WikiLeak Ethics

Decades ago I worked in the British civil service. I remember a colleague once got into trouble when security guards, patrolling the office one night, found he had left a secret paper on his desk. To be exact it was a single empty page -- a blank continuation sheet, stamped "secret". The guards, following procedure, had recorded a "breach", and sealed the room. (The stray page was not from a document about biological weapons or terrorist cells, by the way. It had fallen out of a note about monetary aggregates, or some dull thing. Even the pages it belonged with, the ones with text on them, said nothing sensitive.)

Governments are so routinely intent on withholding information that one wants to cheer whenever somebody leaks a stash of material. But I had mixed feelings about the WikiLeaks archive from the beginning, and nothing I have read in it or about it has made me feel any more comfortable.

To begin with, WikiLeaks is not very good at explaining itself. Julian Assange is opposed to (almost?) all official secrets. Unless you believe there is no such thing as a threat to national security, that is a difficult position to defend -- but it does have an appealing innocence. The problem is, WikiLeaks isn't innocent. It is not a disinterested conduit for information. The "Collateral Murder" video, its previous hit, was edited to heighten the drama, and given a sensational title. The aim was not mere disclosure but impact. I think that material did belong in the public domain: disturbed as I was to read that the thing had been edited, it was something that people needed to see. But WikiLeaks is not just acting as a channel for any and all improperly suppressed information. It has axes to grind. That calls into question its judgment about what can properly be made public and how.

Judgment does need to be exercised, as WikiLeaks itself insists: it has held back thousands of documents from the Afghanistan archive pending "harm minimization". The question is, who do I trust to decide what should be secret, the Pentagon or Julian Assange? The answer is neither.

A few weeks ago the McChrystal scandal was in the news. I asked a few journalist friends about it. "Suppose you had the story that Hastings had. But also suppose that you thought McChrystal was a great general, that the war was worth fighting, and he would have to resign if you reported what his team had said. Wouldn't you feel some qualms about writing the story?" Most of my friends said that they might, but that good journalists suppress such thoughts because it was not their job to worry about it. Yes, I thought. So whose job is it, then?

Actions have consequences. You cannot disown them. Legal sanctions aside, the reporter/publisher of secret information does have to keep some kind of public interest test in mind. Conceivably, documents have been properly classified as secret: some are secret for a good reason. Is this document one of them? What public interest would be served by publishing it regardless, at what cost, to whom? This might not be an easy question to answer. It is a heavy responsibility. It implies a certain degree of care. The startling volume of material released by WikiLeaks makes it hard to believe much care, let alone adequate care, was taken.

It's too early to say whether the material will or will not change our view of the war. I wouldn't want to opine on that on the basis of reading the NYT's and the Guardian's stories and less than 200 pages -- say 0.2% of the total. The material will take months to sift. A lode like this must surely yield some improvement in our understanding. For now, though, I cannot see that we have learned anything important. So far, we have certainly not learned what I think WikiLeaks wanted us to learn -- namely, that the war is a gross abuse of power. (If you think that now, you already did.) Meanwhile, the London Times is reporting that the documents contain the names of informants, whose lives may now be in danger. The prospects of gathering intelligence in future have certainly been compromised. Maybe Assange is more convinced than I am that the public interest test for this remarkable coup has been passed. Or perhaps he thinks it is not his job to worry about it.

I recommend Raffi Khatchadourian's New Yorker profile of Assange and WikiLeaks. This recording of a discussion with Khatchadourian, Jeffrey Toobin, and Steve Coll is well worth listening to. Was the leak unethical, Coll and Khatchadourian are asked? Yes, says Coll straight away. Khatchadourian has to think about it, but agrees