Last June, The New Yorker ran a feature story about the founder and head honcho of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.
In conversations, more than one person who doesn’t like what Wikileaks is doing has referred to that article, and in particular his quote about the possibility that his leaks hurt innocent people. The quote is bolded in the following excerpt from the story:
Recently, he posted military documents that included the Social Security numbers of soldiers, and in the Bunker I asked him if WikiLeaks’ mission would have been compromised if he had redacted these small bits. He said that some leaks risked harming innocent people—“collateral damage, if you will”—but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document. Perhaps the Social Security numbers would one day be important to researchers investigating wrongdoing, he said; by releasing the information he would allow judgment to occur in the open.
Let’s neglect the fact that the statement comes to us hearsay, not in quotes but from the reporter’s notes. Let’s focus on the offense to polite sensibilities made by Assange’s willingness to create innocent victims as collateral damage in his war against government confidentiality.
Consider the following types of people who routinely sacrifice innocents:
- Do Presidents of the United States or leaders of any other countries care that much about innocent victims when they send soldiers into the neighborhoods of foreign cities?
- Do legislators care that much about innocent victims when they refuse to extend unemployment benefits or cut people from Medicaid roles?
- Do reporters care that much about innocents when they file stories that could hurt people, whether the information is truly news or based on unsubstantiated reports from Matt Drudge and other bottom-feeding online speculators?
- Do chief executive officers care that much about innocent victims when they lay off thousands of workers while giving millions to senior management?
- Do cost-cutting contractors who do substandard work or drug companies that hide studies care that much about innocent victims?
I venture that most people will agree with #1 on that list—that presidents sometimes have to go to war—and the last election tells us that many people are okay with #2. The further down the list we go, the fewer people are going to agree that the creation of human collateral damage warrants the actions undertaken.
Where do Assange and Wikileaks stand? I think Assange got it right: he is a kind of journalist, but only a kind, just as the duck-billed platypus is a kind of mammal, no matter that it lays eggs.
Journalists pretty much have to cover the release of documents, although they can do so with discretion by keeping the discussion on a general level.
Buts as a special subspecies of journalism, Assange and other leakers must pick and choose. If the release of documents is justified because it shows the government committed crimes or lied in a major way, then Assange can justify his victims, at least to some extent. But, as I stated in an OpEdge post earlier this week, if the documents show neither crime nor major lie, then they should not be released for at least 20 years. The fact that innocent people suffer from the unnecessary release of confidential documents just increases the magnitude of the offense.