The tension between the freedom of the press and the government’s and military’s need to operate with privacy to hash out policy and with secrecy in matters of national security has always created a complicated dance. The WikiLeaks publication of 91,000 classified documents concerning the war in Afghanistan, some as recent as December 2009, blows that dance apart.

The tension between the freedom of the press and the government’s and military’s need to operate with privacy to hash out policy and with secrecy in matters of national security has always created a complicated dance.


The WikiLeaks publication of 91,000 classified documents concerning the war in Afghanistan, some as recent as December 2009, blows that dance apart. This leak goes far beyond the current war and its effect on U.S. policy or the safety of our soldiers and allies in Afghanistan.


This leak is a the-genie-is-out-of-the-bottle moment.


It will change the government vs. press and the public’s-right-to-know balance forever. And not just at the national security level. Local police will now have to look over their shoulders concerning undercover and sting operations.


The military, intelligence agents and officers, the FBI and local police must now operate in a world where there are no secrets.


The traditional press vs. government relationship involved a lot of judgment, discussion and horse-trading of information. Believe it or not, most news organizations really agonized over printing sensitive material. August publications like The New York Times or the Washington Post would debate and weigh what was really important for the public to know and what the cost of releasing the information would be.


And journalists would negotiate with sources within the government. Sometimes the press would hold back a story or portions of a story in exchange for an exclusive later in the process. Everyone had skin in the game.


Government sources needed to manage their news and needed the trust of reporters to do it. Reporters needed sources to keep the news flow coming and to beat the competition. Publishers needed to keep their papers current and accurate and to maintain the trust of readers and, of course, advertisers.


I’ve faced such decisions in my own career. An accidental release of a memo with the police log. A source speaking a little too freely. A question that connected dots of scattered public information occasionally led to finding out about ongoing undercover operations for drug or vice investigations.


So, what to do?


There’s a great scoop about local police work. The competition wouldn’t have it. It would give readers insight into how police work and the kind of crime in the community that doesn’t always make it to the police blotter.


Then there are the cops working the investigation. Would printing the story endanger their safety? Would it destroy months of work and let drug dealers run free when the story blew the sting before police were ready to make arrests?


Such stories brought together editors and reporters and police. What could we print now? If we can’t print now, when can we print? Can we get the story first when police were ready to make arrests?


Generally, as reporter or editor, I wouldn’t go with a story that endangered cops in the field or would blow an ongoing investigation. I felt the public’s right to safety and the safety of the police officers involved outweighed the public’s right to know.


On the other hand, I didn’t believe in covering crime to please the local real estate agents and the chamber of commerce.


Now all that’s ancient history.


The Obama administration can prosecute this leaker. Shut down WikiLeaks. It can cut the estimated 800,000 people that now have access to secret documents. It won’t matter. The combination of someone with a website and someone with access who is disgruntled with policy or just disgruntled now ensures every agency from the CIA to the local police department has to operate as if they are see-through.


In this new world, the publisher has no skin in the game. It costs nothing to run a website. There’s no investment at stake. There’s no labor involved in combing through documents to sift out tendencies or trends. No worrying about safety or how advertisers or sources will react. Just publish.


Which means the public will have more information and the work of police, the CIA, the FBI and the grunt on the ground in this or the next war just became far more dangerous and difficult.


Dan Mac Alpine is senior editor of the Ipswich (Mass.) Chronicle.