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HARPER: New York Times’ defense of leaks a misguided effort

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It may not have been her intention, but the public editor of The New York Times transported me back to those heady days of my youth, when I attended anti-war rallies in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, listened to the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and protested against the Nixon administration.

Margaret Sullivan was too young to experience those days, but she apparently wants to live them vicariously.

In last weekend's column, she muses about the importance of leaks by government officials to the press as a cornerstone of democracy. "[A] world without leaks -- the secret government information slipped to the press -- may be the direction we're headed in," Ms. Sullivan writes. "Since 9/11, leakers and whistleblowers have become an increasingly endangered species."

To support her case, she has apparently become a supporter of the man who leaked more than 700,000 documents about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. She writes about the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who provided the massive cache of documents and some videos to WikiLeaks.

Unfortunately, she runs roughshod over some critical facts in her column.

Manning, who was arrested three years ago, has pleaded guilty to 10 charges, including the misuse of classified material. He has maintained his innocence on 12 other charges, including violating the Espionage Act. You can hear his defense of his actions in a recently released audio recording.

But if he is innocent, why did he plead guilty?

Ms. Sullivan trots out the Pentagon Papers as an example of how to measure the current environment toward whistleblowers. I can imagine "Ohio" or maybe "For What It's Worth" playing in the background.

Her defense of Manning is an incredible stretch of logic and fact: His case involved ongoing military operations, while the Pentagon Papers dealt with the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Released in 1971, the title was technically "United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense."

Furthermore, the private was an active analyst in the military while Daniel Ellsberg, the purveyor of the Pentagon Papers, was a civilian working for the RAND Corp., albeit under a CIA contract.

Ms. Sullivan also cites the case of former CIA official John Kiriakou, who is serving a 30-month sentence for revealing the name of an intelligence officer to the media. But again, if Mr. Kiriakou was innocent, why did he plead guilty?

He did so to avoid prosecution on more serious charges despite excellent legal representation.

Furthermore, Ms. Sullivan in her column failed to provide a few other pertinent facts:

• Manning's actions reportedly occurred as a protest against his inability to publicly state he was gay.

• WikiLeaks made public many documents that revealed the names of individuals engaged in sensitive clandestine and military operations.

• The case of Mr. Kiriakou involved a leak to The New York Times' Scott Shane, who's quoted in the column, but there is no reference to the relationship between Mr. Kiriakou and Mr. Shane.

• A source quoted in the column was publicly reprimanded for his anti-war comments by his former employer, The New York Times. Ms. Sullivan failed to mention that fact.

Back in Golden Gate Park in 1969, I was a naive 18-year-old. I didn't know better. The public editor of The New York Times should know better than to try to make a case while avoiding key facts about the issue at hand.

Ms. Sullivan declined to comment, stating in an email that the column stood for itself.

• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20" for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com and can be followed on Twitter @charper51.

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