Authors, historians debate the leaks of WikiLeaks

By Hillel Italie

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 3 2010 8:55 a.m. MST

NEW YORK — Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Looming Tower," an investigation of the rise of Al-Qaida and the events leading to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He relied in part on internal State Department documents, the kind WikiLeaks has just released by the hundreds of thousands.

"That was really helpful. I'd hate not to have such inside glimpses," Wright says of the documents he obtained, including how the State Department dealt with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He sees the short-term advantage to WikiLeaks, but wonders if books such as his will become harder to write.

"I worry that there will be a backlash in terms of classification, so that more information that would be considered merely confidential will be termed top secret and kept from wider distribution, so that people on the ground who could put such knowledge to work, won't have access to it."

Historians and writers are intrigued and concerned over the latest disclosures by WikiLeaks, the self-styled whistle-blower organization founded by Julian Assange, who has embarrassed the U.S. government and foreign leaders with his online releases, and is wanted for questioning in a rape case. They welcome timely and unfiltered information about world affairs, but not the possibility that fewer government officials will have access to information or willing to put their thoughts in writings.

The secret communications show that the U.S. is still confounded about North Korea's nuclear military ambitions, that Iran is believed to have received advanced missiles capable of targeting Western Europe and that the State Department asked its diplomats to collect DNA samples and other personal information about foreign leaders.

In Washington, the State Department severed its computer files from the government's classified network, officials said. By temporarily pulling the plug, the U.S. significantly reduced the number of government employees who can read important diplomatic messages.

James Mann, whose books include "About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China," said it was up to historians to place the WikiLeaks documents in context.

"The memos tell stories, sometimes very interesting ones, but they don't tell the whole story. And yes, it will also lead to a backlash — to some extent a backlash against putting information into State Department cables, but more generally a backlash tightening up the fairly extensive distribution of these cables within the US government," said Mann, who believes WikiLeaks would have affected his book on China.

"I would have certainly looked at the kinds of materials coming from WikiLeaks. On the other hand, the book would have been harmed if officials were afraid to put things into writing."

The WikiLeaks documents have been compared to the Pentagon Papers, an internal government study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was completed in 1967. The documents were leaked in 1971 by former Defense Department aide Daniel Ellsberg and included many damaging revelations, including a memo that stated the reason for fighting in Vietnam was based far more on preserving U.S. prestige than preventing communism or helping the Vietnamese.

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz rejects similaries between WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers.

"It's not as if we're still up against the Vietnam War; and everybody has a right — no a duty, to play Daniel Ellsberg," Wilentz, whose books include "The Rise of American Democracy" and "The Age of Reagan," said.

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