The massive release of documents came not from a news organization but from WikiLeaks, a three-and-a-half-year-old online site with no headquarters, no physical presence anywhere, and with a history of releasing secrets of all sorts, from rulebooks for Guantanamo Bay to Icelandic bank records to sorority initiation rituals.
WikiLeaks' founder, 39-year-old Australian Julian Assange acknowledges that he has an agenda. "We hope that the release of this material will result in the significant reforms in U.S. and allied policy in Afghanistan," he says.
Traditional media outlets don't talk that way, but WikiLeaks is completely unlike traditional media, reports CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. For instance, newspapers often consult governments before publishing secrets.
"It requires judgment on part of gatekeepers to look for correct balance," says the Washington Post's Jim Hoagland.
WikiLeaks released its Afhgan war diary with no consultations, and there's another key distinction. In 1971, when the Nixon administration tried to stop the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon papers, a classified history of Vietnam, the public had the paper's history and reputation as a measuring rod. WikiLeaks is at root anonymous which gives pause to a lifelong defender of first amendment rights:
"It's not as if I have any information to suggest that they are highly trained in national security matters," says First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
Does that matter anymore? One person with a laptop can reach as far as the biggest newspaper or TV network and if that person wants to publish, it's published.
"We're moving toward a society in which no secrets are safe even though there is a need for some secrets," says Abrams. "To some extent, we're going to have to get used to it."
The press used to see itself as a gatekeeper, deciding what information is reliable enough to make public. Now there are no gates.
More on the leaked documents and WikiLeaks:
U.S. Assesses Impact of WikiLeaks Release
Hotsheet: White House Tries to Kill the Messenger
WikiLeaks Founder: Many More Documents to Come
WikiLeaks: Evidence of War Crimes in Afghan Docs
Afghan Gov't "Shocked" by Leak of War Documents
Analyst: WikiLeaks Report Fuels War Debate
WikiLeaks Reveals Grim Afghan War Realities
Report: Pakistan Aiding Afghan Insurgency
Papers: Leaks Show Unreported Afghan Deaths