Elias Isquith is correct that the fundamental distinction between Glenn Greenwald and his critics is based on how each, respectively, views the current state of the American government. Those that consider our government to be as rotten and illegitimate as France’s Ancien Regime or the Tsar’s Russia are not particularly troubled about defining the correct journalistic line between informing the public and compromising national security.

Defenders of the government are not done any favors by allies like Michael Kinsley, who manages to do little more than arouse sympathy for Greenwald’s side of the argument. Kinsley’s thesis is so sloppy that it allows Greenwald to define himself as engaging in an honest journalistic enterprise that his detractors would make illegal. That kind of dichotomous argument is one that Greenwald could never lose.

The debate ought to be deeper than this. If our national security state is engaged in activities that are not authorized by law, and if they are conducting themselves in ways that do grave damage to our international relations when they are disclosed, do they then forfeit the deference they are otherwise given on what does and does not harm national security?

One of the difficulties here is that when our leaders do things that when disclosed will harm our national security, they aren’t the only ones who are negatively impacted. All Americans are put at risk when our national security is harmed. A journalist has to weigh the benefits of public disclosure versus the potential risks to the general public, and this is a very subjective exercise. That is why people on Greenwald’s side are so intent on countering the idea that the disclosures of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have done any actual, demonstrable harm.

Too often, it seems to me, Greenwald and his strong supporters behave as if the government deserves to be damaged and that our national security ought to suffer, even though all Americans are put at risk as a result. The risk to Americans is not something that can just be shrugged off as if it were indisputable that the country has gained a net-benefit from every single disclosure of classified information.

The reason that Greenwald is getting the better of the argument isn’t because his principles are clearly superior, but because the government lacks credibility. The overall effect of the disclosures has been beneficial, at least so far, because nothing catastrophic has resulted and we now have greater knowledge about what our government has been doing, which is already leading to reforms.

But none of this relieves journalistic enterprises of the responsibility to weigh the risks and benefits of disclosing classified information, nor does it completely vindicate either Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, who both leaked far more information than was necessary to make their points.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com