On the one hand, Hounshell sympathizes with Roy Gleenslade’s argument that WikiLeaks is essentially doing what investigative reporters are supposed to do in a democracy: report secrets that otherwise would not come to light.
On the other hand, Hounshell argues that
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.
He goes on to ask
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.
This seems to me to be the central issue at hand. To what degree are outlets like the Times thoroughly vetting the documents released to avoid inadvertently placing individuals—Americans and others—under threat? Attacking WikiLeaks for dumping the documents seems to miss the point. We have an interest in knowing how our governments conduct foreign policy as a matter of public record. But at the same time, we also have an interest in protecting the most secret information from coming to light so that future foreign policy can be conducted not just ethically, but effectively.