Balancing national interests

Nicholas Daniloff discusses freedom of the press and the impact on diplomacy. Photo by Lauren McFalls

November 30, 2010

This week the website WikiLeaks.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.

For more information, please contact Samantha Fodrowski at 617-373-5427 or at s.fodrowski@neu.edu.

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