The website "Wikileaks" has been getting a lot of media attention recently after it's leaking of thousands of secret and classified US diplomatic cables. It was also in the headlines in April after it's release of classified footage showing US forces killing Iraqi civilians and journalists. Some governments have been critical of Wikileaks, Hilary Clinton referring to the recent leaks as an "attack on the international community and Sarah Palin describing head-man Julian Assange as having "blood on his hands", and calling for the US government to hunt him down with the same urgency as that with which they hunt down suspected terrorists. Is any of this backlash justified? I have a feeling that such harsh criticism is typical of a person who has been caught in the act of wrong-doing and points the finger at the person who reveals their crimes, in an attempt to draw attention away from their own misdeeds. Is Wikileaks responsible for the death of US soldiers in Iraq? Is there a point at which freedom of information becomes ethically unjustifiable?

I'm inclined to think your psychological account of the response is correct, though perhaps incomplete. I also think the intensity of the fury against the leaks indicates the extent to which the government and many citizens have internalized institutional authority as normal and overriding, that both the government and many citizens have lost touch with other, competing, and sometimes more important sources of authority and obligation. The authorities have reacted hysterically because they find intolerable the idea that people might act upon other grounds and find themselves compelled by duties that the authorities don't define. They are not only upset with these leaks, but they fear that these leaks may inspire others. The policies of the state, however, are not always congruent (and are often not congruent) with the interests of the nation, or with what is morally right. So far, Wikileaks has no demonstrable blood on its hands. If it had, the specifics would be broadcast on FOX 24/7. Defense Secretary Gates has announced that whatever damage may have been done seems "moderate." The military has indicated it has not even found it necessary to warn anyone whom might be in danger. Wikileaks worked carefully with press organizations and through them with the State Department to redact information from the documents that might harm people. (So, organizations that have published the leaks along with Wikileaks such as the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian have blood on their hands, too, if Wikileaks does.) This, of course, may change, and it may turn out that the leaks have caused and will cause suffering and death. And that possibility is a morally troubling dimension of leaks of this sort. It does warrant the judgment that leaking is not the most desirable way of dealing with government misconduct. On the other hand, the leaks have clearly shown that the US government, unlike Wikileaks, actually does have blood on its hands. The Iraq leaks revealed 15,000 deaths that had gone unreported, a number of which may have been criminal in nature. They revealed US complicity in many, many, many cases of torture and abuse of prisoners--details that the public had not known until that point. They have revealed US military actions in Pakistan that had been unknown. And they have confirmed that the US bombed Yemen in November of 2009 killing scores of civilians, many of them children, in an action that had been denied. The leaks have demonstrated that the US government has interfered with investigations of murder and torture in Spain and Germany and that Arab governments have lied about important matters to their people and have been calling for the bombing of Iran. All this involves real blood, not the hypothetical sort to which charges against Wikileaks appeal. Moreover, the leaks reveal real, violent conduct, the sort of conduct about which citizens of free societies ought to know (and ought to want to know) in order to assess the policies of their governments. Wikileaks has also exposed corruption in Iceland, Nigeria, Australia, and Peru. It is a measure of the extent to which the US is not a free society that so much more attention has been focused upon the messenger than upon the deeply troubling content of the message. Having said that, not all leaks are proper or defensible. In my view, violating secrecy classifications is justifiable only when two conditions are met: (1) the violation serves to expose serious government corruption, criminality, or misconduct--in short, when the leak serves the public interest in a substantial way--and (2) when lawful alternatives to exposing the corruption, etc., are not reasonably available. In the case of Wikileaks, I'd say that the jury is still out. Only if we find (1) that the information disclosed on balance serves the public interest in a substantial way and (2) that the information could not have been acquired through lawful channels, will the leaks have been justifiable. It's seem clear to me that the second condition has been met: The failure of the US government and its citizens to pursue proper investigations into the process that led to the Iraq War, the financial corruption involved in prosecuting the wars, into torture, rendition, surveillance, and unlawful killing warrants the conclusion that the information the leaks have revealed about wrongdoing would not have been released through normal, legal channels. The vast numbers of trivial and meaningless documents in the leaks that were classified as secret suggests a pervasive abuse of secrecy classifications. That abuse, too, suggests that the second condition has been met. Still, I think's still too early to tell whether the first condition has been met: that is, on balance, whether the leaks have been for the good. We may soon discover terrible effects of the leaks that will outweigh the benefits so far achieved. To date, however, things look pretty good for the leakers.

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