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Necessary Secrets: Schoenfeld vs. Keller

12:52 PM, Apr 4, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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New York Times editor Bill Keller finally responded to Gabriel Schoenfeld's argument that his paper has a duty not to publish certain state secrets. (Schoenfeld's argument was made in his latest book, Necessary Secrets, which previously received a favorable review by Alan Dershowitz in the Times.)

Interestingly, on the thrust of Schoenfeld's argument, Keller seems to concede:

The impact of WikiLeaks on the press is being masticated all over the place, but there is another side of the subject that makes editors a little uncomfortable, and Schoenfeld has put his finger on that sore spot.

Let us stipulate that there are things that should not be publicly disclosed; we may disagree about what they are, but they exist. Let us stipulate, too, that some fraction of the people cleared to handle secrets will not be trustworthy.

The digital age has changed the dynamics of disobedience in at least one respect. It used to be that someone who wanted to cheat on his vow of secrecy had to work at it. Daniel Ellsberg tried for a year to make the Pentagon Papers public. There was a lot of time to have second thoughts or to get caught. It is now at least theoretically possible for a whistle-blower or a traitor to act almost immediately and anonymously. Click on a Web site, upload a file, go home and wait.

For those charged with keeping secrets, WikiLeaks is a wake-up call. So what should the government do to make the leaker’s task — and my job as a nosy journalist — harder?

What Keller is saying is that the Times--and journalists generally--do not have the last word about what government secrets can and cannot be published. Prosecution is warranted in some circumstances, he acknowledges. This is essentially the argument that Schoenfeld makes in his book. 

The odd thing is, Schoenfeld and Keller are now arguing only about details. After the Times editor's concession, the only thing left to disagree about are general principles, not basic principles. 

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