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Too Much Information

CANBERRAAs a British court weighs whether Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden, and American prosecutors weigh the criminal charges they will file against Private Bradley Manning, the alleged major source for the disclosures by Assange’s WikiLeaks, global debate continues on whether such revelations do more good than harm. But, too often, that debate is polarized as national security vs. democratic accountability, with no room given to the distinctions that really matter.

In government, any leak is, by definition, embarrassing to someone, somewhere in the system. Most leaks are likely to involve some breach of law by the original source, if not by the publisher. But that doesn’t mean that all leaks should be condemned.

One of the hardest lessons for senior government officials to learn –­ including for me, when I was Australian Attorney General and Foreign Minister – is the futility, in all but a tiny minority of cases, of trying to prosecute and punish those responsible for leaks. It doesn’t undo the original damage, and usually compounds it with further publicity. The media are never more enthusiastic about free speech than when they see it reddening the faces, with rage or humiliation, of those in power. Prosecution usually boosts leakers’ stature, making it useless as a deterrent.

But some lines do have to be drawn if good government is to be possible, just as a zone of privacy in our personal and family lives is crucial to sustaining the relationships that matter most to us. As the sex-texting former United States Congressman Anthony Weiner is painfully learning, there is such a thing as too much information. The trick is to know how and where to set boundaries that concede neither too much nor too little to those with a vested interest, for good reasons or bad, in avoiding scrutiny.