Wikileaks is no Pentagon Papers

WikiLeaks’s announcement Saturday that it will publish the remaining, highly sensitive 15,000 pages of its “Afghan War Diary” containing identifying information of local informers is the latest and most alarming move by the shadowy organization.

While founder Julian Assange may dismiss the criticism of U.S. defense and intelligence officials, he cannot so easily disregard the international media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which last week condemned the document publication as “highly dangerous” and irresponsible.

Nor can he evade responsibility for the danger to which he is exposing Afghan collaborators — the Taliban has vowed to comb the intelligence reports and “punish” those who have aided American forces.

While leaks of government secrets can play a crucial role in exposing deceit and abuse of power, the unrestricted and inexpert publication of voluminous classified government records poses a significant threat to national security.

From the Pentagon Papers and “Deep Throat” to the exposure of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, leakers have long protected American democracy.

Yet those who publish that information must do so cautiously and professionally as the normal safeguards that govern the declassification and disclosure of sensitive information are being circumvented.

Responsible journalists and publishers are the crucial gatekeepers in this one-off disclosure route, notifying government officials and delaying or killing stories that would materially jeopardize national security. In its short history, Wiki-Leaks has shown an aversion to such conventions.

Whereas Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers was based on a crystalline understanding of both the document’s content and its significance, and Mark Felt’s famed role as Deep Throat was limited to releasing information immediately relevant to the Nixon administration’s systemic abuse of power, the recent document leak appears motivated by only an amorphous desire to share an accurate portrait of the war in Afghanistan over the past decade.

It seems inconceivable that the source read the entire 90,000-page collection of dense, technical intelligence reporting, let alone understood its full impact on national security — the “Afghan War Diary” is more than 50 times longer than Shakespeare’s complete works. Rather than turn over select, pertinent information, Wiki-Leak is offering unfettered access to the U.S. war effort at the cost of innocent Afghan lives.

WikiLeaks claims to be redacting the identity of Afghan collaborators contained in the 15,000 pages.

I have little faith that the organization’s eight full-time volunteers and 1,000 anonymous part-time online contributors have the experience, expertise or knowledge to screen and scrub highly classified information.

Journalistic professionalism, that critical mediator between national security and democracy, cannot be so easily replaced.

The Afghan war documents reveal top-secret methodological information of the sort typically guarded most closely by the government.

The reports paint a picture of how the military operates at the theater and unit level that can be leveraged both by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by adversaries in future engagements.

While the damage to national security by the disclosure of event or programmatic information is limited, the harm of divulging methodological information is potentially catastrophic.

Samuel Magaram is the managing editor of the Brown Journal of World Affairs.