By Richard Cohen
Monday, December 6, 2010
The Washington Post
What the Clinton scandal and the WikiLeaks disclosures have in common is a sad collapse of the mainstream media's gatekeeper role. Newsweek presumably had good reasons to postpone publication of Isikoff's story - reasons that Drudge did not share. The Times had good cause to parse the WikiLeaks cache - lives could be in danger - but Assange launched them into cyberspace anyway, not caring if American interests were damaged. In fact, that might have been the whole point.
The natural reaction is to want to pop Assange in some way, possibly by indicting him for violating the totally impractical Espionage Act of 1917 or, in the superheated imaginations of some, by declaring him a terrorist and targeting him for something irrevocable. The trouble with any of this is that you inevitably get entangled with the Times and other newspapers such as The Post, which also has devoted considerable space and talent to the stories. They all enabled Assange to reach a wider audience - raise your hand if you actually visited his Web site - and moreover gave him what amounts to a journalistic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: See, this stuff is important.
Governments, like married couples, are entitled to their secrets - from us, from the kids and from the neighbors. Total transparency produces total opaqueness. If everything's open, no one says anything. If you want to know why there is no document detailing exactly when George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, it's because of something Dick Cheney once said: "I learned early on that if you don't want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don't write any." On Iraq, he and Bush followed that rule.
The WikiLeaks brouhaha will pass. Diplomats will once again be indiscreet at cocktail parties and rat out one another in the same way some people marry repeatedly, each time forever. The only thing worse than indiscretion is efforts to punish the miscreants by eroding the core constitutional right to publish all but the most obvious and blatant national security secrets. The government has to get better at keeping secrets. Muzzle the leakers - but not the press.