TIME's Managing Editor on WikiLeaks

The WikiLeaks release of classified material harms American security, but it also suggests problems with the culture of secrecy

  • Patrick Witty for TIME

    TIME managing editor Richard Stengel speaks with WikiLeak's Julian Assange over Skype

    For Julian Assange, when it comes to government and diplomacy, there are no good secrets. To him, all transactions between nations and leaders should be transparent. In my conversation with him on Nov. 30 via Skype, I asked him whether he thought all secrets were harmful and unnecessary. He replied that he believed in the necessity of keeping his own sources secret and took great pains to do so. Now, there is some hypocrisy in defending secrecy in order to attack it, but there is more naiveté and even danger in suggesting that the world is a safer place without any secrets at all.

    It seems inarguable that the release of 251,287 documents via WikiLeaks harms American national security and that Assange meant to do so. Whether he is guilty under the U.S. Espionage Act is unclear, but the right of news organizations to publish those documents has historically been protected by the First Amendment. The government, of course, opposes the publication of any classified material, but the authors of the U.S. Constitution understood that letting the government rather than the press choose what to publish was a very bad idea in a democracy. I trust you agree.

    But what is so compelling about Massimo Calabresi's cover story is the idea that the culture of government secrecy in some ways is the very thing that makes WikiLeaks possible. WikiLeaks, Calabresi says, "could hardly have existed when I came to Washington in 1999 to cover the intelligence community. To interview lawyers at the National Security Agency, which didn't allow outsiders inside its gates, I had to meet them at the neighboring National Cryptologic Museum — and that was considered progress for the famously secretive NSA."

    Even at that time, there was a growing sense throughout government that secrecy was out of control. As the late Pat Moynihan argued, the problem was not the leaking of secrets; the problem was too many of them. Over the past dozen years, as Calabresi writes, we've seen an epidemic of overclassification. The idea that we can create and share more classified information more easily among more people and have fewer leaks is just silly. Fareed Zakaria's column, however, disputes the notion that the leaks were bad for American diplomacy. In fact, he suggests that they exposed not American duplicity but competence.

    TIME's London reporter Eben Harrell had interviewed Assange for a story that ran in August. As Cablegate broke, news director Howard Chua-Eoan asked him to track down Assange. The elusive Assange had changed e-mail accounts, but through intermediaries, Chua-Eoan arranged the Skype interview. Assange never appeared onscreen, but he did speak expansively with me for 36 minutes. You can find the entire interview at time.com/wikileaks .