On Monday's Today show, NBC's Matt Lauer downplayed the criminal factor in the release of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic communiques by WikiLeaks, twice labeling the website as only a "messenger" for the documents. Both Lauer and NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell insisted the State Department "crossed a line" by ordering diplomats to spy on foreign diplomats at the United Nations.
The NBC anchor interviewed Republican Congressman Peter King seven minutes into the 7 am Eastern hour on this latest release of confidential documents by WikiLeaks. Midway through the segment, Lauer raised the espionage issue: "Were you surprised to hear that Secretary of State Clinton and her predecessor, Secretary of State Rice, asked their diplomats to, in effect, spy on diplomats at the United Nations, asking for things like credit card numbers, computer passwords, DNA, fingerprints? This does cross a line, doesn't it?"
Mitchell used a similar line in the preceding segment:
MITCHELL: There is already fallout at the United Nations and in foreign capitals about the disclosure...that Secretary of State Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice before her, ordered her diplomats to spy on foreign capitals. That crosses a line between diplomacy and espionage, and that could endanger U.S. diplomats who rely on legal immunity, especially in dangerous parts of the world.
When Rep. King denied that it had crossed a line, the anchor replied, "Why doesn't it cross a line?" The New York Republican correctly pointed out in his answer that "we're doing nothing that every other government doesn't also do to us. It's just not put in the public eye."
Lauer then raised King's call for tough action against WikiLeaks and used his "messenger" label for the website:
LAUER: You want dramatic action taken. You would like to see WikiLeaks, the organization that has, really, served as the messenger for these leaked documents, to be declared a FTO or a foreign terrorist organization. That would put them in the same category as al Qaeda basically.
LAUER: What is the likelihood of that happening?
KING: I would- I was disappointed with what [NBC correspondent] Jim Miklaszewski said [in an earlier report], that it doesn't appear the government is going to be taking tough legal action. If American lives are at risk- and every top military official has said that- then we have to be serious. We should go after them for violating the Espionage Act, and the reason I say 'foreign terrorist organization' is because they're engaged in terrorist activity. Their activity is enabling terrorists kill Americans-
LAUER: But aren't they the messenger? I mean, don't you want to take that action against whoever it was who downloaded these documents and gave them to Wikileaks?
KING: Well, it's both, because he was apparently a PFC [private first class], a low-ranking PFC who should get the most severe sentence. But you're an accessory (unintelligible)- Wikileaks is an accessory to this. They are taking information which they know is classified, which they know can cost life- they are as guilty as he is.
LAUER: According to the Wikileaks website, publishing documents such as these helps to- quote, 'keep governments honest' and this kind of transparency creates- quote, 'a better society, reduced corruption, and stronger democracies.' What's your response to that?
KING: Absolute nonsense- nobody elected Wikileaks to do anything. The fact is the government cannot sign a suicide pact. A government has to protect itself. It has to maintain secrets. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our allies. We owe it to the lives of the men and women who are out on the frontlines fighting for us.
Representative King is correct. The documents that Assange and Wikileaks released earlier in 2010 contained the names and locations of Afghan informants who assisted NATO troops, making them easy targets for retribution by the Taliban. The Australian hacker brushed aside any concerns for their lives: "While acknowledging that leaks like these could harm innocent people, he rationalized such possibilities as mere 'collateral damage, if you will.'" Toby Harnden of The Daily Telegraph, in addition to pointing out this endangering of the Afghanis, also noted how the WikiLeaks founder "admitted that he was seeking to manipulate and create 'maximum political impact'" with his release of a video which contained edited gun camera footage of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq where employees of Reuters were mistakenly killed.
Just over three months earlier, on August 23, Lauer advanced Assange's charge that the rape allegation against him was a Defense Department smear: "And payback? The founder of WikiLeaks, the Web site that leaked classified war documents, briefly named in a rape case in Sweden. He says he's innocent. Those charges have been dropped and now he suggests it's all part of a Pentagon smear campaign today."