Published: December 1, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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When should secrets be exposed?  When should they be kept secret and who decides?

Those are the ethical questions involved in the recent disclosure of 251,287 confidential U.S. embassy cables – daily reports – intended for senior officials at the State Department by the self-styled, whistle-blowing authority, WikiLeaks.

In the case of the break in at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC approved by top officials of the Nixon administration, criminal activity was not only committed in the name of politics but was actively being covered up. The subsequent exposure by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, with considerable help from Deputy FBI Director and Deep Throat source Mark Felt, was both valuable and necessary.

In the case of the WikiLeaks documents, to my knowledge, there is no such criminal or corrupt activity taking place.

In considering the decision to publish the confidential information supplied to them by WikiLeaks, The New York Times detailed their decision-making process.

“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.

“Government officials sometimes argue — and the administration has argued in the case of these secret cables — that disclosures of confidential conversations between American diplomats and their foreign counterparts could endanger the national interest by making foreign governments more wary of cooperating with the United States in the fight against terrorists or other vital activities.”

But here is where the ethical terrain gets tricky.

“Of course,” The Times writes, “most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides. WikiLeaks has shared the entire archive of secret cables with at least four European publications, has promised country-specific documents to many other news outlets, and has said it plans to ultimately post its trove online.”

The decision to publish a story because the documents will be made public is weak because it falls into the “everybody does it,” rational. The ethical standards of any news organization where trust and credibility are vital to the public should not depend on what others do or do not do. They should, in fact, be a standard that demonstrates and guarantees trust that the information provided will be honest, appropriate and timely.

“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.”

I’m all for understanding the “unvarnished story…” however, I have a difficult time believing that the public needs to know this story now and absent additional source material that could put the story into the proper context.

At the end of the “Decision to Publish” article, The Times writes, “We invite questions at”

Here are my questions to The Times:

How do you know no one will be harmed?

How about insisting on more background and motive surrounding the anonymous source of the information?

What would be the harm in waiting in order to collect additional information that could provide greater clarity and context to the existing documents?

More to come on Friday?

I invite your comments.


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