I doubt that any reasonably intelligent and informed individual disagrees that the Department of Defense and the four separate branches of the armed forces (for the purists, yes, during a war, the Coast Guard is included) classify far too many documents and tarry too long in clearing much of what is classified. However, the majority of the aforementioned intelligent and informed understands also the necessity of erring on the side of caution in matters of national defense and security.
The recent Wikileaks exposure of documents has titillated the media, "the right to know versus the need to know" protagonists, activists on the right and left and, of course, the usual suspects such as the American Civil Liberties Union and "whistle blower" lovers like syndicated columnist Robert Scheer. Nevertheless, the Freedom of Information Act, the First Amendment and various "we are the protectors of freedom" groups notwithstanding, the question remains: Who is responsible for classifying and declassifying documents?
Is it US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, arrested on charges of providing the secrets — or is it Julian Assange, the high-profile Internet activist, journalist and founder of WikiLeaks — or the New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegel or Britain's The Guardian — or the left's all-time heroic whistle blower, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers infamy? Do we really wish to relinquish our national security to the whims of the press, anti-war activists, well meaning but misguided interests, headline seekers or persons whose agenda is suspect?
Contrary to popular belief, Ellsburg was not acquitted — rather than prosecute him, the Justice Department sought prior restraint against the newspapers which published the information, but failed to make the case. There remained legal avenues for criminal prosecution of Ellsburg, but government malfeasance and bungling, coupled with the anti-war mood of the public, rendered it politically infeasible to carry it to conclusion.
The New York Times, one of the papers that printed the WikiLeaks, has history in this arena. In May 2006, it published classified information the Bush administration had requested not be aired. Executive Editor Bill Keller published it anyway, rationalizing "the responsible course was to publish it and let the readers decide, inasmuch as the Bush administration had not presented evidence that stood up to that collected by Times reporters." With allies like that, who needs enemies?
As a matter of interest, the New York Times has offered in the matter of the WikiLeaks data that it attempted to dissuade Assange from publishing the leaks but, when faced with the certainty that other media would jump at the chance to print, opted to air the data. That should trigger an alarm for anyone who had parents — how many times did your mother or father say to your "everyone does it" plea for permission, "If Johnny Smith jumped off a cliff, would you follow?"
As stated in the opening paragraph, the massive and bureaucratic military and civilian establishment running our Department of Defense is prone to overclassify and slow to declassify. However, the onus for correcting that imbalance lies with the originator in concert with Congress and the executive branch of the government rather than the free press or other interest group. The public has a right to know much of the operations of our government; nevertheless, in the areas of national security and of the lives of our military and their allies, the need to know will always trump that access to information.
Only a fool could believe our enemies don't make use of the intelligence provided in our newspapers. While there was little new posted in the way of strategy or tactics, there were deadly details — The Times of London noted "in just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archives, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed information to US forces and the villages in which they reside." Anyone who doesn't believe the Taliban will use this information in the pursuit of "justice" is a bigger fool.
Finally, whether one is against all wars, wishes to pick and choose the "proper" war, is a pacifist, loathes the military/industry complex or is merely anti-government or anti-establishment, the lives of our troops and those of our allies in harm's way are not "collateral damage" to a mythical people's right to know. Those who are responsible for the training, health and welfare of our armed forces must also decide when and what is releasable to the public.
"Loose lips sink ships" remains as inevitable as ever — the advanced technology provided by the Web has multiplied the number of lips and the opportunity for abuse.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.