Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin with the news of the day – the international outrage over the latest release of once-secret U.S. documents and rising tensions between north and South Korea. For that conversation I’m pleased to be joined tonight by Josh Rogin, who covers national security for “Foreign Policy” magazine and is the author of the magazine’s daily Web column, called “The Cable.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Josh, thanks for your time on a busy day. Glad to have you on the program.
Josh Rogin: Great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: I want to start with this WikiLeaks story, and I specifically want to read what I found of interest, as I’m sure other readers did today. “The New York Times’” justification for why they decided to publish these WikiLeaks documents on the front page of “The Times” today. I’m just going to read an excerpt, a couple paragraphs from their justification today.
The headline was, “A note to readers: The decision to publish diplomatic documents.” And I read: “The articles published today and in the coming days are based on thousands of United States embassy cables, the daily reports from the field intended for the eyes of senior policymakers in Washington.
“‘The New York Times’ and a number of publications in Europe were given access to the material several weeks ago and agreed to begin publication of articles based on the cables online on Sunday. ‘The Times’ believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.
“‘The Times’ has taken care to exclude in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The ‘Times’s’ redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.
“Of course, most of these documents will be made public regardless of what ‘The Times’ decides. WikiLeaks has shared the entire archive of secret cables with at least four European publications, has promised country-specific documents to many other news outlets, and has said it plans to ultimately post its trove online.
“For ‘The Times’ to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public.”
Just some excerpts there from what “The Times” had to say about why they chose to publish these documents. You buy that argument? You agree with it?
Rogin: Well, what’s so remarkable is what was at the end of that statement, where “The Times” acknowledges that they no longer have the power to really make the decisions about what parts of the secret documents are going to be released and analyzed and processed by the public.
Long gone are the days where a “New York Times” senior editor would get on the phone with the White House and have a careful negotiation about which pieces of information are really damaging to national security and which pieces of information are genuinely in the public interest and need to be disclosed.
Of course, this was WikiLeaks’ strategy all along. The very reason that they disperse these documents across many news organizations was to remove the ability of any one organization to make those kinds of decisions, and since the first release of documents, the Afghanistan war logs and the Iraq war logs after that, we’ve seen WikiLeaks evolve its media strategy, including more outlets.
It’s worthwhile to mention here that they actually didn’t give the State Department cables to “The New York Times;” “The New York Times,” which angered WikiLeaks’s founder by publishing an unflattering profile of him, had to get them from “The Guardian” and then claimed that “The Guardian” requested anonymity only to have “The Guardian” admit that they provided the documents the next day.
So what we see here is a flattening-out of power in the media and a diversification of the outlets through which these documents can be distributed, and that has all sorts of consequences, both for the media and for the people that are affected by these leaks that are all only starting to unfold right now.
Tavis: Consequences like what, Josh?
Rogin: So we’ve always had this understanding, and by “we” I say people who write for major publications, that there would be some sort of negotiation, that there would be some sort of give-and-take with the administration over what to publish and what not to publish. It just doesn’t exist anymore, and whether or not you believe that WikiLeaks is doing this for altruistic purposes or as a vendetta against the U.S. government or a combination of A and B, it really doesn’t matter anymore.
This is the world we live in, and the world we live in now is full of alternative outlets. “The Times’s” analysis, which is amongst the best in the world, is just not the only game in town.
So what are the consequences? The consequences are that the government, in this case the State Department, is going to have to come around to the decision of whether or not to start engaging all of these other entities that are out there that are now able to leak information and break news and scoop major papers like “The New York Times.”
Remarkably, WikiLeaks actually asked the State Department at the 11th hour to help them redact some of this information, and the State Department refused just out of principle. They’re just so angry and so frustrated with WikiLeaks, and they didn’t believe that their negotiation would be conducted in good faith by WikiLeaks.
So they refused, but you have to wonder if they had negotiated with WikiLeaks, could they have prevented some of this serious damage that they claim is going to result from the disclosure of all this information? We just will never know.
Tavis: Is there a value to the public in being able to read these documents, as “The Times” suggests there is?
Rogin: I believe personally that there is a value. I believe that to the extent that these documents reveal contradictions between what we’re being told by our leaders and our politicians and our diplomats in public and the information that they’re conveying in private, that can point out inconsistencies and contradictions in foreign policy.
At the same time, it’s clear that the way that WikiLeaks has done this is extremely reckless and I say that very seriously and very cautiously. What I mean by that is that a lot of these documents reveal private conversations that should be kept private. There’s no doubt that foreign policy has to be conducted both in public and in secret.
As one of the officials told me who I was talking to about this today, what happens if the diplomats don’t feel that their private conversations could be protected? Then they’ll tell our officials in private conversations the same things they say in public, and we’ll be living in a world of constant spin and just nothing but spin, and that could really put a chilling effect on discussions worldwide.
Tavis: If the State Department refuses to get involved with an organization like WikiLeaks to help them redact information, how do we know that “The New York Times,” “The Guardian” or any other outlet, for that matter, truly knows what, in fact, needs to be redacted to not compromise security? I don’t get how they know that, since they’re not in the negotiating room.
Rogin: You’ve hit upon the exact point here, is that it’s a judgment call. There’s just no rule. As that note to readers from “The New York Times” says clearly, what you just mentioned, “The New York Times” believes that its analysis of what should be redacted should be the gold standard. They’ve generously distributed that to media outlets all over the world.
I didn’t get my copy of the talking points of what I should and shouldn’t publish, but I’ll call them after the show and ask them for it. The bottom line here is that that’s just one paper’s opinion, and guess what? If “The New York Times” decides not to redact something, “The Guardian” may publish it. If “The Guardian” decides not to publish it, then I may publish it.
So every journalist is going to have to make that call for themselves, and this represents both the chaos but also the emerging new order of what we’re going to have to deal with. You could curse the darkness or you could light a candle. This is the media world that we live in and everyone’s going to have to adjust.
That’s not to say that there aren’t abuses, and that’s not to say that there isn’t a huge problem with over-classification of intelligence in the U.S. government, but protecting that information still is the responsibility of responsible journalists and people disseminating this information. How that all will shake out is exactly what will unfold in the coming days and weeks. We just don’t know.
Tavis: We’ll talk more about WikiLeaks and about north and South Korea in the coming days. Before I let you go, though, in just a minute, is it your assessment that we are still at DEFCON three, as it were, between North Korea and South Korea, or have we backed up from the brink for the moment?
Rogin: All reports say that the tensions on the Korean peninsula are only getting higher and higher. It really is the most dangerous situation since the 1953 armistice was established. There are all sorts of anecdotal reports that make it seem even worse – reports of North Korean workers being pulled back into North Korea from foreign countries to prepare for what could be a protracted conflict.
The biggest sign that this thing is really serious is that the Chinese, who had been resisting coming out on one side or the other or making some serious comments about this are now all of a sudden mobilized and all of a sudden calling for international discussions about this crisis.
Let’s remember here that the Chinese priority here is stability and to prevent a crisis on the peninsula. So if they’re coming out and acting now, even they believe that this is a problem that needs addressing, and quick.
Tavis: We’ll keep addressing it in the coming days, I suspect, as neither one of these stories seems to be dying down, as Josh said, any time soon. He is Josh Rogin of “Foreign Policy” magazine. Josh, thanks as always for your insights. Good to have you on this program, sir.
Rogin: Thank you.
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