This week the web­site Wik​iLeaks​.org pub­lished a quarter-​​million con­fi­den­tial Amer­ican diplo­matic cables, divulging inside infor­ma­tion about U.S. diplo­matic efforts and those of for­eign gov­ern­ments world­wide. The New York Times has begun to pub­lish many of the doc­u­ments, and Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has con­demned the leak, saying it “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national secu­rity, and under­mines our efforts to work with other coun­tries to solve shared prob­lems.” Here, Nicholas Daniloff, pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and former for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for United Press Inter­na­tional and U.S. News & World Report in London, Paris, Moscow and Wash­ington D.C., dis­cusses freedom of the press and the impact on diplomacy.

U.S. diplo­mats are expressing out­rage and embar­rass­ment over the release and pub­li­ca­tion of these doc­u­ments. Real­is­ti­cally, how much does this inhibit diplo­matic exchanges with the United States?

The United States is a big and pow­erful country. Many nations will be forced to keep dealing with us simply because of those real­i­ties, even though those coun­tries may have been offended. The Russian gov­ern­ment, in par­tic­ular, may be offended by the com­ments about Pre­mier Putin or Pres­i­dent Medvedev.

But over the long run, a great deal of this will be for­gotten or swept under the rug, although older diplo­mats may well tell young diplo­mats, “Be careful with the Amer­i­cans. They are so leaky that what you say may even­tu­ally come out. Be dis­creet; after all, you wouldn’t make copies of your love let­ters would you?”

What par­al­lels can be drawn with the pub­li­ca­tion of the Pen­tagon Papers (dis­closing decision-​​making at the highest levels over the war in Vietnam) in 1971?

There are a number of sim­i­lar­i­ties with the Pen­tagon Papers. Pres­i­dent Nixon and Henry Kissinger argued that if the papers were pub­lished, for­eign gov­ern­ments would not be able to trust the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion to keep secrets. The same argu­ment is made today. Chief Jus­tice Warren Burger of the Supreme Court argued that the Pen­tagon Papers were stolen and should be returned to the U.S. gov­ern­ment imme­di­ately. Nonethe­less, the Court refused to endorse a per­ma­nent halt to pub­li­ca­tion. A sim­ilar argu­ment is being made today by admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials who are asking for the doc­u­ments to be returned.

The New York Times has redacted quite a bit of the leaked mate­rial, and also took the step of allowing the Obama admin­is­tra­tion to review and com­ment upon what it pro­posed to pub­lish. The paper told its readers it did this to avoid com­pro­mising indi­vid­uals and active oper­a­tions related to national secu­rity. Do you agree with that approach?

I per­son­ally think the New York Times acted very respon­sibly in redacting some of the papers to reduce harm to indi­vid­uals who were iden­ti­fied and to pro­tect sources and methods. This could be called self-​​censorship, but after the uproar which resulted from the Times’ dis­clo­sure that the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion was mon­i­toring pri­vate cit­i­zens’ phone calls in the war against terror sev­eral years ago, the call for admin­is­tra­tion com­ments looks to me to be sensible.

We who are jour­nal­ists are also cit­i­zens, and as cit­i­zens we have an oblig­a­tion to think of overall national secu­rity. I have no problem printing mate­rial that has been clas­si­fied simply to avoid embar­rass­ment. A case in point is the dis­clo­sure that U.S. diplo­mats were asked to try to tease out credit card num­bers or fre­quent flyer num­bers, or other per­sonal details from for­eign diplo­mats. That’s really more the province of intel­li­gence operatives.

In all, I’m not unhappy that these pub­li­ca­tions are taking place, although a few of them will cause trouble in the imme­diate future. Essen­tially, pub­li­ca­tion is all about trans­parency in a demo­c­ratic society. It dis­si­pates lies and obfus­ca­tions. And it allows ordi­nary cit­i­zens, scholars, polit­ical fig­ures, diplo­mats and others to under­stand more accu­rately a cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. For example, the sup­port in the Arab world for bombing Iran’s nuclear indus­tries is valu­able for all of us to know and take account of.