Has WikiLeaks finally gone too far?

UPDATE: The Times' and the Guardian's coverage of the cables is up.

Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor and commentator for the Guardian, castigates British editors for their critical coverage of WikiLeaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower site that is about to release some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables into the wild:

Aren't we in the job of ferreting out secrets so that our readers - the voters - can know what their elected governments are doing in their name? Isn't it therefore better that we can, at last, get at them?

It's a fair question. I must confess that, like plenty of other editors, I can't wait to read this batch of documents. Unlike with the last two dumps, which consisted mainly of raw reports from the field about events that had already been widely reported, it seems there are genuine revelations this time around. Already, news outlets are reporting that we can expect unvarnished American views of the shortcomings of British leaders, critical comments about Nelson Mandela, remarks about Islam that may come across poorly, allegations of corruption among Russian politicians, and so on. For news junkies like me, it promises to be good reading. I know I'm going to be up late tonight.

As a general precedent, though, it's troubling. U.S. diplomats should be able to share their assessments candidly with the folks back in Washington without fear of waking up and finding their cables splashed across the front page of the New York Times. People who take great risks to share sensitive information with embassy officials won't come forward if they worry that the Kremlin, or the Mugabe regime, is going to punish them for their candor. And sometimes too much media attention can get in the way of quiet progress, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, where do you draw the line? Obviously, aggressive news outlets like the New York Times publish revelations every day that cause heartburn for U.S. officials -- often thanks to sources whose motivations may or may not be good ones. That's our job. Had FP gotten its hands on these cables, no doubt we would be publishing many of them (after doing proper due diligence and allowing the State Department to make its case). We're certainly going to comment on their contents. News is news.

But is there a principle that says it's OK to publish one-off scoops, but not 250,000 -- or for that matter 2.7 million -- of them all at once? The former feels like journalism; the latter seems grotesque and irresponsible, more like "information vandalism," in the words of secrecy expert Steven Aftergood. And even if responsible papers like the New York Times have a chance to review and contextualize them, there's no way they can dot every i and cross every t in the time allotted. There's just too much.

WikiLeaks breezily sidesteps these sorts of questions, arguing that the global public ought to have a right to read classified documents anytime, from any government. But that may be ex post facto rationalization for a decision to publish documents the group was handed on a silver platter. It clearly doesn't work as a general rule -- otherwise, there would be chaos. And it clearly doesn't work unless you're convinced, like Julian Assange apparently is, that everything the U.S. government does is inherently nefarious.

What do you think? Readers, please weigh in via comments, or email me at blake[dot]hounshell[at]


Guest blog: To bash or not to bash

In yesterday's (Nov. 25) Financial Times, my friend Claremont College professor Minxin Pei commented that "China may choose to do nothing (with regard to trying to rein in North Korea) just to prove that the west cannot bash it and beg at the same time."

It wasn't the question of China possibly cutting off its nose to spite its face that caught my attention. After all, China may really not consider North Korea to be or any danger to it at all. Rather it was the use of the term "bash" and its ascription of bashing to the "West." Let me hasten to say that my comments here are not at all meant as a criticism of Minxin who I am sure used the term simply as a repetition of current usage and without giving it much thought. But that in itself is significant as a manifestation of how extant this powerfully loaded term has become.

Ask yourself what bash means or what people would be trying to say if they called you a basher. The word suggests a vicious, even irrational and probably gratuitous or perhaps racist, attack on someone or some group or some country. And let me say up front that I know this and am sensitive to it, because in the 1980s and 1990s when I was first a U.S. trade negotiator with Japan and then an analyst of globalization at the Economic Strategy Institute, I was routinely referred to in the press as a "Japan basher."

In the case of yesterday's article, the comment was in relation to the fact that China has been criticized over the past few years on a wide range of issues including its claims of sovereignty over disputed isles in the South China Sea, the ramming of a Japanese ship by a Chinese fishing vessel, refusal to relax its intervention in global currency markets and to allow its currency to revalue significantly, reluctance to accept some degree of responsibility for rebalancing the current, massive global trade imbalances, as well as its refusal or inability to do anything about its North Korean allies' nuclear proliferation actions.

Now, no doubt, there are two sides to all these stories and China has a right to voice its claims and to act or not to act as it sees fit. But surely other countries may have grounds for their criticisms. China no more than any other country should be immune from legitimate criticism. But this is, in effect, what happens when we use start using the terms bash, bashing, and basher. Because they suggest irrationality, hatred, and racism, they inhibit and obviate serious and necessary discussion of important differences and issues. Are there no legitimate grounds for concern about China's territorial claims in the Pacific or about its currency and trade policies? Certainly the Federal Reserve's monetary policies and U.S. currency policies were subjected to withering criticism at the last G-20 meeting.

But this only underlines another interesting element of phenomenon. "Bashing" is something that apparently can only be done by the West, and really only by the United States. No one calls China a U.S. basher when it criticizes Ben Bernanke or the U.S. banking system. No one calls Germany a U.S. basher when it levels criticism at U.S. economic policies.

The term basher was first popularized by Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen in the 1980s when, in his passionate advocacy of free trade, he used it to undermine the legitimacy of any U.S. response to or even criticism of Japan's mercantilist, export led growth strategy of the time. His tactic proved so effective that it was quickly adopted by the officialdom and media of Japan and other countries wishing to deflect and halt U.S. pressure on them for change.

It's time to stop using this term in reference to debate with or about our international partners. We should be speaking of "criticizing" rather than of "bashing."

Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of The Betrayal of American Prosperity.