WikiLeaks released its latest trove of classified government documents on Sunday, unveiling part of a cache of more than a quarter-million American diplomatic "cables" to five media organizations, including London's Guardian newspaper.
The leak was met with near-immediate outrage from the White House to Capitol Hill, with several Republican Congressmen calling for prosecution of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, and even the Times for distributing state secrets. (The site reportedly got the latest batch from Bradley Manning, a soldier and whistleblower who is currently in military custody for providing Assange with a prior leak.)
The White House called the release and publication of the "stolen" cables a "reckless and dangerous action."
New York Republican representative Peter King — incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — argued that WikiLeaks should be classified as a terrorist organization, and for Assange, an Australian citizen, to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. “Wikileaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States," King said Sunday. The government, he said, should be allowed "to seize their funds and go after anyone who provides them with any help or contributions or assistance whatsoever" — including the New York Times, which published a copy of the cables it received from the Guardian.
Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a note to readers explaining why he chose to publish them.
“The Times believes 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,” Keller wrote.
"Except for the timing of publication," Keller explained, "the material was provided without conditions." (Interestingly, the Times does not link to the Wikileaks website in its online coverage.)
Keller said the Times had "taken care to exclude … information that would endanger … Or compromise national security," and worked with administration officials to redact some of the leak.
But, Keller noted, the Times is "less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.”
And, he added, “most of these documents will be made public regardless of what the Times decides.”
All told, the Times published roughly 9,000 words on Monday related to the latest WikiLeak — not including the cables themselves — with a promise from Keller of plenty more to come. (A note tagged to the online version of the Times page one story calls Monday "Day 1 of 9" for its "State's Secrets" series.)
Assange wrote in a letter to U.S. ambassador Louis Susman that “WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.”
For its part, WikiLeaks is becoming more and more media savvy with each successive "leak." For this one, the site has opted to release the "251,287 United States embassy cables" in themed stages, recognizing that in drips and drabs, as opposed to a flood, the bloodletting has the potential to dominate a news cycle for days on end.