Is WikiLeaks WikiLegal?
Last week I sided with transparency over state secrets in the case of the Washington Post‘s special reporting on the U.S. intelligence buildup since 9/11. In that instance, the willingness of the intelligence community to pass on making any real objections provided no reason to think the usual cost of transparency – safety or national security – was in play.
Today it’s same song, second verse. The transparency site WikiLeaks has just released 91,000 classified documents related to the Afghanistan war, and most major papers – which received advance copies – are running various stories related to the documents.
The White House isn’t happy. According to a statement from National Security Adviser Jim Jones:
The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.
Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents – the United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted.
This is the opposite case of the Post. WikiLeaks gave the government no heads-up, no chance for review, no opportunity for objection.
Now that’s not itself wrong. There may be good reasons to leak documents that the U.S. government doesn’t want people to see, but it does complicate how we morally evaluate the leaks.
The New York Times says of WikiLeaks’ mission:
WikiLeaks.org, the online organization that posted tens of thousands of classified military field reports about the Afghan war on Sunday, says its goal in disclosing secret documents is to reveal “unethical behavior” by governments and corporations.
Since it was founded in December 2006, WikiLeaks has exposed internal memos about the dumping of toxic material off the African coast, the membership rolls of a racist British party, and the American military’s manual for operating its prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
To WikiLeaks, this is a crusade. They are not a U.S. organization, and they believe they have an obligation to use transparency to expose American wrongdoing. This is all fine and good, but the reality is that a rogue transparency outfit may provoke rogue treatment. Don’t expect the Supreme Court to protect WikiLeaks the way it might a journalist. And don’t expect the U.S. armed forces to remain complacent. They will likely increase their measures to prevent leaks, and prosecute would be sources more harshly.
WikiLeaks may have accomplished some major objectives, but it probably made its own life more difficult in the process.
Image of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user New Media Days.