The negative side of the leaks
As I said in the previous entry, the substantive information contained in the leaked State Department cables will probably not cause serious damage to U.S. interests and foreign relations. At the same time, there is a sense in which the leaks are very damaging. Governments require confidentiality and privacy to conduct their councils, just as private individuals do. There is nothing sinister about this, it is in the very nature of human interaction. The things we say to trusted colleagues in private are not the same things we say in public. Imagine that all your private communications with friends and associates were subject to being published; you would be paralyzed; you wouldn’t be able to discuss things and get advice and feedback. The same applies a fortiori to governments. It is in their very nature that they require confidentiality—call it secrecy—to conduct their business. Therefore this massive leak of State Department documents represents an attack on the ability of governments to communicate both with other governments and intramurally, and thus on their ability to function as governments.
The legal issues in the Pentagon Papers case are complex. Daniel Ellsberg was let off, not because he was found innocent, but because the Supreme Court found that irregularities in the government’s case against him had tainted the prosecution. As far as I understand, it is still against the law for a government employee to make an unauthorized release of documents. Such individuals should be prosecuted.
I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about what I just said, because the release of the Pentagon Papers, while illegal and improper, did reveal very significant lies told to us by our leaders about their conduct of the Vietnam war, and did not reveal current secrets that would damage our position vis a vis any enemy. At the same time, if a government cannot prohibit its employees from releasing secret government documents, especially those relating to foreign policy and defense matters, and back up that prohibition with the force of law, governments might as well shut down. Even the nutty libertarians agree that national defense is a legitimate and necessary function of government.