Stopping a leak

Understandably, once it was learned the "WikiLeaks" whistle-blower website had released 250,000 classified State Department cables to Britain's Guardian newspaper and others, the focus was on what the cables revealed.

It's been widely reported, for instance, that the diplomatic cable traffic, assuming it's the real thing, reveals Saudi Arabia's monarch urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear facilities -- in fact, that many rulers in the Middle East now privately express greater concern over the meddling Iranian "octopus" than they do about Israel.

Another report stated that Yemen's president covered up U.S. strikes on al-Qaida there.

The cables also contend China's Communist Party Politburo was behind the cyber-attack on Google uncovered last year, according to The New York Times.

Even as those with access to them pored through the cables looking for revelations, though, a second stream of commentary has begun warning that real harm might be done to U.S. interests, as those who know how to parse such unredacted documents may figure out the sources of classified information, neutralizing their value at best and possibly even endangering the careers and lives of those in foreign nations who have been providing help to the United States.

Those are legitimate concerns. Anyone who has endangered lives or U.S. security interests by releasing documents they were sworn to keep in confidence must be prosecuted.

But even those expressing the loudest concerns admit 90 percent of this cable traffic falls somewhere between innocuous and merely embarrassing.

It's often been said that if you try to outlaw everything, you end up destroying respect for any laws at all. Similarly, if a government originally intended to do the public's business in the light of day falls into the habit of classifying everything, it will soon lose the ability to keep secret even those few things -- delicate diplomatic negotiations, estimates of an enemy's strength and intentions -- that are really significant.

Wags in the military have long contended most of what gets stamped "secret" or "classified" by our government is in fact being hidden from the real enemy -- the taxpayers.

Why was most of this stuff -- a lot dating back to 2004 -- kept secret in the first place? Are voting citizens of the United States mere children, to be kept in ignorance of virtually everything their elected government is doing?

How can the public have a voice in setting policy if government takes the attitude that we don't need to know much of anything, other than broad outlines presented with the appropriate spin?

For that matter, how "secret" was this material, really? If a mere private first class could download it at his convenience, are we really to believe the dedicated intelligence operatives of Moscow and a dozen other foreign capitals haven't already read it, long ago?