Not to be missed among the deluge of “cables” is this statement by Times executive editor Bill Keller.
A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish Diplomatic Documents
The articles published today and in coming days are based on thousands of United States embassy cables, the daily reports from the field intended for the eyes of senior policy makers 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 Source of the Material
The documents — some 250,000 individual cables, the daily traffic between the State Department and more than 270 American diplomatic outposts around the world — were made available to The Times by a source who insisted on anonymity. They were originally obtained byWikiLeaks, an organization devoted to exposing official secrets, allegedly from a disenchanted, low-level Army intelligence analyst who exploited a security loophole. Beginning Sunday, WikiLeaks intends to publish this archive on its Web site in stages, with each batch of documents related to a particular country or topic. Except for the timing of publication, the material was provided without conditions. Each news organization decided independently what to write about the cables.
Reporting Classified Information
About 11,000 of the cables are marked “secret.” An additional 9,000 or so carry the label “noforn,” meaning the information is not to be shared with representatives of other countries, and 4,000 are marked “secret/noforn.” The rest are either marked with the less restrictive label “confidential” or are unclassified. Most were not intended for public view, at least in the near term.
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.
After its own redactions, The Times sent Obama administration officials the cables it planned to post and invited them to challenge publication of any information that, in the official view, would harm the national interest. After reviewing the cables, the officials — while making clear they condemn the publication of secret material — suggested additional redactions. The Times agreed to some, but not all. The Times is forwarding the administration’s concerns to other news organizations and, at the suggestion of the State Department, to WikiLeaks itself. In all, The Times plans to post on its Web site the text of about 100 cables — some edited, some in full — that illuminate aspects of American foreign policy.
The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly. Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest. As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy.
On the other hand, we are less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.
Government officials sometimes argue — and the administration has argued in the case of these secret cables — that disclosures of confidential conversations between American diplomats and their foreign counterparts could endanger the national interest by making foreign governments more wary of cooperating with the United States in the fight against terrorists or other vital activities.
Providing an Analysis
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.
But the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.
In the coming days, editors and reporters will respond to readers on the substance of this coverage and the decision to publish. We invite questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.