American public also has a right not to know about classified info 

We may soon have before our eyes the mother of all leaks. “The State Department and American embassies around the world,” The Daily Beast reported, “are bracing for what officials fear could be the massive, unauthorized release of secret diplomatic cables in which U.S. diplomats harshly evaluate foreign leaders and reveal the inner-workings of American foreign policy.”

For students of diplomacy and warfare, this could be delicious, the Pentagon Papers of the 21st century.

The security breach is the handiwork of a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, now under arrest in Kuwait, who claims to have downloaded 260,000 State Department cables with the intent to make them public. Spc. Bradley Manning of Potomac, Ma., has apparently already given Wikileaks a video of a 2007 clash in Baghdad that left 12 people dead, including two Reuters cameramen, by fire from a U.S. helicopter.

If the trove of documents makes its way onto the Internet — Wikileaks, it should be noted, is thus far denying that it possesses the files — the information contained therein will no doubt be of great value to analysts of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are likely to see a catalog of lapses and shortcomings, including some of the chicanery and buffoonery that our State Department has generated in the past year or two of the Bush administration and the first year and a half of Obama’s White House.

This could all be a bonanza for public understanding. But like any leak, it could also be a bonanza for our adversaries.

Unlike with the Pentagon Papers, in the Manning case, we are dealing with near-real-time secrets — and not a mere 7,000 pages but 260,000 raw cables. Along with much else, intelligence sources and methods are likely to be revealed. For reasons not stated publicly, the Army is said to be particularly concerned. We can speculate that U.S. forces engaged in covert operations across the Middle East may well be identified and placed in peril, The New York Times reported in yet another recent leak.

We thus have before us the essential challenge posed by leaking: The public’s right to know versus the public’s right not to know. That latter right is rarely spoken of, let alone defended, but it’s easily explained: What the public knows, our mortal adversaries will know as well.

No doubt there would be intense public interest in the content of the cables. But our government sometimes — most often — keeps secrets for good reason. If Manning has, as he claimed, passed along this trove to Wikileaks, the punishment should be commensurate with the crime.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.” This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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