I really don't know what Julian Assange and his guys at wikileaks are thinking or perhaps smoking (and until today I didn't care that much). But now they've moved from publishing thousands of documents on the war in Afghanistan (argues wikileaks: we've got a right to know what is done in our name) to dumping thousands of, well, I'd say as of today, formerly classified diplomatic cables (argues wikileaks: we'll change the world and redefine history). I did not like the publication of the Afghanistan material, but this last move provokes serious questions.
First, what exactly is wikileaks mandate? I don't mind people wanting to change the world, but there are democratic principles at stake here. The American government after all is elected by the American people and in representing them has the authority to decide what is to be published and what is to be classified. Not in their own interest, but more importantly, in the interest of the nation. Julian Assange, however, has no such mandate. And disregarding the security interests of military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq and the security interets of the American people and its alliies is not something to be particularily proud of (you'll certainly notice how I struggle to find modest words here).
Second, could it therefore be legitimate to publish the material? Well, perhaps there is an argument to be made that what wikileaks is doing today is the natural extension of what the regular print media did in the past. Investigative reporting of sorts. However, when the likes of Woodward, Bernstein, and others came up with their stories, they did so after careful and extensive research (well, not always and I am not a fan of our journalists, but anyway). Only after they got all sides of a story did they go ahead with publishing it and when they did, they did so because they believed it was in the public interest. And often enough they withhold a story when they were convinced or let themselves be convinced that there was a national security risk in publishing it. Put differently: Investigative reporters had an ethics code, an interest in the public good. And they acted with responsibility. When publishing a story that was controversial they tried to balance national security with the public interest and most of the time they struck the right balance. Compare that to wikileaks: They simply wreak havoc on the diplomatic relations of the United States and I for one do not believe that this is in anybodys interest (except perhaps that of Julian Assange personally). To sum up: No, this sort of thing is not the modern day equivalent of investigative reporting and no, its not legitimate.