In my view, the NYT article represents exactly the kind of secret information journalists ought to be revealing; it’s a pure expression of why the First Amendment guarantees a free press. There are few things more damaging to basic democratic values than having the government conduct or escalate a secret war beyond public debate or even awareness. By exposing these classified plans, Mazzetti and Filkins did exactly what good journalists ought to do: inform the public about important actions taken or being considered by their government which the government is attempting to conceal.
Moreover, the Obama administration has a history of deceiving the public about secret wars. Recently revealed WikiLeaks cables demonstrated that it was the U.S. — not Yemen — which launched a December, 2009 air strike in that country which killed dozens of civilians; that was a covert war action about which the U.S. State Department actively misled the public, and was exposed only by WikiLeaks cables. Worse, it was The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill who first reported back in 2009 that the CIA was directing ground operations in Pakistan using both Special Forces and Blackwater operatives: only to be smeared by the Obama State Department which deceitfully dismissed his report as “entirely false,” only for recently released WikiLeaks cables to confirm that what Scahill reported was exactly true. These kinds of leaks are the only way for the public to learn about the secret wars the Obama administration is conducting and actively hiding from the public.
The question that emerges from all of this is obvious, but also critical for those who believe Wikileaks and Julian Assange should be prosecuted for the classified information they have published: should the NYT editors and reporters who just spilled America’s secrets to the world be criminally prosecuted as well? After all, WikiLeaks has only exposed past conduct, and never — like the NYT just did — published imminent covert military plans.
I wish I shared Greenwald’s enthusiasm for the NYT’s investigative journalism but I’m highly skeptical that the reporting in this instance should be regarded as an exposé.
What seems much more likely is that the newspaper is simply serving as the means through which classified information can be made public because doing so is thought (by the leakers) to serve policymaking goals — such as applying pressure on Pakistan.
This merely illustrates the fact that those who make the rules can — whenever they see fit — break the rules. No one is at risk of being caught having leaked classified information to the New York Times. The “leaking” was almost certainly authorized at the highest levels of the administration and the New York Times merely acted as a dutiful servant. The paper is very well-trained when it comes to distinguishing between classified information that it has permission to print and that which is verboten.