Am I alone in having a difficult time comprehending the hysteria over the recent WikiLeaks episode?

As a journalist, I believed I should somehow study the case and be concerned over its implications for the First Amendment. Quite frankly, the decision on whether or not to publish “secret” documents predates WikiLeaks by about a century or two – but for a more recent example, one only has to look to the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that The New York Times and The Washington Post could publish information from what were known as the Pentagon Papers. Those documents were reported to prove that the government, particularly the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, had lied about various aspects of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The contents of the documents were originally discussed with a newspaper reporter by Ellsberg, who had worked for Defense Secretary  Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. The documents had been classified as “top secret and sensitive.”

When efforts to halt publication of the documents in The New York Times and The Washington Post were thwarted by the Supreme Court decision, there was an industrywide sigh of relief that our rights and those of the citizenry under the First Amendment had been preserved.

With that decision in our back pocket, the media and the public need not see the WikiLeaks episode as a test of, or threat to, the First Amendment.

In fact, of the 250,000 documents released by WikiLeaks only 11,000 are classified as “secret.” And many of those could hardly be viewed as posing a threat to U.S. security.

What the documents mostly show is that our diplomats seem to spend much of their time doing the equivalent of passing along information about as valuable as a string of stupid Internet jokes.

And the cables that do pique our interest tell us things we already knew. North Korea is dangerous and has nuclear weapons. Iran and Pakistan are not to be trusted. China is devious and seeks world domination. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a control freak.

Several world leaders border on being insane at worst and dangerously eccentric at best.

There are also parts of the cables released by WikiLeaks that border on the ribald – and that makes them interesting reading. For instance, one complains that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi parties hard, stays up late, and just generally cavorts.


That’s just it. Many of these “leaks” amount to little more than a dribble.

There are many, of course, that create diplomatic embarrassment for the U.S. There are some that indicate our government keeps news that should not be “secret” secret. There are many that make us wonder if the government officials who sent the cables have too much time on their hands.

So, at this point, it seems that little damage has been done other than to leave Secretary of State Hillary Clinton red-faced and apologizing for our incompetence in the business of keeping secrets.

If I were Clinton, I would be telling my diplomats to avoid useless gossip in official U.S. cables and find a secure way to whisper secrets into the ears of the people who need to know them.

After all, most of these documents are believed to have been accessed by Pfc. Bradley Manning while stationed in Iraq. He’s been dealt with and is in jail. How could documents that are top secret be so easily obtained by a private in the army?

Our diplomats need to show restraint in sending cables – and if the messages are meant to be secure, they need to be secure. If WikiLeaks can’t get them, WikiLeaks can’t leak them.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at: [email protected]