Is WikiLeaks Ethical, Criminal, or an Immune Nuisance?

Back in 2007, I noted there were suspicions that WikiLeaks was a CIA front. Any lingering doubts of this are gone now.

Today, Washington politicians are falling over each other to establish who can be the most bombastic about WikiLeaks’ disclosure of leaked  State Department documents. Charges of espionage and even terrorism are being levied against a foreigner with a website.

What, if Any, Criminal Charges Are Justified?
Attorney General Eric Holder has  urged that Julian Assange be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Further, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.),  the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee,  called for putting WikiLeaks on the list of “terrorist” organizations that includes Al Qaeda.

That would pretty much would take it out of the espionage business. Without conspiracy before the fact, this seems like an uphill climb. Reuters rounded up three espionage law experts, and they pretty much agree with this position. It seems that the barriers to successful prosecution would be:

  • Jurisdictional issues
  • Lack of collusion
  • No standing as an agent of a foreign power

Then of course there is the tradition of freedom of the press, which the US has an interest in promoting. If Assange’s motivation was to disseminate factual information, there would be little distinction between an attempt to prosecute him or other WikiLeaks organizers and more established media outlets. Could anyone seriously suggest this would be an act of espionage for one, and good old journalistic reporting for the other?

Is This Leak Unethical?
Jack Marshall says it’s an easy call: WikiLeaks is naive, unethical and dangerous. I agree. Leaking diplomatic cables makes diplomacy more difficult than it already is.  WikiLeaks is at best naive and reckless.

And while a case could be made for a “matter of conscience” that might justify the leaking of documents to fix a great government misstep or prevent a far greater wrong, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The leak seems vast, indiscriminate, and more intended to embarrass than to fix.

WikiLeaks seems more like a symptom than a cause. And while in some cases it has exposed corruption, in this case it seems like an immune nuisance, which has been fed by what I fear is a traitorous countryman. And that’s harder to contend with than fist-shaking at a foreigner with a website. Next time, let’s keep our secrets where they belong.

5 Responses to "Is WikiLeaks Ethical, Criminal, or an Immune Nuisance?"

  • Duane Johnson

    December 4, 2010

    Insightful breakdown of the criminal charges aspect of this situation, Dave! I learned several things from this post, including the distinction under international law between an agent of a foreign power and a non-agent.

    I disagree with your assessment of the ethical nature of this leak, however, on the grounds that I don’t think you’ve clearly understood Assange’s motivation. Have you read Assange’s essay, The State and Terrorist Conspiracies? A great summary is at zunguzungu: http://bit.ly/fSvHCd

    In short, this is not an effort to reveal particular aspects of the dirty work going on behind the scenes. This is a wholesale attempt to undermine the ability of secretive and unjust organizations to function efficiently. I believe the means is ethical (after weighing the pros and cons) because it is the ONLY way to accomplish the end–that is, a universal shift toward more truth and openness in government and intergovernmental affairs.

  • Dave Wieneke

    December 4, 2010

    Duane, I’m glad to have your point of view and his summary and link to Assange’s essay added here. I’ll take a look, and hope other visitors will kick in their view of the post and others’ comments.

    I’m also glad to hear views on whether the US State Department is part of a “neocorporatist” movement – and if any such labeled group is necessarily unjust.

  • Jay Thomas

    December 5, 2010

    In business I have to report professionally on my colleagues, competition and the market.

    Govt Service Employees shouldn’t hide lack of professionalism behind ‘secrecy’. When I was in govt, if I’d written content like that in a rpt, my ambassador would have had me for lunch.

    The same culture shown in embarrasing reports leads to folks leaking them.

  • Fawn (from Facebook)

    December 5, 2010

    Traitors? Really? That’s an awfully strong word. People threw it at Daniel Ellsberg for the Pentagon Papers, too, and this particular event hardly has the ramifications (or even the surprise) of that one, which everyone pretty much agrees helped end a useless war.

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