Classified Information and Journalistic Ethics

The two English language newspapers who have been Julian Assange's accomplices in disseminating stolen secrets defend themselves.

Wikileaks Media Ethics

The latest wave of WikiLeaks release of classified documents stolen from the United States Government is bringing the usual cries that publication harms America’s national security. The two English language newspapers who have been Julian Assange’s accomplices in all this defend themselves.

In “A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish,” the NYT tells us that they independently vetted the documents to “exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.” Further, they submitted the docs to the Obama administration, which “while making clear they condemn the publication of secret material — suggested additional redactions. The Times agreed to some, but not all.” They also shared their redactions and rationale with other press outlets, including the other two accomplice organizations.

The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly. Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest. As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy.

On the other hand, we are less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.

[…]

For The Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public.

But the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.

In a piece titled “US embassy cables: The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment,” The Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins is less apologetic.

The reporting in the Guardian of the first of a selection of 250,000 US state department cables marks a recasting of modern diplomacy. Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

[…]

The state department knew of the leak several months ago and had ample time to alert staff in sensitive locations. Its pre-emptive scaremongering over the weekend stupidly contrived to hint at material not in fact being published. Nor is the material classified top secret, being at a level that more than 3 million US government employees are cleared to see, and available on the defence department’s internal Siprnet. Such dissemination of “secrets” might be thought reckless, suggesting a diplomatic outreach that makes the British empire seem minuscule.

[…]

The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.

No harm is done by high-class chatter about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vulgarity and lack of house-training, or about the British royal family. What the American embassy in London thinks about the coalition suggests not an alliance at risk but an embassy with a talent problem.

[…]

America’s foreign policy is revealed as a slave to rightwing drift, terrified of a bomb exploding abroad or of a pro-Israeli congressman at home. If the cables tell of the progress to war over Iran or Pakistan or Gaza or Yemen, their revelation might help debate the inanity of policies which, as Patterson says, seem to be leading in just that direction. Perhaps we can now see how catastrophe unfolds when there is time to avert it, rather than having to await a Chilcot report after the event. If that is not in the public’s interest, I fail to see what is.

Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets. Were there some overriding national jeopardy in revealing them, greater restraint might be in order. There is no such overriding jeopardy, except from the policies themselves as revealed. Where it is doing the right thing, a great power should be robust against embarrassment.

What this saga must do is alter the basis of diplomatic reporting. If WikiLeaks can gain access to secret material, by whatever means, so presumably can a foreign power. Words on paper can be made secure, electronic archives not. The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets. The Guardian material must be a breach of the official secrets acts. But coupled with the penetration already allowed under freedom of information, the walls round policy formation and documentation are all but gone. All barriers are permeable. In future the only secrets will be spoken ones. Whether that is a good thing should be a topic for public debate.

Both columns are largely persuasive and lead credence to my position that legitimate journalistic outfits — and both NYT and Guardian are surely that — are much different from Assange and his outfit in that they actually consider the consequences of their actions.  They legitimately care whether their countrymen are killed as a result of leaks and take care to prevent that.

At the same time, they’re really not in a position to weigh the damage to our diplomatic, intelligence, and military efforts.   The fact that most of the nuggets which make the press seem to be “merely embarrassing” doesn’t mean that they don’t undermine operations undertaken for the common good.   While newspaper editors tend to be bright and well informed, they’re simply not experts on these matters.

It’s true that we already “know” that Putin and Sarkozy are pompous jerks, that everyone thinks Karzai is a loose cannon, and that most Arab leaders would welcome Israel or the United States wiping Iran off the map — just as we already “knew” that the Pakistanis were playing a double game before the last set of leaks.   But plausible deniability is a crucial aspect of international politics.

Ultimately, Jenkins is right:  The way to stop these leaks is to quit committing so much information to electronic, sharable formats.   But that’s also the way to increase stovepiping of information — the very thing that allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur despite individual parts the U.S. Government independently knowing everything it needed to stop them.

The other likely consequence of all this is that foreign intelligence agencies and leaders will stop cooperating as fully with their American counterparts.  If they can’t trust that their secrets will be safeguarded, they’ll quit sharing them.   And that puts untold lives in danger.

