More on Mullen, Twitter, and the Ethics of WikiLeaks

I mentioned late last night my surprise at seeing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, resorting to Twitter to deplore the ethics of WikiLeaks. After the jump, a note from Steven T. Corneliussen, who served on a ship with Mullen years ago, arguing that far from being surprising, this is perfectly in character for the man. (Hint: family background.)

Cornelliussen's note also addresses the substance of Mullen's claim that Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks team have "blood on their hands" for releasing reports full of names of Afghans who had worked with US or NATO troops. As time goes on, as more of the reports are publicized and digested, and as Assange himself gets more air time, I find myself agreeing more and more with Clive Crook's position, here. In essence Crook says: the largest-scale "ethics" of this leak will take a long time to judge -- depending what finally proves to be in there, how much harm is done to people unwittingly named, and how if at all it affects the course of the war. But we already know that releasing so many names is, at a minimum, a morally weighty issue -- and by acting as if it is not, Julian Assange is putting himself and his operation in an increasingly bad light.
Here is a reader's note today making a similar argument:

The Times [of London], which is unfortunately (for me) behind the Great Wall of Rupert, ran a story on Afghan informants who may have been outed by wikileaks. It was excerpted by this blog though:   [JF note: The blog item is titled, "Taliban Use WikiLeaks to Hunt, Murder Named Afghans" and goes on to make that case. It then quotes Assange's reaction, which is more or less, "not my problem."]

I found Assange's reaction to be appalling. Either he hadn't considered the consequences of his actions, beyond a simple "transparency is always good" mindset, and reacted defensively and instinctively (which is bad) or he believes that anyone working as an informant to Nato deserves to be outed and tortured/killed by the Taliban and he has no moral qualms about this (which is very, very bad). Reminded me a lot of Mark Zuckerberg, another unexpected internet mogul who seems to have a limited understanding of the consequences of flippant amorality.

Just to be clear, I don't think this necessarily means that the leak was a bad thing, in the grand scheme of things (I think only 10 years worth of hindsight will tell us that). I just wish Assange could show a little more seriousness about the central moral dilemma of it.

I don't pretend to be presenting a full, argued-out position here. Rather this is just a real-time note that, at this stage in the unfolding drama, the "moral" view about this massive data-dump is as complex and dilemma-ridden as most other aspects of the war itself.

Steven Corneliussen writes about Mullen:

In the Mediterranean way back in the early 70s, I was second in command of the first ship he ever commanded -- the grand and mighty tanker USS Noxubee, built in WWII before either he or I was born. I admit to an enormous pro-Mullen bias when I say that if Mike Mullen worries about blood in the current incident, my bet is that the worry is valid.

But as to your proposal that a Joint Chiefs chairman's Twitter constitutes "a milepost in communication styles," there's something more objective to say, something I know that you yourself -- a Californian -- already know: Mike Mullen's dad was Jack Mullen, a well-known and well-regarded Hollywood publicist. Here's why I think this matters. I grew up in the Navy, and one of the reasons I called Mike Mullen the best naval officer I ever saw is that he's an immensely gifted communicator, starting with this key principle: the need to be acutely aware of the audience. Moreover, his temperament was immensely well suited to the Vietnam era's Elmo Zumwalt, the resourceful, sailor-friendly chief of naval operations whose "Z-gram" fleetwide orders improved life and morale. Sailors -- and presumably now also soldiers and Marines -- genuinely liked Mike Mullen. He stayed sharply aware of how others saw things, and he could connect with anybody. Judging by what I saw, the surprise would be if, as Joint Chiefs chairman, he did not use the new tools for connecting.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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