WikiLeaks: Ethics, Ideals and Questions

  • If: Information is power.
  • And: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • Then: Absolute information corrupts absolutely.

What is WIkiLeaks: According to wikipedia it’s “an amorphous, international organization, originally based in Sweden,[1] that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive documents from governments and other organizations, while preserving the anonymity of their sources.”

The organization has made a splash recently with its collateral murder video that showed U.S. soldiers killing suspected terrorists (turned out to be journalists) from a helicopter while not following standard procedures.

Bottom line: I think WikiLeaks is important and a positive thing for freedom and democracy. As Adrian Monck said via Twitter: “Nasty but necessary.” An idealistic free speech absolutist part of me wants to cheer them on until I lose my voice. But a very practical side of me asks tons of questions. All of these questions come back to ethics.

Quick disclaimer: I am not a scholar. I am not one who speaks on behalf of the journalism world. This is my personal blog where I have a conversation with myself. It helps me sleep better. I make no claims as to the ethical state of Wikileaks – I just leave with questions. I also have no doubt in my mind that the founders of Wikileaks have the best of intentions.

Why this post?: Since Collateral Murder was released there has been an ongoing saga with WikiLeaks. Their source has been arrested. Coverage of it in Wired has been very thorough (disclaimer – I used to work at Wired) and included chat logs between Manning (the whistleblower) and Lamo (the informant). In the chat logs Manning makes reference to 260,000 government cables that he leaked to Wikileaks. The WikiLeaks organization denies they have these documents but does accuse of ethical breaches – helping Lamo turn in Manning to get a scoop. The back-and-forth has been analyzed by Salon, CJR and others. This post is not intended to add to that back-and-foth. The fact is, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know the series of events that took place. I can’t place blame on anyone. I’m an outsider. IF Manning is a spy – I’m glad we got him. If Manning is a whistblower – I hope they fight it and win. If Wired entrapped Manning, shame on them. If not, kudos on the reporting. If monkeys fly out my butt – it will hurt. I simply don’t know or care. It is an example of particular justice. I am more interested in a general and theoretical situation. Because the situations I concoct below are theoretical – I will cast no aspersions to WikiLeaks.

The Meat of this Post: A Theoretical Ethical Conundrum

If Manning did leak 260,000 government cables to WikiLeaks – the organization finds itself in a very big ethical conundrum.

Do you sit on the government documents? Aside from going against the “information wants to be free” philosophy you essentially become a spy. You will be sitting on way too much information and hence power. (if information is power, and power corrupts….). At the same time – you can’t just “leak” those 260,000 documents for the world to see. It would be irresponsible. Even if you could 100% verify the information as true these are potentially the kinds of documents that get people killed, start wars, trash economies and more. Even the most free speech absolutist must recognize that words have consequences and releasing 260,000 documents can do a lot of damage. It’s blood you don’t want on your hands. The only medium is to sit on the majority of documents and leak the ones that you feel are most important or ethical to leak. But that still puts the power in one person’s hand.

WikiLeaks claims they don’t have the 260,0o0 documents. I hope for their sake it’s true – because I would hate to be in the position above.

This theoretical situation, however, brings up two more poignant questions about ethics and journalism. One is about WikiLeaks itself and the other is about the “profession” of journalism and tension this profession has with the process of journalism which is (and should be) open to anyone.

WikiLeaks and The State

I was talking to Jay Rosen (affectionately called “Boss Rosen”) a mentor of mine who called WikiLeaks a “wild card.” I have felt the same way but couldn’t articulate why – until Jay put it this way. Jay studies “the press” which is a legal entity defined by the state. In other words – you can’t have “the press” until a governing body gives freedom of the press to some varying degree. If they provide no freedom of the press – then communication is literally an extension of the government itself (propaganda). In the United States we have the first amendment which gave birth to “the press” broad enough that the press can literally take down the government itself (Watergate).

What makes WikiLeaks interesting is that they have no national ties. They are not accountable to any foreign government’s laws. Well, at least, that was true until recently. I have not dived into Iceland’s new media reforms but I’m sure it has direct consequences for WikiLeaks. The reform itself was spearheaded by WikiLeaks, perhaps because they recognized that without a country providing that kind of legal framework they were operating almost as information pirates. Even a pirate that steals from the rich and gives to the poor is a pirate operating outside of any legal framework. It’s interesting that Iceland had to pivot itself to become the “Cayman Islands” of information exchange in order to provide a legal infrastructure broad enough for WikiLeaks. Again, this is a new development and I’m not 100% sure what it means – but it does start to address one of the underlying issues of WikiLeaks. Just as a business working internationally needs to have a legal home in some country, so too does an organization that works in journalism.

The problem that remains, however, is the theoretical situation I described above. I don’t know if WikiLeaks has 260,000 documents. If they do, however, they are in a tight ethical spot. Iceland is now right there with them. The country of Iceland might be able to protect them legally, but jurisprudence is just one facet of ethics.

Ethics in Journalism: Journalism ethics is very interesting. I was a philosophy major (many years ago) and studied Kant, Hegel, Peter Singer, John Rawls and others. Most of the time when we talk about “ethics” we are talking about a system of beliefs that constitute ones idea of right/wrong/justice/ etc. These beliefs then guide actions.In some respects, however, when we talk about journalism ethics we are talking about it within the context of a profession. The closest thing journalism has to an ethical code of conduct is SPJ’s code of ethics which I have always greatly admired. SPJ’s code seems to be based on a Kantian ideal that if one is to do something, they have to be prepared for everyone else in the world to do it as well. But it’s important to notice the “P” in SPJ – ie: “professional.”

How much of this “code of ethics” is based on professional practices, situations, scenarios, etc? For the most part I still find SPJ’s code of ethics to be pretty inclusive and stand on their own – but I wonder how much of it translates to the realities of folks outside of newsrooms? I would like to think that all of it does – but when you look closely you’ll see even in the preamble: “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” Why is “professional” the cornerstone? Shouldn’t ethics, especially Kantian ethics, be  universal?

8 thoughts on “WikiLeaks: Ethics, Ideals and Questions”

  1. Surely you see the flaw in logic here? Information is power if and only if a few control the flow of information. The moment information is freely available to everyone, it loses that power.

    Use the scribes to printing press to web publishing analogy.

    You raise great points through the rest of the article though 🙂

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  2. @Saleem.

    I totally agree – information is power – but that power does dissipate once that information is publicly available.

    That said: 260,000 government cables – to release ALL that information would cause chaos. It’s the kind of information that gets people killed, destroys economies etc. I can’t imagine an ethical situation where releasing that much information would be good. It’s just TOO much to release in a moment.

    The alternative is to sit on some of that info – but that leads us back to the information as power (I’m not saying Wikileaks would … but one can imagine a situation where they could – sell off some of that info because… hell, they are sitting on a lot of power).

    In some ways – it’s a Catch 22. Release all the info and suffer an ethical collapse where your actions cause harm. Or sit on the information where – you have the potential for that much power to corrupt.

    But you do bring a good point: There is, perhaps, a way to take the power out of information if it is shared and public…. perhaps there is a way out of the situation I have in my head.

    That’s why I love blogging these things – smart folks like you bring up points I hadn’t.

  3. someone should ask why wikileaks has shut down? They say, “scheduled maintenance”…so a volunteer quit, so what?
    Too much pressure?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *