A few months back, I was very happy that Wikileaks leaked U.S. government documents, because the material demonstrated a pattern of misconduct and abuse in the conduct of current U.S. wars. It was exhilarating to see yet more proof of the disastrously stupid strategy and illegal tactics the Bush II administration took in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my mind, I equated these leaks to the Pentagon papers, which showed the American people how much the U.S. government was lying to them about the Viet Nam War.
I don’t feel so good about the latest round of Wikileaks leaks of U.S. government documents. In fact I was a little pissed-off at Wikileaks honcho Julian Assange for revealing confidential government documents.
It’s simple why my reaction differed so much this time around: in these latest Wikileaks leaks there was nothing or very little revealed that showed that the government of government officials engaged in illegal activities or lying to the American people.
So are the Wikileaks leaks right or wrong? Or more aptly put, when is leaking confidential material appropriate?
Many people want to live in a world of sharply-defined right and wrong in which there are no gray areas. Unfortunately, the real world is a messy place when it comes to ethics and morals. As an example, let’s take a look at “Thou shalt not kill,” one of the 10 commandments, the accepted moral foundation for three religions. Consider how society (not me) will react to these instances in killing:
- A soldier kills an armed enemy soldier on the battlefield.
- A woman is attacked with a knife and as she struggles, she accidentally plunges the knife into the heart of the assailant.
- A man finds his wife in bed with another man.
- A crazy guy with a gun shoots a bunch of people in a mall.
This set of examples should convince readers that according to most civil societies the act of killing a human being can often be justified. What matters is the context.
With that in mind, I developed a set of principles that I propose leakers and potential leakers of all types should use in determining whether to push the “enter” key or hold off:
- Leaking is not hacking. Hacking into someone else’s computer system is always wrong if an individual or a private organization does it, and almost always wrong when a government does it.
- If the leaked material demonstrates that a crime has been committed against either the law of the country or international law or that a government or organization has lied explicitly about policy or other important matters, then the leaker has a moral responsibility to leak the documents as soon as possible.
- If the leaked material does not show illegal activity or a pattern of lying (not a little yarn told at a cocktail party), then the leaker should wait at least 20 years to release the material.
We should rightfully exempt the news media from these prescriptions. Once the news media has the material, they have to report it, that is, if it’s real news.