Voice

Should Bob Woodward be arrested? (updated)

I keep thinking about the Wikileaks affair, and I keep seeing the double-standards multiplying. Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President's hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange's activities. 

Or consider the case of the most famous of all "insider" journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he's built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he's gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.  

Has anybody proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn't writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays-information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government-is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama's secret Afghanistan decision-making?

I'm not for a minute suggesting that somebody ought to threaten Woodward with prosecution, ban his books, or try to hack his laptop and destroy his hard drive. But the contrast between the reflexive praise with which his books are received-and to be fair, some of them make for pretty interesting reading -- and the "sky is falling" witch-hunt surrounding Julian Assange, is striking.

And I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don't really trust "the people" in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being "on the inside" conveys: it's a turn-on to know things that other people don't, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current "best and brightest" are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact "public servants" who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Their view of the public's right to information is akin to the view expressed by Col. Nathan Jessep (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) in the film A Few Good Men. When defense attorney Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says "I want the truth!," Jessep retorts: "You can't handle the truth!" Unless, of course, it is filtered by establishment journalists like Woodward, and not by some unsympathetic upstart like Assange.

UPDATE:  My colleague and friend Jack Goldsmith from Harvard Law School has two good pieces on this issue, both well worth reading.  He also noted the double-standard being applied to Woodward and Assange, and suggests that this case actually suggests that the entire system of security classification ought to be re-thought.   You can his two pieces here and here.  

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Stephen M. Walt

How many leaks does it take to become a threat to humanity?

While the demonization of Julian Assange continues apace, the following thought occurred to me (it probably occurred to you already). Suppose a reporter like David Sanger or Helene Cooper of the New York Times had been given a confidential diplomatic cable by a disgruntled government employee (or "unnamed senior official"). Suppose it was one of the juicier cables recently released by Wikileaks. Suppose further that Sanger or Cooper had written a story based on that leaked information, and then put the text of the cable up on the Times website so that readers could see for themselves that the story was based on accurate information. Would anyone be condemning them? I doubt it. Whoever actually leaked the cable might be prosecuted or condemned, but the journalists who published the material would probably be praised, and their colleagues would just be jealous that somebody else got a juicy scoop.

So if one leaked cable is just normal media fodder, how about two or three? What about a dozen? What's the magic number of leaks that turns someone from an enterprising journalist into the Greatest Threat to our foreign policy since Daniel Ellsberg? In fact, hardly anyone seems to be criticizing the Times or Guardian for having a field day with the materials that Wikileaks provided to them (which is still just a small fraction of the total it says it has), and nobody seems to hounding the editors of these publications or scouring the penal code to find some way to prosecute them. 

I don't know if the sex crime charges against Assange in Sweden have any merit, and I have no idea what sort of person he really is (see Robert Wright here for a thoughtful reflection on the latter issue). I also find it interesting that the overwrought U.S. reaction to the whole business seems to be reinforcing various anti-American stereotypes. But the more I think about it, the less obvious it is to me why the man is being pilloried for doing wholesale what establishment journalists do on a retail basis all the time.

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