Foreign Policy: Arrest Assange, Arrest Woodward? While some are calling for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be prosecuted, others point out that notable reporters who release classified material, such as veteran reporter Bob Woodward, face no such threats. Stephen M. Walt of Foreign Policy argues that government elites will tolerate prestigious reporters who publish leaks, but not upstarts like Assange.

Foreign Policy: Arrest Assange, Arrest Woodward?

Bob Woodward, Assistant Managing Editor of the Washington Post speaks during a taping of 'Meet the Press' in Washington D.C. Woodward's book have often used material leaked to him by government officials.  Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press hide caption

toggle caption
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Rene Belfer Professsor of at Harvard's Kennedy School. He serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies.

I keep thinking about the Wikileaks affair, and I keep seeing the double-standards multiplying. Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President's hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange's activities.

Or consider the case of the most famous of all "insider" journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he's built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he's gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a number one position on the best-seller list.

Has anybody proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn't writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays-information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government-is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama's secret Afghanistan decision-making?

I'm not for a minute suggesting that somebody ought to threaten Woodward with prosecution, ban his books, or try to hack his laptop and destroy his hard drive. But the contrast between the reflexive praise with which his books are received-and to be fair, some of them make for pretty interesting reading -- and the "sky is falling" witch-hunt surrounding Julian Assange, is striking.

And I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don't really trust "the people" in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being "on the inside" conveys: it's a turn-on to know things that other people don't, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current "best and brightest" are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact "public servants" who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Their view of the public's right to information is akin to the view expressed by Col. Nathan Jessep (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) in the film A Few Good Men. When defense attorney Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says "I want the truth!," Jessep retorts: "You can't handle the truth!" Unless, of course, it is filtered by establishment journalists like Woodward, and not by some unsympathetic upstart like Assange.

Update: My colleague and friend Jack Goldsmith from Harvard Law School has two good pieces on this issue, both well worth reading.  He also noted the double-standard being applied to Woodward and Assange, and suggests that this case actually suggests that the entire system of security classification ought to be re-thought. You can read his two pieces here and here.