Is the leak of 92,000 classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan now published by WikiLeaks and reprinted by the New York Times and some European publications a catastrophe? An affirmative answer is certainly suggested by a White House statement that says the document dump “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.”
But previous administrations have issued similarly dire warnings about the consequences of publishing classified information. And they often turned out to be empty. Most famously, when the Pentagon Papers case came before the Supreme Court the Nixon administration persuaded seven justices that their dissemination by the New York Times would cause serious damage. Justice Harry Blackmun held open the possibility that their publication would lead to the prolongation of the Vietnam War and “the death of soldiers, the destruction of alliances, the greatly increased difficulty of negotiation with our enemies, the inability of diplomats to negotiate.”
But with the passage of time, it became increasingly difficult to point to any costs from their disclosure. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold had argued before the Court that publication would cause “great and irreparable harm to the security of the United States.” But fifteen years later he wrote in the Washington Post that “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication.” Evidently forgetting his own words before the Court, he continued, “Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.”
Griswold’s final assessment, however hypocritical, is probably the more accurate one. The key fact is that when they were published in 1971, the Pentagon Papers were all historical. They did not contain information about ongoing operations in Vietnam. Indeed, not one of the documents in the voluminous collection had been produced after 1968.
Although it will take time to review all 92,000 documents in the latest dump, it seems far more likely that ongoing security and intelligence programs have truly been placed at risk. The New York Times, attempting to assuage concerns about national security, tells us that in this instance:
Most of the incident reports are marked “secret,” a relatively low level of classification. The Times has taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests. The Times and the other news organizations agreed at the outset that we would not disclose — either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material — anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations. We have, for example, withheld any names of operatives in the field and informants cited in the reports. We have avoided anything that might compromise American or allied intelligence-gathering methods such as communications intercepts. We have not linked to the archives of raw material.
But this is no comfort. To begin with, the Times is wrong in saying that “secret” classification is the lowest level of classification. The lowest level is “confidential.” What is worse, “secret” applies to material “the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security." This may be less dangerous than the release of “top-secret” documents, a label that applies to material that “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” But “serious damage” is obviously bad enough.
What is more, whatever care the Times took to redact information more sensitive than "secret," is wholly irrelevant. The real decision-making in this instance is the hands of WikiLeaks, and foreign publications like the Guardian and Der Spiegel, which also have access to the entire electronic trove. They are not likely to have the same scruples, such as they are, as the editors of our paper of record.
Finally, when it asserts the potential for significant harm, the Obama administration has far more credibility than the Nixon administration or, for that matter, the Bush administration, which also pointed to harm from major leaks that compromised the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program and the joint Treasury-CIA program to track terrorist funds through the Belgian financial clearinghouse SWIFT.
Whatever one makes of the Bush administration’s claims—and I for one am persuaded that they had merit—it was difficult for the public and the press to evaluate them at a time when the president’s credibility was at low tide, thanks in no small part to having staked so much on the CIA’s botched estimate that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
WikiLeaks has evidently held back some 15,000 even more sensitive documents and is subjecting them to its own “harm minimization” procedures--whatever that is--before it releases them. Clearly, however, a Pandora’s box has already been opened. And we shall no doubt soon see the consequences.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.