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Leaks abide, over beers or bandwidth

The form changes; the stories, not so much.

By Carl Golden

I readily confess my ignorance concerning nearly everything computer-related.

I don't know a gigabyte from an overbite, and, to me, Spam will always be a gelatinous mass found in a blue can with an odd-looking key attached that allows the purchaser to uncover the culinary delight inside.

Megahertz is either a very large car-rental agency or how I would describe a particularly bad bruise. An icon is someone I look up to and admire, a mouse is something I set a trap for in my basement, and a server is what the pretty young lady at Applebee's informs me she is and will be for as long as I remain there.

When one of those ominous alarms pops up on my computer screen, suggesting that if I continue to type improper commands the entire apparatus will blow up in 60 seconds, panic sets in. I call for one of my young daughters, who are in elementary and middle school. One of them rushes in, touches a few keys, and the world is right again. Only the fact they are my daughters prevents further humiliation.

With all that in mind, I set out to read and comprehend the global controversy over WikiLeaks and its unauthorized Internet posting of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, which has set diplomats and governments all atwitter (don't get me started on Twitter) and precipitated the arrest of its founder on sex charges this week.

Needless to say, I was totally at sea after about the first dozen or so paragraphs I read, which sought to explain how WikiLeaks disseminated the material in question and what steps governments and private interests were taking to block any additional distribution.

Aside from the embarrassment that usually results when someone offers a candid opinion of someone else in private only to see it become public, I agree with an unnamed European diplomat who, according to one published report, told his American counterpart, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you."

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Between bar stools

The entire WikiLeaks episode, it seems to me, is just another government leak writ large.

I spent eight years of my life as press secretary to New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and another three years in a similar role to Gov. Christie Whitman - which is to say, I know from leaks.

In those days before high-tech communication, leaking information to a reporter was a simple task usually carried out via telephone, face to face over a cup of coffee, or from one bar stool to another over some other beverage.

Computers have changed all that, of course. They have opened the way for a leaker to communicate with a leakee from the comfort and privacy of his kitchen table.

But while it was somewhat easier in the old days to track down the source of a leak, it was just as pointless then as it is now to expend time and energy following whatever trail existed and trying to track down the culprit. Even when a probable leaker was identified, it became the accuser's word vs. the denier's - a confrontation that tended to resolve nothing.

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Heads will roll

Any press secretary unable to respond effectively to information leaked onto the front page shouldn't hold the job in any event. Such responses are usually preceded by a few minutes' worth of colorful profanity and threats that heads will roll (which are never followed through on), before one sets about the task of confirming, clarifying, refuting, or laughingly dismissing whatever was contained in the leak.

I understand that the material obtained by WikiLeaks involves highly classified official documents, and it is not my intention to minimize their impact or danger by comparing them to leaks about what might be in next year's state budget or who might be in line for a cabinet position in Trenton. It seems to me, though, that so far, the president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense have responded effectively and contained the damage inflicted by the WikiLeaks disclosures.

At the same time, it does make me yearn for the days when leaks were carried out surreptitiously but personally, rather than by anonymously hitting the "send" button on a keyboard. Now, before my screen erupts in a splash of red warning messages, I've got to go.