The New York Times is catching flak for declining to post those hacked climate change e-mails, since (ho ho!) they’ve leaked classified information in the past. This strikes me as a rather silly comparison. In the instance most of the critics are thinking about, the Times got wind of a massive and almost certainly illegal program of domestic spying authorized by the president. They then sat on the story for a year and ultimately published enough information to give the public some sense of what was going on. I have little doubt there’s plenty more in James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s files that never made it to print. Wild assertions of harm to national security were thrown about, but I never saw anyone adequately explain just how the level of detail in those stories could conceivably have been of benefit to al Qaeda, unless they had somehow been under the impression that the government was making no effort to conduct electronic surveillance on terrorists. The story was fundamentally a procedural one—of great interest if you care about the Constitution and the rule of law, but of relatively little practical significance for terrorists who could not possibly know whether or not they had been targeted, either by a legitimate FISA warrant or the extrajudicial NSA program.
The instant case involves some 200 megabytes of private correspondence, the vast bulk of which is presumably personal e-mail with no news value whatever, some of the more salacious bits of which appear to consist of academics trash-talking about climate change skeptics, and some very small portion of which may indicate genuine academic malfeasance. This last category should surely be reported to the extent it has implications for public policy. And the Times and other papers have, in fact, published stories about the material. But I’m utterly at a loss as to why anyone thinks this means they ought to just throw the whole 200 megabyte archive up on the Web—where it is, of course, already floating around anyway. The actually analogous case would be insisting that, on top of reporting the NSA story, the Times should have published operational files containing detailed technical information about interception capabilities and a list of targets under surveillance. The comparison seems so facially ludicrous that I can’t believe anyone making it gave the matter five seconds thought. Is there any real question that 95% of the correspondence in that archive is just private communication of no legitimate public interest? Weighing claims of potential harms to national security—however dubious—about a democratic interest in being informed about domestic surveillance is both necessary and extraordinarily difficult. Weighing the admittedly less pressing claims of academics’ privacy against… what, idle curiosity? Why is that even a question?