How To Give (and Take) a Leak
Unsolicited advice for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.
The added advantage of the discreet drip method is that it bedevils the organization that is suffering the leak. Right now, the U.S. military should have a pretty good idea of who leaked the reports, how they got access, how to prevent future leaks, and how to punish the leaker in a way that will deter future leakers. Discreet leaks are harder to track. They also make the leaked-from outfit paranoid about what else has been leaked. A paranoid card player is a bad card player: More than one reporter has bluffed additional information out of the government with questions implying that he knows more than he really does. But if the government or the corporation you're investigating knows everything that you know, he's looking at your cards. Lesson learned: Why do you think they call drip, drip, drip Chinese water torture?
The drip method also encourages other potential leakers who might come forward with their valuable piece of the story if they think the news organizations are interested in every facet of the story. A big, two-day dump, as wonderful as it is, can put the topic off the agenda. Lesson learned: When it rains, it pours.
Obviously other big stories have benefited from the big splash, like the Pentagon Papers in 1971. But the Pentagon Papers succeeded grandly because 1) the anti-Vietnam War rage in Congress and the country made it easy to exploit the papers' contents (that sort of rage doesn't exist today); 2) the Nixon administration tried to suppress publication of the papers, thereby creating a second reportorial front; and 3) the Pentagon Papers illustrated that the Johnson administration had, as R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times put it, "systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." I've seen nothing in the WikiLeaks documents that indicates such grand perfidy on the part of the Bush or Obama administrations. (Historical footnote: According to Floyd Abrams, Daniel Ellsberg withheld some of the Pentagon Papers.)
For his next act, may I suggest that Assange bestow a huge data dump upon one media outlet, such as Mother Jones, the Atlantic, Frontline, Slate, or 60 Minutes,and allow them to extract the highest journalistic value over time? I'd be free to discuss my proposals with Assange over a small glass of water anytime.
Addendum, July 29: Tom Ricks writes, "The reason Wikileaks' [Assange] did a data dump the way he did, I suspect, is that there really is no there there. That is, he probably knew there was no way to drip this out. These report are similar to what you hear as an embedded reporter sitting around a tactical operations center in the middle of the night. They are the beginning of reporting, not the end. You hear something and say, Is it true? How could I determine that? If it is true, is is significant? Does it mean anything? The Pentagon Papers had all that. This stuff doesn't."
How To Take a Leak, by Jack Shafer. It would sell millions! Send book title ideas and Fresca notions to email@example.com. Monitor my Twitter for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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