But for that I mostly blame the WikiLeaks gang and the government officials who have handed them the stolen materials, not the press.  As the editorials quoted above imply and Dave Schuler states outright, the fact that five newspapers were given access to the material means that someone is going to publish everything interesting.  So, all the NYT or the Guardian editors would get for refusing to go along is scooped.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Media, World Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    “So, all the NYT or the Guardian editors would get for refusing to go along is scooped.”
    At the end of the day (as at the end of your piece), that’s the problem news organizations face. They are news organizations, and one could argue that it would have been unethical for them not to have published as they did. It’s an old problem for us. Sherman: “If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.”

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think I’m less comfortable with a cozy relationship between news outlets and the government than you seem to be, James, at least as reflected in that post.  I hold to my previous position:  these leaks are proof positive that our official communcations are either over-classified, under-secured, or both.
     
    The solution that the two Anglosphere newspapers seem to have arrived at is to report the information reluctantly.  IMO that’s the worst approach of all.

  3. john personna says:

    Ultimately, Jenkins is right:  The way to stop these leaks is to quit committing so much information to electronic, sharable formats.   But that’s also the way to increase stovepiping of information — the very thing that allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur despite individual parts the U.S. Government independently knowing everything it needed to stop them.
     

    That’s it in a nutshell.  While it is possible to secure information on computer networks (isolate the networks, restrict access to dedicated hardware, search users), it’s expensive and cumbersome.  I assume that’s what we still do for higher levels of classification.  When someone decided to push “secret” level information out to the desktop, they opened this possibility.
     
    It’s really sad though, it probably shows bad management software for this level of security.  Someone should have been alerted to 250,000 full text transfers, presumably in a short time.  That wouldn’t be the normal usage pattern.  Normal searches wouldn’t return that much full text.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler

    I don’t see any real alternative but a symbiotic government-press relationship on security matters.  Yes, the press functions as an important check on the excesses of government secrecy.  But its members are also citizens, with some responsibility to safeguard the lives of our soldiers, agents, and allies.

    The solution that we’ve come up with is to let government know what you’ve got, allow them to make a case for not publishing certain parts of it, and then leaving it up to the publisher to weigh the situation.

    Recall that in WWII reporters actually wore US Army uniforms and much more actively acted as part of the American team.

    As to “these leaks are proof positive that our official communcations are either over-classified, under-secured, or both” I’d say it’s definitely the third.  The problem is that I don’t want the likes of Julian Assange being the arbiter of what gets to stay secret.

  5. ponce says:

    “But for that I mostly blame the WikiLeaks gang and the government officials who have handed them the stolen materials, not the press. ”
     
    Not much of an accusation considering the gang whose secrets WikiLeaks have exposed have the blood of thousands of innocents on their hands.
     
    Unless you think the lives of Americans are more valuable than the lives of Muslim civilians, of course.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Not much of an accusation considering the gang whose secrets WikiLeaks have exposed have the blood of thousands of innocents on their hands.

    This is largely nonsense. Even if it weren’t, putting the lives of more Americans at risks doesn’t exactly solve the problem of collateral damage.

    Unless you think the lives of Americans are more valuable than the lives of Muslim civilians, of course.

    It’s our duty to safeguard noncombatants as much as possible in our operations — and I’ve called out policies, notably doing everything from the safety of the air, that doesn’t do that — but I expect our leaders to put the lives of American citizens at the top of their priority list.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I still think that’s too strong a statement, James.  As Jenkins noted, it’s not the job of the press to preserve governments from embarrassment.  Indeed, if it’s more important to the press to preserve secrecy than it is to be the government itself, how secret can it actually be? The discretion of journalists can be, at best, the last protection against the disclosure of dangerous secrets. This particular document drop makes it sound as though it’s the first which is untenable.
     
    Under our system there are tensions between the government and an independent press, between the requirements of private diplomacy and the citizenry’s need to know in order to make informed decisions, and between the responsibilities of journalists as journalists and their responsibilities as human beings.  I think these tensions are best understood as fiduciary responsibilities. Diplomats must safeguard the communications of their principles unless by doing so they place someone in direct danger.  Journalists must publish unless by doing so they place someone in direct danger.
     
    It is not the job of journalists to preserve the process of diplomacy any more than it’s the role of diplomats to ensure that the public is aware of what’s happening.

  8. ponce says:

    “Even if it weren’t, putting the lives of more Americans at risks doesn’t exactly solve the problem of collateral damage.”
     
