WikiLeaks' real victim: old-school code of trust
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks' indiscriminate release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables wasn't brave journalism or a victory for transparency. Rather, it erodes the code of trust – the relationships – between journalists and diplomats that enabled principled reporting.
The WikiLeaks dump of US embassy cables last month was a reckless act. It is a far cry from the responsible reporting on foreign affairs with which I am familiar.Skip to next paragraph
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When I was the State Department spokesman in the Reagan administration, Bernard Kalb, then diplomatic correspondent for NBC, called me about a tip that the bad guys in Beirut, Lebanon, had captured and were holding an American CIA officer.
“Bernie,” I said, “I’ll only talk off the record about that.”
“No way,” Bernie replied, “If it’s off the record I can’t use it.”
“Well, that’s the deal,” I said. “See what your network says.”
The network agreed to the deal. I told Bernie that the officer being held was the CIA station chief in Beirut. We didn’t know whether the captors knew of his CIA association. If Bernie went with the story, the officer would certainly be killed. Honorably, the network did not run the story. Sadly, the captors tortured the officer, discovered his identity, and killed him.
The importance of relationships
That was a classic example of trust between a diplomatic correspondent and a government official. It is the kind of relationship observed regularly between State Department officials in Washington and US diplomatic correspondents.
Sometimes the journalist is checking out a questionable rumor. Sometimes the diplomat is offering background on a situation that for good reasons cannot then, or ever, be made public. For example: Dissidents given secret sanctuary in a US embassy; a foreign diplomat barred from travel because he is actually a high-ranking intelligence officer recruiting American nuclear scientists; US diplomats caught outside the US Embassy in Tehran when it was seized by extremists, but hidden safely for months by diplomats of other countries.
Exchanges and agreements between responsible journalists and senior diplomats go on each day with clear understanding about what can, or should, be published.