In which I attempt a moral analysis of Wikileaks and Julian Assange without engaging in gratuitous moralizing.
The news that prefaced the actual release of the diplomatic cables made one thing clear: Bradley Manning committed a crime by breaking the secrecy of classified documents. Now that’s out of the way, what about Wikileaks’ actually disbursing the documents? And what of the press that covered the release, and passed along their contents? I’m not going to make legal pronouncements; let’s leave that to the lawyers. But the morals?
There are three approaches to ethics, something I covered a while back. Let me repeat it here:
- Virtue Ethics focuses on the intent and character of the doer.
- Deontology posits that there are moral duties towards a formal action, the deed itself, absent consideration of the consequences. Immanuel Kant is one of its most famous adherents, and (almost?) all religions are deontological by nature.
- Consequentialism judges the rightness or wrongness of an act based on the consequences produced. Its largest failing is that it doesn’t necessarily provide a guide as to what to do at the time of the dilemma itself.
Wikileaks breaks secrecy, but do those revelations show that this information deserves to be kept secret? This is a central question when discussing this issue. As the contents of the leaked cables come out, we see a partial picture of how international diplomacy works. Countries whisper to each other, backstab each other, conspire against each other and form alliances with each other while all claiming to be part of a global community. It’s a horrible truth, but much of this information falls under the realm of common sense and conventional wisdom.
What about certain secrets, the ones that reveal horrible acts? One of the revelations is that a government contractor fed into a Pashtun pedophilia ring. There is no situation, under any political or moral calculus,that this is excusable. No matter how “acceptable” this is among the Pashtun, this is not “acceptable” anywhere, just as executing gays for being gay may be acceptable for the Taliban, but it is not acceptable in a Western society.
The better question to ask about the Pashtun pedophilia ring would be: could this information have been released without jeopardizing international diplomatic relations? The answer is YES. Assange and friends have clearly indicated that the paradigm in this day and age is for Information to be unfiltered and free of government, journalistic, or corporate filtration, but at what cost? Was the listing of facilities we considered “vital” a necessary sacrifice in releasing this information?
It’s clear that Assange cares little about the consequences of his actions. The man proudly claimed the deaths of 1300 Kenyans to be “worth” revealing what he revealed, only to retract his statements when he was called on it.
In the past, records of government-endorsed crimes remain veiled for a very long time, if not forever, until at least someone with a conscience and nothing to lose decides it is time for this information to be released. It’s also a conventional rumour that “anonymous” leaks are sometimes initiated from within the government itself. But there is a reason for this release to be controlled. Yes, at times it means we don’t get to prosecute the government contractor promoting a pedophilia ring in a timely manner, but this also means that 1300 Kenyans may still be alive. The release of these cables does not assure that our contractors will deal with the Pashtun on nefarious means, it just means that records will not be kept.
Ross Douthat commented on the inevitable turtling early on. Today, Paul Carr of TechCrunch echoes this sentiment, in a language even their readers should be able to understand:
I hate Julian Assange. I hate the way he’s posing as a champion of truth and justice whilst hiding in the shadows and resorting to blackmail in a drawn-out attempt to avoid having to justify answer criminal charges in a publicly-accessible court of law. I hate the fact that he’s trading on a myth that We The People have a right to know everything our governments are saying and doing in our name when, in fact, we elect people to act in our best interests on a global stage without necessarily giving us a heads up every time they want to have an off-the-record chat with a dictator. (If every tiny decision has to be made based on how it will play in public, then we’ll soon end up with a whole load of crowd-pleasing decisions but very little actual diplomacy. Palling around with Chinese leaders or Arab kings might be a strategic no-brainer but it doesn’t play great in the heartland.)
Thousands – maybe millions – of people had access to the cables – which, as openness goes, is pretty impressive. Hell, even a lowly Private like Bradley Manning – the junior soldier with a grudge against the American military who allegedly leaked the documents to Wikileaks – had access to them. Now, however, thanks to Wikileaks, all of that is likely to stop. What’s also likely to stop is the routine documenting of casual conversations, the candid sharing of opinions between allies – and a whole bunch of other acts of openness which if Wikileaks actually meant a word it said, the organisation should be all for. And for… what? So that millions of us who had no real business – beyond a basic prurient interest – in knowing what conversations are being had behind closed diplomatic doors could feel important. Well, great. Responsible openness’ loss is a few million busybodies’ gain.
Julian Assange is no hero. If he is the only one we have left who can lead government to accountability, then we have lost faith in our ability to police ourselves; in our ability to hold our government responsible; in our ability to bear the weight of the crimes committed in our name without us even knowing, knowing full well that in a world like ours, those afraid to sin are doomed to be killed by those who do. Assange is, as Hitchens writes, a megalomaniac with a political agenda. As a believer in Ordered Liberty, I cannot abide by Assange’s anarchic world view. Anarchy and chaos are enemies of liberty.
My next post on this issue will discuss the matter of the permanent State, the difference between established corruption and a corrupt establishment, and the moral costs a civil society bears.