WikiLeaks XVIII: What About Bob? (Woodward, That Is)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighteenth in the series.

Stephen Walt has yet another excellent piece at Foreign Policy taking stock of a double-standard being ignored in discussions of the WikiLeaks scandal, namely that

Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President’s hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange’s activities.

Walt goes on to examine the uberjournalism of Bob Woodward, the insider par excellence of White House politics.

Consider the case of the most famous of all “insider” journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he’s built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he’s gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.

Walt asks if anyone has

proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn’t writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays — information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government — is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama’s secret Afghanistan decision-making?

The piece sums up the case neatly, with Walt offering the observation that

I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don’t really trust “the people” in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being “on the inside” conveys: it’s a turn-on to know things that other people don’t, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current “best and brightest” are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact “public servants” who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already caught it, take a moment to read Marcy Wheeler’s account of sitting on a roundtable discussion of the Scooter Libby case, where similar issues of government-media relations came to the surface. While Wheeler concludes that some observers, in this case Jay Rosen, seem “optimistic [that] Wikileaks will make some difference here,” she remains “skeptical that the Bill of Rights will win out over the culture of secrecy.” This is certainly the concern. But I’m not clear that we should discount the staying power of freedom of expression just yet. With major voices from all points along the political spectrum—from Ron Paul and George W. Bush lawyer Jack Goldsmith on the right, to Brazil’s Lula on the left—the political terrain on which this battle is fought is shifting rapidly. And the elite media emperors, busy scrambling to put on their clothes, are losing ground by the day.