Thursday, December 2, 2010

Publius on Wikileaks

Wikileaks publication of State Department documents has caused an interesting debate over the necessity of government secrecy v. the public’s right to know. The Federalist Papers discuss this topic in some depth:

It seldom happens in the negotiation of treaties, of whatever nature, but that perfect secrecy and immediate despatch are sometimes requisite. These are cases where the most useful intelligence may be obtained, if the persons possessing it can be relieved from apprehensions of discovery. Those apprehensions will operate on those persons whether they are actuated by mercenary or friendly motives; and there doubtless are many of both descriptions, who would rely on the secrecy of the President, but who would not confide in that of the Senate, and still less in that of a large popular Assembly.

Publius would say the release of the documents will discourage foreign diplomats from speaking frankly to the U.S. State Department in the future.

Harvey Mansfield summarizes another Federalist passage on the topic:

Unity facilitates "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch." Note secrecy in this list. Secrecy is necessary to government yet almost incompatible with the rule of law (the exception being when congressional committees meet in "executive," i.e. secret, session). Yet secrecy is compatible with responsibility because, when one person is responsible, it does not matter how he arrives at his decision. To blame or reward him, one does not have to enter into "the secret springs of the transaction," as would be necessary if responsibility were shared.

Whatever discussions went on between President Obama and foreign officials about Iran is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is the final product, the policy he endorses in the end. So it doesn’t matter that the Saudi King asked the President to “cut the head of the snake” since he did not do so.

The last argument is from me. The New York Times is providing the megaphone for Wikileaks on this story. By the Times own admission, it has not released everything:

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.

The criteria it has used for deciding what documents to release and what to hold back is ‘national security.’ Obviously, this is the same criterion used by the State Department for not releasing ANY of the documents. Who is a better judge on this matter? Who has training, and more importantly experience, on this matter? Let’s even grant the State Department has self-interested motives for not releasing the documents. Does that mean the The New York Times doesn’t? What makes journalists so disinterested?

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