When I was little, I remember finding my father’s copy of The Pentagon Papers. It was a paperback, well worn from being my father’s constant companion on his daily commute to New York City. I didn’t really know what the Pentagon was, or what these papers were. And the book was a little bit too much for someone under 10. But I knew that these people who worked for The New York Times – the paper we got delivered every day – had found some bad stuff that the government had done.
A few years later we had Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein. Again, journalists finding bad stuff the government had done. So bad that Richard Nixon quit. I remember watching him on TV, watching John Dean testify to Congress. I thought that being a journalist would be tremendously exciting, finding out all these secrets that could bring down a rogue leader.
Julian Assange is not Bob Woodward, nor is he Carl Bernstein. And Wikileaks is not the ‘great grey lady’ I grew up with, though the NYT has obviously printed some of the information they’ve uncovered. At this point, with the release of the classified diplomatic cables, I do have to wonder what Assange’s motivation is. My guess is that it’s a mix of acting for what he believes is the public good along with a more than healthy dose of personal ego.
And while I’m not surprised that the US Government is apoplectic about the latest leaks, I am surprised and more than a little disappointed about what’s happened since then. Their DNS provider ditched them. Amazon, after a quick call from Sen. Joe Liberman, tossed them off their servers. And most disturbingly, Ol Joe Liberman is now looking to have the publication of classified documents made a criminal act.
I can understand the US Government in wanting and even needing to have its secrets. But for that to work, people have to be able to believe that the government does no harm. That it doesn’t, as I saw when I was eight, ‘do bad stuff’. The thing is, governments do harm. They do bad stuff. And they cannot and should not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy, shutting off avenues of publication and free speech. One of the cornerstones of democracy is a free press which watches and criticises the government. Wikileaks may not be the press as we’ve known it, but I think you have to extend the same principle. Otherwise it’s a short step to prosecuting the New York Times for the publication of the next Pentagon Papers, if they’re ever published at all.
“No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.” Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792