AP History Notes

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How Will WikiLeaks Impact the Historical Profession?

There has been some discussion about WikiLeaks and whether is it a good or bad thing for historians? Does the top secret information help historians write a more accurate narrative or do the leaks ensure that future access will be even more difficult and ultimately hinder future historiography? Is it ultimately so harmful that it could never be useful? Is there a level where historians are not entitled to such sensitive data? All legitimate questions.

The Chicago Tribune spoke with several historians and authors about the leaks and about the comparisons some are making between WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers. I think they are born from much different circumstances and motivations, but certainly there are some similarities. Here is a sample from that editorial:

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.

“But this is extremely dangerous, given the imperatives of diplomacy. Is there some profound deception of the American people and the world going on which, as with Ellsberg, requires an insider to, in effect, blow the whistle? I don’t get that sense. I get the sense that there are people out there, like the WikiLeaks people, who have a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency, who are simply offended by any state actions that are cloaked.”

But Ellsberg believes there are parallels to the documents he leaked nearly 40 years ago. He says that while early media reports about WikiLeaks focused on gossip and personalities, memos are now emerging that show greater U.S. involvement in Pakistan than the government acknowledged, a pattern revealed by the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam.

“This means the Obama administration is on a path that is as dangerous as can be,” Ellsberg says, noting Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. “I think the press did a disservice by leading with so much gossip, which isn’t terribly important.”

Certainly WikiLeaks will ultimately not be a bright spot for the Obama Administration, but I am more concerned about its impact on future historian’s access to sensitive documents. Never will we get enough access or enough information no matter how sensitive, but I do worry how this impacts the future. For now, we have some extraordinary documents (I have looked through some and it is enormous and incredible), but I have yet to see a smoking gun. It’s real foreign policy and political agendas. I do also worry about the revealing of informants and sensitive data. There has to be plenty of information leaked that could get people killed, I hope not, but I wonder.

So in the end there are multiple aspects to WikiLeaks, certainly good and bad.