    Perhaps if American military and diplomatic leaders know what they say in private will eventually become public they will refrain from behaving like mean spirited teenage girls.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Dave,
    I think “direct danger” is too lax a standard, because there is substantial risk of indirect danger.  Absent something more time-sensitive than this information seems to be, getting official response and input — Is this true? Is there context we need to know about?  Why would releasing this embarrassing secret cause harm? — is reasonable.
    We otherwise agree as to whose responsibility it is to do what.  I just think “all the news that’s fit to print” means a tad more than “all the news that’s interesting.”

  10. john personna says:

    In this case the horse left the barn when the information made the leap to international publishers.  What duty does a French newspaper have to a US government?  Not much.
     
    If there were a narrow situation in which a US outlet had classified information, I’d expect them to give it back unless they considered publication in the overriding public interest.  That is give back routine details of Saudi-US negotiations, but release (say) dirty secrets about US-terrorist ties.
     
    I guess I’m splitting the difference between James and ponce.  News outlets should use good conscience, but that cuts both ways.

  11. And the angels dance on the head of the pin.

  12. john personna says:

    “And the angels dance on the head of the pin.”
     
     
    Obviously a lot can happen, and players are not necessarily rational nor ethical agents.  But it’s easy enough to talk in the abstract about what is the optimal.  That is that secrets should be preserved, unless they shouldn’t be.
     
    Should the Tuskegee experiments have never been made public?  You’ve got to be a pretty big “statist” to believe that.

  13. Paul L says:

    Why no mention of the NY Times double standard between the WikiLeaks documents and the Climategate emails?
     

    The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won’t be posted here.

  14. John Burgess says:

    Yes, the horse has clearly left the barn. Once out, there is no law that prohibits US media from reporting (previously) classified information.
     
    There will be substantial damage. I think there will be people killed as a result of the unredacted release. They will be, almost uniformly, other-than-Americans, though bi-nationals might fall in the group.
     
    The greatest damage is that access to foreign leaders and their opinions will be severely constricted. That means that the US will be getting less useful, perhaps even less actionable information. That does not help the US, however you want to cut it.
     
    ‘Embarrassment’ is hardly the whole story. Whether or not you think a particular piece of information <em>should</em> be classified, there is information that needs classification, at least for a period of time. Foreign leaders know that anything they say will be declassified in 20 years time, by Executive Order. ’20 years’ is far enough away to permit a level of candor that ‘tomorrow’ does not.
     
    So, in order to expand the information available to the USG, it ends up constricting it. How that’s a win for anyone other than WikiLeaks, I’m damned if I can figure.
     
    I’m willing to bet that the leak came from DoD, not State. The only people at State who could have done it are the IT folks. State prohibits any computer–including laptops–to have either USB ports or CD/DVD drives in a secure area. All electronic devices in secure areas must be purchased in a particular, randomized method. Chinese-made PCs/laptops are completely banned because of concerns about what’s actually on the chips. Cell phones are banned from secure areas, sometimes comprising entire floors of embassies.

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

     
     
    ***Unless you think the lives of Americans are more valuable than the lives of Muslim civilians, of course.***
    How did you ever come to think like this? You need help bro…
     

  16. James Joyner says:

    State prohibits any computer–including laptops–to have either USB ports or CD/DVD drives in a secure area.

    My understanding is that DoD enacted the same policy some time back, either in response to the first WikiLeaks dump or a cyber incident.

  17. Wayne says:

    If the information is there, it can be access and copy. It is just a matter of how easy it can be done. The desire to archive everything under the sun opens big holes in securing the information.
     
    In an ideal world everyone would act all prim and proper all the time.  They wouldn’t deal with bad guys and never get dirty.  Unfortunately we live in the real world. We either deal with it somewhat realistically or we go the way of the dinosaurs. However that shatters the illusion of many who set in their easy chairs and they don’t like it. That doesn’t that mean we should be the lowest dominator but we do need to get our hands dirty at times.
     
    As for the leaks, yes sometimes the government goes too far and needs to be exposed. However releasing classified data for rating is B.S. and there is a need to protect such data.  Where to draw the line is a tough one. IMO we are way far over the line in not protecting the data and it has nothing to do with whose party has the presidency.

