Editorial: WikiLeaks controversy is nothing new

by Robert Maley, Editor in Chief

This past November, WikiLeaks began publishing confidential cables that had been leaked from United States embassies all over the world. Since then, WikiLeaks and its founder and editor Julian Assange have been subject to stark condemnation and possible prosecution by the United States government. While supporters have praised WikiLeaks and Assange for promoting transparency and accountability in government, the Obama administration and other opponents of WikiLeaks contend that the leaking of these cables poses a threat to national security and diplomatic stability. This is a superficial claim that has been made before.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg faced similar criticism for his exposure of government secrets regarding the war in Vietnam. Known as the “Pentagon Papers,” the documents leaked by Ellsberg revealed many years of lies and deceit toward the American people by the U.S. government employed to justify its involvement in Vietnam. Like the WikiLeaks cables, the Pentagon Papers were published by The New York Times. Similar accusations of compromising national security were levied against Ellsberg and the Times, culminating in the Supreme Court case of New York Times Company v. United States.

The Court ruled in favor of the Times. In the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice and champion of the free press Hugo Black wrote that “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Central to the belief in a truly free press is the idea that a well-informed public is essential to the practice of self-governance. If we as a people continue to allow our government to keep secrets from us under the guise of national security, then we have rendered ourselves unfit for self-government. Democracy is based on the idea that governments derive all, not some, of their powers directly from the consent of the people. If the governments keep secrets from their people, they have clearly lost sight of this principle.

Attributed to Benjamin Franklin is the phrase, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” This wisdom is very relevant in our world today. Giving up our right to know the actions of our government provides only a false sense of security. It sets a dangerous precedent that the people do not have a right to know. Transparency in government is indeed an effective barrier from tyranny. Therefore, WikiLeaks should not be condemned; it should be praised for reminding us of these principles, not by those on the left or the right, but by all free people.

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