Good Right Until the End

by Joshua Foust on 12/5/2010 · 7 comments

Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor of the New York Times, has a good explanation for why his newspaper participated in leaking the embassy cables this week. Basically, and despite my opposition to the leaks, I agree with this: the leaks are newsworthy, and the Times would have been negligent to ignore them. Brisbane then lists why he thinks these are newsworthy:

  • Iran is pursuing WMD (which we knew)
  • North Korea is slowly spiraling out of control (which the recent artillery exchange already told us if we bothered to pay attention)
  • Pakistan is unstable and might not be able to secure its nukes (which we knew)
  • Nicolas Sarkozy is a spoiled brat (duh, he’s French)
  • Ramazn Kadyroz is a sex-crazed beast (well, I knew that but that’s another story)

And blah blah blah secrecy and they feel bad about associating themselves with a dripping syphilitic dick like Julian Assange. I get it, you’re conflicted but can’t ignore the gossip. But Brisbane ended his column in a very peculiar way:

What if The New York Times in 1964 had possessed a document showing that L.B.J.’s intent to strike against North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident was based on false information? Should it have published the material?

What if The Times had possessed documentary evidence showing that the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were unfounded? Should it have published the material?

These questions, which need only be posed rhetorically, supply an answer to the larger question: Would you as a reader rather have the information yourself or trust someone else to hang on to it for you?

This is my biggest problem with the whole journalistic pursuit to Wikileaks. There is nothing, in any single release including Collateral Murder, that approaches the scale of the Gulf of Tonkin. Despite solemn promises to the contrary, none of the war logs from Iraq or Afghanistan contain evidence of new war crimes, covered up atrocities, or faked attacks used to justify a decade-long war. Brisbane’s analogy is based on the assumption that the leaks are in some way exposing wrong-doing. They’re not (not even the diplomat spy non-scandal).

But that second example is even more questionable. The New York Times ran Judy Miller’s pieces specifically alleging that Bush’s claim of Iraqi WMD were true. They are materially complicit in the push to war carrying credibility. Hell, I fell for that, thinking that if even the New York Times thinks this is a real thing then it probably is. Judy Miller made up stories to help the Bush administration agitate for war. She fabricated stories, invented quotes, and willingly served as a pawn for the administration to invent a case for a brutal war.

Which brings us to the last point. The New York Times thinks it is reliable on these issues. They say we cannot allow other people to “hang on to” this information, even while they say they redact information they think will be too damaging according to an opaque process (when a piece of information crosses from embarrassing to outright damaging is unclear, for example, and relies on the judgment of those same editors who thought Judy Miller was super awesome and honest).

And that’s the fundamental hypocrisy of Brisbane’s piece. He is not advocating openness and transparency: he is advocating we transfer custody of sensitive, and in many cases damaging, secrets from the government to the media. Neither organization should inspire confidence: the government and the media are symbiotic these days, and questioning authority has become so rare as to win awards for its sheer novelty. The New York Times in particular has an unflattering record in this regard, at least when it comes to acting as a spokesman for the government (see, especially: Dexter Filkins). Many of their reporters do not, obviously—people like CJ Chivers, Carlotta Gall, and John Burns have, I think, sterling reputations as journalists. But the Times is not perfect, just as the U.S. government is not perfect.

So if the NYT has acted as a proxy for the government, and is redacting information anyway, why do we need a Wikileaks in the first place? There’s no reason most of these cables, which are unclassified, couldn’t be released after a FOIA review, or after the normal declassification process in 20 years. As I write in my piece for PBS this week, the Wikileaks process actually hurts the cause of transparency. And by behaving so hypocritically, the New York Times is assisting in the death of it, even while complaining that everything they want to know is secret.

Classy to the end, I suppose.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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M Shannon December 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

Talking about prosecuting people for leaking secret info when is Mchrystal’s trial for leaking the Afghan options paper?

Assange doesn’t seem to have done anything (except for scale) that isn’t SOP for all branches of government and big media. It’s obvious that he’s embarrassed a bunch of people who deserve to be embarrassed which in the case of the government (and the media) is almost always a good thing.

french connection December 5, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Good article, except for the Sarkozy comment. Next time Wikileaks quotes some US idiotic or bigoted comment, I’ll comment “duh, he’s American”.

BTW the US comments about Sarkozy weren’t that he was a “spoiled brat” but “authoritarian and thin-skinned” and for the rest mostly positive. Which actually differs from the far less positive comments about him in France.

And of course nobody comments about the CENTRAL questions that other stupid ‘”duh” Westerners are asking themselves about the wikileaks story, like :

How can the US system permit that state secrets can come out on the open market that easily AT ALL ?

How can we trust the leaderhip of a country fucking up that big ?

When will the US adopt a reasonable attitude to its fundamental liberties, that is to say that they are not absolute ? with the corollary that publishing of leaks concerning defense can be considered as treason or spionage, as it would be in France or many other “normal” Western countries. With the IMMEDIATE consequences it holds for the leaker(s)…


joey December 6, 2010 at 7:47 am

“As I write in my piece for PBS this week, the Wikileaks process actually hurts the cause of transparency. And by behaving so hypocritically, the New York Times is assisting in the death of it, even while complaining that everything they want to know is secret.”

