Reflections Blog

The Ethics of WikiLeaks

I have to confess that I was not familiar with the Web site WikiLeaks until last April when it posted a video that purported to show U.S. forces killing Iraqi civilians.  Then in July, the site released an Afghan War Diary that included nearly 77,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan, many of which had been classified documents, and some of which allegedly reveal wrongdoings by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  Shortly thereafter, Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army intelligence analyst, was arrested for leaking the documents.  It’s not clear at this point whether Manning was responsible for the leak or what charges the government might eventually bring against him.

WikiLeaks is a small, voluntary organization that publishes documents from anonymous sources that would otherwise be unavailable to the public.  In other words, it is a publishing outlet for dissidents, oppressed journalists, and whistleblowers who would otherwise have few avenues for publicizing wrongdoing by governments, corporations, and other entities.  WikiLeaks has been hailed by many people, particularly those in other news organizations, as the future of journalism—and assailed by others, particularly those who want to safeguard information, as a threat.

When the news broke that WikiLeaks was posting secret documents related to the U.S. Army’s conduct in the war in Afghanistan, I was reminded of my own role as an Army intelligence officer decades ago.  In the early 70’s, I was a member of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and worked as a night watch officer in the Pentagon.  I was one of a group of officers who manned a DIA desk overnight.  We monitored the dispatches from U.S. embassies and bases overseas that came in overnight and determined what to do with them.  We also responded to requests for information from other agencies.  During my year in the DIA, I sat at a desk literally surrounded by hundreds of filing cabinets filled with secret and top secret information, and I was privy to classified reports of events unfolding in real time around the world while I was on duty.

I worked from eight o’clock at night until six the next morning.  Then I went home and slept, typically waking up at one or two in the afternoon.  Late one afternoon, I made a startling discovery.  I happened to watch the evening news on one of the major television networks, and they were reporting on a story occurring overseas, a story I was already familiar with because I’d read the classified dispatches about it the night before.  What startled me is that the network got it wrong, and not just a little wrong—they were clueless about what had actually happened.  It took them days to untangle it, and none of the networks ever got it completely right.  After that, I began watching the evening news regularly and discovered that the news organizations rarely learned of breaking news as quickly as I did and never had a complete grasp of what was going on.

It occurred to me at the time that I could have been an incredible source for some enterprising network news reporter.  I could have picked up the phone, called Dan Rather, and said, “Off the record, let me tell you what’s really happening over there.”  Knowing what others don’t know and having the ability to enlighten them and perhaps change the course of history gives you a sense of power.  But I never made that call to Dan Rather or anyone else.  I never talked about the secrets I knew with anyone, and I thought about that as I read the stories about WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.

I didn’t leak documents or reveal what I knew because the information wasn’t mine to give.  It belonged to my employer.  The government entrusted me to safeguard that information, and I felt a sacred duty to live up to that trust.  But in fairness to people who do leak information to the press, I was never put in a position where I felt that my obligations were compromised by what I learned.  I never saw anything indicating that my country was doing something outrageously in conflict with the Geneva Convention, my own values, or universal standards of human conduct.  Had I become aware of something like that, then I would have been faced with a moral dilemma where keeping silent would have meant being complicit in conduct I couldn’t condone or defend.

So I’m not sure at this point what to think about Bradley Manning (or whoever gave those documents to WikiLeaks).  I don’t know whether he’s a troubled young man seeking attention or a modern hero whose courageous actions have brought to light the grievous misdeeds of a powerful country.  I do know that had I been in his shoes I would have to have done some substantial soul searching before I revealed information I had vowed to protect.

Meanwhile, one other aspect of this affair troubles me.  Although I believe in the free press and WikiLeaks’ right to publish information they think people have a right to know, I wish they were as zealous about publishing secret documents from the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The U.S. is too easy a target.  We are an open society and hold ourselves to high standards of conduct—so much so that when we fall from grace (e.g., Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding) the repercussions are long and loud.  Around the world, people are (rightly) outraged, and a great many Americans disapprove of and worry about behavior (like the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) that is clearly beneath acceptable standards of decency.

Meanwhile, our enemies hijack commercial airliners and fly them into buildings, killing thousands of innocent civilians.  They kidnap civilians, behead them on videotape, and make those tapes available throughout the Middle East.  They use children as human shields, brainwash impressionable youths and turn them into suicide bombers.  And when they capture members of the American military, they nearly always torture and execute them.  Their standards of conduct are so vile that it’s difficult to speak of whatever the U.S. has done in the same breath.  If our soldiers ever used children as human shields, the howls of outrage of would be loudest in Moline and Bakersfield and Omaha.  We would prosecute the offenders and fire the generals whose troops were responsible.

WikiLeaks claims that it has documents proving that some members of the U.S. military committed war crimes.  I say, let’s see that evidence.  If it’s true, let’s determine who was responsible and prosecute them according to the law.  We can’t and won’t condone criminal acts committed by our troops.  But let’s also acknowledge that when a member of the Taliban murders a civilian, that’s also a war crime.  Whatever standards apply to Americans or our allies in combat also apply to our enemies.  It would be nice to see WikiLeaks and others in the world press as outraged by al Qaeda and Taliban atrocities as they are by offenses allegedly committed by American forces, but I think they’ve come to expect our enemies to commit morally repugnant acts, so when it happens it’s “business as usual.” 

I respect the high ethical standard WikiLeaks has adopted, but I wish their doctrine included some standards of fairness and equity.  It’s easy to sit astride a journalistic high horse, waving the flag of truth, when you’re reporting just one side of the story, which happens to be the easiest side to tell.    It’s more difficult to tell a balanced story, one which applies an equal moral standard to all sides of a conflict.

Copyright  ©2010 by Terry R. Bacon.  All rights reserved.


Thea Pilarczyk

This is really balanced and insightful, thank you! It's nice to hear an objective viewpoint on such a heated topic.

The fight for equality, whether for human rights or for the sharing of information, is certainly always a pendulum swing...the pendulum takes decades, sometimes longer, before it lays peacefully in the middle. I wonder if humanity, with all of our inherent biases despite our best efforts to shrug them off, will ever be able to report the news truly objectively?

March 18, 2011, 10:38 AM
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