US Flag and White HouseWikileaks: Freedom of the Press or National Security Threat?


During the past week, people who follow the news have been hearing a lot about the whistleblower website Wikileaks and its decision to release 250,000 diplomatic “cables,” or messages between diplomats, into the public domain. These cables reveal damaging information regarding the relationship of the United States with its allies and its moves against foreign foes dating back to 1966.  This is not the first exposure of US Government activities by the website. Last month, Wikileak’s founder, Julian Assange, released 400,000 military logs dealing with US and Iraqi Army activities in Iraq, many of which implicated American troops as having been involved in war crimes and offenses against humanity.


The US Government has criticized the website for releasing these classified documents and even threatened to investigate the military personnel responsible for the transfer of classified documents from military and diplomatic computers into the public domain. In spite of the threat of legal action, it appears that the Obama Administration does not have the power to prevent the release of such sensitive information. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in New York Times Co. vs US, also known as the Pentagon Papers case, that the United States Government must demonstrate that a “clear and present danger” exists in order to engage in prior restraint of a newspaper or other news outlet. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the restraining order was lifted and the release of information about the Vietnam War was declared by the high court as having First Amendment protection of freedom of the press.


The Wikileaks dilemma brings this debate back to the forefront of American diplomacy and statecraft. In the case of the Iraq War logs, the release of sensitive military documents could endanger the lives of American military and diplomatic personnel still in the Iraqi theater of war. Moreover, documents that implicate American forces as having engaged in or covered up crimes against humanity weaken American justification for the use of force worldwide. Exposing the worst of America’s military transgressions reduces the effectiveness of those forces that are acting within the confines of international law and the guidelines of appropriate military conduct.


The release of a quarter-million diplomatic cables likewise reveals the hypocrisy and duplicity of American operatives across the globe and across the recent historical record. Nations that traditionally see themselves as allies of the United States and its values are left feeling betrayed and deceived by the backstabbing and gossip in which American officials engaged. Strategic partners such as Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt have expressed dismay and concern over the way they were treated behind the scenes by American operatives. All in all, the credibility of the United States and the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s efforts to engage in constructive diplomacy are highly reduced by the release of these incrimination and disparaging documents.


There is a silver lining, though it may take many years and even American lives to realize it. The level of transparency in which the US Government must act may be increased. The sacrifice of operating in a world where freedom of the press forces national and international actors to operate in a way that allows for, as Woodrow Wilson called for in his Fourteen Points, “open covenants openly arrived at.” The activities of the US Government, which is seen as a vanguard of democracy and human rights around the world, must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of an organization like Wikileaks, or else it will continue to be exposed in bold-faced lies, backroom backstabbing, or in the worst case, atrocities against innocent people. America will continue to act on the global stage in a way that protects its interests, but it should not be embarrassed or caught in a web of lies while doing so.