Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks: What is the real motivation?

As I understand it, the ostensible justification of Wikileaks is ‘whistleblowing’ — the revealing of wrongdoing that has been kept secret or covered up.
This is important, because in normal circumstances the breaking of confidences can be considered immoral. Today I received an e-mail (ironically) from the Guardian newspaper group. At the bottom, it contained what is becoming a standard ‘disclaimer’:
This e-mail and all attachments are confidential and may also be privileged. If you are not the named recipient, please notify the sender and delete the e-mail and all attachments immediately. Do not disclose the contents to another person. You may not use the information for any purpose, or store, or copy, it in any way.
Given the actual content of the e-mail, this does seem slightly over the top. Moreover, I generally find myself wondering whether someone I’ve never met who sends me an e-mail I have not requested can place me under such a moral obligation — particularly if they’ve sent it to me by accident.
Nevertheless, I take the attitude that I can interpret the rider as, in effect, a personal request, as if the person at the other end were saying to me, “Look, if we’ve messed this up, please don’t go blabbing it everywhere, and if this is meant for you, please treat this communication as being between the two of us.”
The decision to reveal the contents of the e-mail would therefore be a decision to decline such a request, which puts it, in the end, at the level of other, inter-personal, moral decisions.
However, there are indeed occasions where information one receives ought to be made known to others, even against the wishes of those to who originally divulged it. Sometimes this will be to ‘proper authorities’, but certainly in some circumstances the only obvious route is a general divulgence of this information to the general public. Suitable scenarios are relatively easy to construct.
In the case of what Wikileaks itself is calling ‘Cablegate’, not only the operators of the site, but sections of the Western media have clearly felt that something about the behaviour of the US government has justified just such a general release of information.
And this confidence clearly rests on a presumption of moral fault in what the e-mails reveal. Julian Assange himself is reported as saying that if what some of the e-mails suggest is in fact true, then the newly-elected President of the United States ought to resign — something which would put him in the same category as Richard Nixon, which is scarcely where the world believed him to be just a couple of years ago.
This is why, however, serious questions must be asked following the release of e-mails which detail the nature and location of facilities considered vital to the security of the United States.
In particular, we may ask whether it is a moral fault for a government to compile such a list or to identify such facilities so as to inform its own policies.
If the answer is yes, then of course the release of this information by Wikileaks is just another example of moral ‘whistleblowing’ in an immoral political world.
Yet it is hard to see how the question could be answered in the affirmative. Indeed, it was interesting watching the lawyer for Mr Assange, Mark Stevens, answering questions about this on the ITV lunchtime news. Mr Stevens’s response was that the US government had been given the option to comment on the list and declined to do so, therefore it was appropriate to release the information into the public domain.
His body-language, however, was that of someone who knew he was talking rubbish. As a lawyer, his livelihood depends on being able to spot a non sequitur, and clearly this is one.
If I said to someone, “I have information about how much you get paid, would you like to comment?”, the answer “No,” is not a justification in itself for me telling the world. There may, of course, be other justifications, but these would depend on factors other than simply a refusal to comment.
Up to this point, the ‘Cablegate’ episode, including the involvement of some of the Western media, has relied on the general justification that immoral actions have been concealed and should be brought to universal public attention.
If part of the intention of this is to generate a debate, then it seems fair also to debate whether that is the real motivation, given the nature of what is being revealed.
John Richardson
6 December 2010
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  1. Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon papers is a parallel that we can look at in modern geopolitics to see where we have run into this before. Ellsburg was vindicated by the supreme court of the USA.

    It surprises me to see all the flag waivers come out in support of the US policy on torture and even illegal wars. (in the us only the congress can declare war which it didn't in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan).

    It is also funny to me that while Christians, who should be lovers of the truth, sit back and take the side of the war just because they don't want to appear to be unpatriotic or against the soldier allow "truth"to be the first casualty of this silly war on a word "terror".

    No one will be hurt more by these revelations than politicians who are themselves causing trouble for us all by selling freedom down the river to defeat a faceless enemy.

    During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
    George Orwell

    Well said Mr Orwell.

  2. John X, all very interesting, but I would suggest not at all to the point I was making.

    BTW I think you mean "flag wavers". ;-)

  3. Assange's own justification - available fairly widely - doesn't depend so much on the specifics of what is being revealed:

    The fact that his lawyer doesn't believe in his clients case/justification is surely neither here nor there. He's not paid to believe, merely to represent.

  4. The motives of the two principles in the Wikileaks leak were alike in one particular (they did it A. because they could and B. they had no moral constraint that would prevent them from doing so) and they differed in other aspects. Bradley Manning was motivated by petty spite, rage, rejection, upset over break-up, agenda-related. Julian Assange was interested in the notoriety and power the breaking news would afford him.

  5. "Bradley Manning was motivated by petty spite, rage, rejection, upset over break-up, agenda-related. Julian Assange was interested in the notoriety and power the breaking news would afford him. "

    That might well be - but in the absence of firm evidence of this neither judgement may be true - and at least in the case of Assange we have his own words on what his motivations allegedly were.

    Taking the least charitable explanation might seem like a sound strategy when directed narrowly against those we disagree with - but if we were to apply more widely it makes a powerful case for WikiLeaks. After all, if those politicans, diplomats and senior civil servants were all just venal, self-seeking etc. then of course we should leak their correspondance the better to expose their perfidy against us.

  6. They have published Mannings own words to that effect. I read them somewhere a week ago.

  7. Isn't it rather quaint that the media think diplomats send "cables". Do they have a vision of US Ambassadors hunched over teleprinters with a code book in hand?

    But aren't confidential matters confidential? Whistleblowing was always likely to lead to this - the idea that confidences need not be kept. Of course where the confidence shows something illegal that may be different. But just because it reveals something distasteful does not remove the duty of confidentiality. If you accept a duty of confidentiality, integrity demands that you keep to it.

    And this applies in national, urban, village and personal life too. If someone tells us something in confidence we should keep the confidence.

    As to Mark Stevens' response, it sounds about as justifiable as the person holding a noisy party at 2 in the morning who says "but we invited the whole street to come".

    David Brock

  8. "They have published Mannings own words to that effect. I read them somewhere a week ago."

    Right, hence the phrasing of my original comment - but strangely you seem to dismiss Assange's words as to what his motivations are (and actually we only have Adrian Lamo's prognostications on Manning's motivations).

  9. Private Manning has not been very 'private' about his feelings, motivations and actions in his emails, etc.

  10. We can't trust Assange's claims about his motivation because his words are belied by his actions. As Theo Brainin put it, "Assange's philosophy of total transparency in the exercise of power is either incoherent or intellectually dishonest. He should present himself as what he is: an opponent of US foreign policy, who seeks to obstruct it, no matter the cost. He is no neutral truth-bearer – he just prefers one secret agenda, his own, to another."

    Sibyl is mostly correct. I do think, though, that Assange has convinced himself that his task is to start the ball rolling towards a glorious future where evil conspiracies are exposed and curtailed (he gets to decide which ones are evil), starting with US foreign policy, especially its "war on terror." Of course this means he is the world's savior, of sorts.

    Dave C. (USA)

  11. Darn spell checker...foiled again! ;)
    I must confess I was just letting off some steam.

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