  18. John Burgess says:

    James: Again, horse, thief, barn, etc. State has had that policy for over 10 years. It boggles my mind that DoD hasn’t also.
     
    If I wanted to take classified electronic info from my office in the embassy, I’d have had to print it out, write it out by hand, or take the entire hard-drive. To access that hard-drive in another computer, though, would have been problematic as log-ons to access it are system-based, not individual based.
     
    I did have a DoD computer in my office suite. It was for a time, in fact, our only access to unfiltered Internet. Part of the cost of that was monthly memos telling my that Site X (actually, XXX.pr0n) was accessed at yy:yy on zz/zz/zzzz. I also had monthly bills from DoD for actual dollars, too! I have to say, though, that having that connection allowed us to identify numerous jihadist website and the funding. Sooo many out of Arlington, TX!

  19. steve says:

    Government, left to its own devices would keep almost everything secret, it just makes things easier. The press, given its druthers, would publish almost everything, it sells more. The solution lies somewhere between, but no one will ever agree on where that line should be drawn. Darned if I know.
     
    Steve

  20. Steve Plunk says:

    The question for the Press is what good does this release do?  Does it solve a problem or create one?  Does it help people or hurt people?  Unfortunately both of the publications aren’t thinking of those things but rather just of themselves.
     
    The double standard of the NY Times that Paul L mentions certainly should be as embarrassing to them as the leaks are to a few diplomats who are paid to lie and mislead on a regular basis.  I wonder if while they are celebrating they take time to think of the 22 year old sitting in the brig waiting for a court martial, likely conviction, and a long prison term.  I expect a long sigh over cocktails is all they can muster at the Times.
     
    Diplomacy is not all truth telling and often it’s done in a way the public would find distasteful.  But damaging diplomacy and the ability to say thing in confidence could very well lead to bigger problems down the road.  Diplomats may not have trusted each other but at least they knew they wouldn’t have an unwanted third party in the mix telling the world what was going on.  These leaks likely do a little bit of damage now but they damage diplomacy forever.
     
    Nice going boys.

  21. Wayne says:

    John
    If you were able to send the information to a printer or to a screen then you probably could send it to another device. This is assuming of course that you have physical access to said printer, screen, and computer.  Also assumes you able to sneak the proper device into the office.

  22. John Burgess says:

    In my office, the cables connecting the secure PC and secure printer were locked on both ends. Same with the monitor. Tampering with the locks would have been obvious. I suppose it might have been done by someone more clever than I, though.
     
    I’m sure there are machines that could simply read the electronic emissions of the keyboard, but I think most people would be hard put to lay their hands on one.
     
    I acknowledge that no system is 100% safe or secure. But you’d have to be pretty dedicated to the mission–and able to get through the layers of security–to accomplish it. For my classified PC in Riyadh, I needed to pass through three levels of human-based security and seven (yes, 7) different locks and keypads. I needed even more to get to the ‘secure’ floor of the embassy. And no cell phones were permitted either in my office or on the entire secure floor. Those had to be left in cubbies on exiting the elevator–which had its own keypad lock.

  23. Wayne says:

    We had similar security measures in some areas in the military. Yes often they seem pretty tight. Although they do need to function which mean they need maintain and people tend to be humans at times.  It was amazing how often I found holes or backdoors which by the way wasn’t even my job. Anytime you have that large of an organization it is almost impossible for there not to be flaws in it.
    Anyway, much of this leak information crossed and\or was stored in a variety of places. All it takes is one hole, lax section, or a lucky person to gather it. That was one of the reasons I never had that much of a problem with the “need to know” criteria and “memorize and destroyed” method in dealing with information.  It does make it harder for it to be use as reference in the future but there are plusses and minuses with everything.
    FYI
    Sometimes it is simple and sometime it is not. There are devices place on cables to pick up electronic signals, sounds from keystrokes, or cameras to get past metal detectors (which is simple). Although there are counters to these methods. Also counters to the counters, etc. However that is getting a “bit” deep. Thinking it can’t be done is a recipe for disaster.

  24. Tlaloc says:

    “The question for the Press is what good does this release do?”
    Too many secrets.

  25. Steve Plunk says:

    Tlaloc,  That might be true but does that mean all secrets must be disclosed?  Who decides what is a legitimate secret and one that should be disclosed?  Julian Assange?  Some state secrets should be kept.