Wiki Hysteria

Posted Nov. 30, 2010, at 6:38 p.m.

A third round of leaked documents from the self-righteous group WikiLeaks has frayed international relations and embarrassed many world leaders. But to what end? The group’s leader, Julian Assange, speaks in high-minded terms about knocking down those in power. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when innocent lives (such as those of Iraqis who helped the U.S. there) are put in danger and little, other than showing that diplomats mock world leaders, is gained, Mr. Assange’s efforts look like irresponsible propaganda.

His latest “leaks” involve hundreds of thousands of pages of electronic communications between U.S. diplomats around the world. In them, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is mocked for his vanity and parties, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is derided for having no new ideas and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is called “Robin to [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s Batman.” For this, Mr. Assange considers himself a hero.

Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released documents about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Little new was revealed by the documents, but naming those who cooperated with U.S. forces could put them at risk.

A recent column in the New Yorker persuasively debunked Mr. Assange’s assertion that his work is as important as the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which were an official Defense Department history of the U.S. military and political involvement in Vietnam.

The papers “exposed lies by President Lyndon Johnson and his cabinet about critical decisions in the Vietnam War, such as Johnson’s exaggeration of enemy action in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which he used as a rationale for escalating combat. The WikiLeaks files contain nothing comparable,” Steve Coll wrote in the Nov. 8 edition of the magazine. “It is not necessary to promote the value of the WikiLeaks archive by overstating its importance.”

The Pentagon Papers hit public opinion like a thunderclap and showed a pattern of official deception, contrived optimism and some outright falsehood. Top officials were outraged, threatened criminal prosecutions and obtained court orders that temporarily halted publication by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. The Supreme Court ultimately vindicated the newspapers in a divided vote and asserted their First Amendment right to publish the documents.

The Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg to the press in 1971, were important enough to make a difference. The WikiLeaks leaks don’t rise to that level.

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