on their behalf. And even though I’m in the business of unearthing and sharing information, my gut says they’re right.

That wasn’t the case with some of the earlier revelations about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m thinking particularly about the video footage of the helicopter shooting unarmed Iraqis that Wikileaks released earlier. That’s the sort of information no government ever wants to see released. It is damaging. But it’s also truth and something citizens need to evaluate what their government is doing in their name. And truth about important facts outweighs nebulous claims ‘damage’. Mainly governments — all governments — just don’t want their wrongdoing aired in public and they all use the inherent powers of the state to make sure it doesn’t happen. But this indiscriminate mass release seems less like journalism than a form of informational anarchism, which has the collateral effect of revealing a lot of interesting and illuminating details about American foreign policy (on Iran especially) but has the basic aim of making it impossible to run a State Department or Foreign Ministry.

It makes sense if you think of the US government or its foreign policy apparatus as being basically a corrupt enterprise or one involved in systematic wrongdoing across the board. But if you don’t, it seems much more questionable.

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Another way of looking at this is that different parties involved have different legitimate equities at stake. The government has every right to keep its internal communications from appearing on a web a year or two after they take place. And in some cases, though classification is notoriously overused, they have plenty of reason to resort to classification. And journalists are mainly, though not absolutely, in the business of sharing information with readers. The government’s right to be upset; journalists are right to share it with their readers. As David Kurtz just said in a discussion he and I were just having, you don’t need to have a universal theory of right and wrong on this one. Still, I don’t recognize what Wikileaks is doing here as some righteous act of government transparency. It’s more like an attack, albeit one with consequences which can easily be overstated.

I realize in writing this that I’m trying to draw lines more clearly and brightly than the facts may bear. And as I’ve said, we’re eagerly gobbling up the information. So I put these comments forward not as a definitive read but more as an initial reaction meant to give you a sense of my first take and get your reactions to help me refine my own.

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