If you read Assange you would understand that his ambition is to make the government more secretive, this he believes will make them less effective, they will collapse under the weight of there security. The end game being the rise of a new more transparent system.
In this he should be viewed as a revolutionary of the information age.
Saying Assange is about making the Government more transparent, is like saying communists want to reform capitalism.
John Robb said one day an individual will be able to declare war on the world and win, Assange is making a fair attempt.

Boris Sizemore December 6, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I think everyone is missing some key issues about this…

Two points…(first point first)

A. The Wikileaks dumps are being slowly sent out and then filtered by the enablers like the New York Times. This is the best case scenario for the Administration.

There are 250 Thousand files out there. They are out. It is a fact. They have been sent to over 100 thousand different emails and mirror sites under key. There is now way to rebottle this genie. It is out.

Assange thought all of this out before. He currently states that if he is arrested, detained, or hurt all the files will be released en masse all over the world in original form.

Right now the files are being filtered slowly out and being given to press organizations-who then refilter out what is “important” about the information/cables and then regurgitates this “important” information in focusing articles to “informed public”

The benefits for the Administration and Government is that the current slow feed releases heavily redacted files to the public along with proper “focus” via a subservient NYTs or less subservient Guardian or Der Spiegel. Granted the information is out world wide but for the Western “informed public” it gets out via these traditional venues.

In other countries, also, because of the slow redacted release, the cables go out and can be immediately “respun” via the press once again. The “international informed public” is thus allowed to hear what the respin tells them to hear and immediate reaction is muted and heavily controlled.

This current system is the best for all the governments involved because the information is redacted/purged of names and the local press can reform the message to the public in the manner that best benefits the local leadership. This is a difficult task but not hard to manage in a focused way.

Every Government is responding to each leak in the manner which befits them, whether it is Israel or Iran or Turkey etc etc. This is the best that each Government can do at this point.

Why don’t they want to go after Assange? Because this will lead to a massive disclosure of all the cables with names on a worldwide uncontrollable basis. The public will see all the information in total and complete and because of the immense volume there will be no time to redact or redirect the message in the manner that is occurring now.

The Governments may not like this but it is the best they can do given the reality of the situation. Better the trusty New York Times than millions of citizens deciding what is right and wrong.

B)Second Point…Assange is not important, forget about him.

Assange realizes that any heat that he takes allows the focus on him and not on his main creation-a united system for the distribution and management of stolen information for the purpose of countering the central control of information in society. This could be stolen classified government information or private information about businesses or banks-which is the next to go out.

Because Assange is taking the heat for all of this, his system is getting time to work out the bugs and details of releasing information against counter efforts by Governments to stop these releases.

Assange is not running this effort at this point . He is the creator of the concept. The concept does not need him to be there running it anymore. Focusing on Assange also is just what he wants, because it allows his one idea to flourish behind him while he is attacked.

The sooner everyone forgets about Assange the person and focuses on how his creation works and ways to counter this the better.

He analyzed all of this is in advance and the Governments have no real choice but follow his lead or risk worse results than they already have received from all of this.

The public is learning a lot and does not have to wait 30 years to understand it. An “informed public” is the key to democracy and world change. Or is it?

Something else to think about as this evolves further.

Rico December 7, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I would like to add, I am 100% behind Wikileaks, BUT, am suspicious about the News media publishing the info presented by Wikileaks..
Here we a News media that for generations has worked hand in hand with corporate government, propagating propaganda and half-truths, even caught at time, working hand in glive manipulating the public…
So why now, do these Uncle-toms/colaborators use Wikileads to their end…Is Wikileaks a fraud/front/tool of a think tank or worse, or is the News-media now concerned about the ‘Truth’?
I find myself stepping-back a little, to watch both sides…

Brian Merrell December 8, 2010 at 8:29 am

Well said, Josh.

With the previous leaks — which caused me more personal headache — perhaps he could have been thought of as just a principled-if-misled antiwar activist. With this latest, it’s clear he’s out to damage more than just operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. While calls for his head on a plate are not only disgusting (a la the Washington Times editorial) they’re probably not going to do much, I am glad there are people like you making well considered arguments for why this was phenomenally irresponsible of him.

Grant December 9, 2010 at 7:37 am

On Iraq let’s spin the question around a bit. What would you do if you thought that there was significant evidence that a state did possess WMD’s, you earnestly believed that it was preparing to use those weapons to attack the U.S and you knew that these were highly classified documents that could lead to accusations of warmongering if they were released? Even if the New York Times was following public opinion it still had to make a decision on what to publish. Sometimes the newspapers get it wrong, sometimes they get it right.

I will also agree with Boris that this really is the best situation the government could hope for at the moment. It appears that a possible majority of the public (and certainly of the elites) is displeased with Assange, the documents released haven’t been devastating so far and if they have great luck they can prevent the vast majority of the files from appearing.

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