Hometown paper The New York Times was one of three news outlets to get its mitts on the more than 92,000 U.S. military reports on Afghanistan that Internet whistleblower outfit Wikileaks accumulated, distributed and then published itself. Tasked with verifying loads of secret military data, the Grey Lady is at pains to demonstrate a great deal of care as it reports on the massive leak.
Right off the bat, the Times addresses the sensitive nature of the Wikileaks data. A note to readers accompanying a dedicated landing page for the Times‘ coverage of the documents says that the newspaper got access to the Wikileaks information “several weeks go.” In the the interval between receipt of the Afghan information, the Times said it went through some debate over what it should and shouldn’t publish:
Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, and after weighing the risks and public interest, we sometimes chose not to publish. But there are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times. The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the United States and its allies have undertaken in a way that other accounts have not.
The fact that Wikileaks, which has demonstrated little interest in protecting the interests of the U.S. security establishment, has the data, and that Wikileaks gave it to two other news outlets — the Guardian and Der Spiegel — probably aided the Times in deciding to err on the “more is more” side in handling this massive story. Nevertheless, the three papers conferred on how to handle the reports and agreed to keep some information, specifically that which would “put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations,” under wraps.
It’s still evident, though, that there isn’t much the Times could really do to keep certain things quiet. Its actions on behalf of national secrecy include a decision not to link to the “archives of raw material.” That’s a problematic decision, since presumably the Times is referring to information that could very soon, if not presently, be publicly available elsewhere, specifically on Wikileaks’ website: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” The note doesn’t say anything about how Wikileaks decided to handle that request.
In other words, when it comes to defending U.S. military interests and the lives of servicemembers, the Times‘ will is essentially subordinate to that of the gunslinging, radically pro-transparency Wikileaks. We’ll see whether requests by the U.S. government and one of the world’s most respected newspapers has any sway over one of the world’s most freewheeling and gleefully disruptive Web operations.