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Wikileaks Rights and Wrongs

Would it be a good thing if, far from crushing Wikileaks, governments were required to post their entire correspondence on Wikileaks? In principle, this would appear to be highly desirable. A legitimate ruler over us it might justifiably keep secrets from us—but there is no such thing, neither leviathan nor the general will nor the people. Government is merely a mechanism we employ to protect our rights and resolve certain coordination problems. The government is therefore our agent and agents have no ground for withholding information from principals. The enormous power accumulated by the state should not be wielded in secrecy. Furthermore, when we give up democratic and political romanticism the attractions of openness only increase: we realise that anyone putting themselves forward to have power over us (always for our own good, of course) thereby raises a doubt over whether they should have it, and that politicians are not and never will be especially wise or good and will do what they think is required to hang onto power.

(update: see also my discussion of Wikileaks on Guardian Comment is Free)

There are, however, some complications that bear on the purity of principle. Government secrecy in home affairs is defensible insofar as the government is entrusted with private information about individuals. On general matters of policy and the conduct of government it is not defensible. When, however, we get to foreign affairs, the responsibility of government is to protect our interests in a hostile world. Much as we would like peaceable relations, you don’t get much say in whether you have an enemy. Being friendly or reasonable is no protection. You have an enemy when someone decides you are their enemy. Plunder has been a successful strategy throughout history, whether pursued straightforwardly or under the guise of ideology, and if we do not wish to be looted we have to be able to defend ourselves. Information that bears on our defence is an aid to those who choose plunder over trade, and consequently in foreign affairs secrecy is justifiable.

Given the many gradations of friendship and hostility between countries the diplomatic relations by which we pursue foreign affairs are complex. Among the objects of that endeavour is to detect dangerous possibilities and to head them off where possible. It seems that this is something we are getting better at. Despite the availability to a western audience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars making it appear otherwise, globally the decrease in proportional war causalities continued during the last ten years at a similar rate to earlier decades.

Governments and diplomats manage international dangers in part by forging complexes of threats and promises towards enemies and allies, complexes that are perhaps not wholly consistent and therefore not likely to survive the light of full exposure. Diplomacy is in this way often dishonest. Is that dishonesty immoral? Between individuals dishonesty is wrong but governments are not persons but instruments, and their entire morality is therefore serving the end to which they are instrumental. To the extent that such diplomacy maintains a moral end it is therefore moral, and to the extent that such diplomacy maintains an immoral end it is not.

Once we have granted that foreign affairs requires secrecy, and that that secrecy is justified so far as it maintains defence and the moral ends of diplomacy, we have identified correspondence that should not be published on Wikileaks. My earlier remarks imply that insofar as secrecy in foreign affairs serves no other end than protecting politicians from their accountability to us, it would not be justified.

What then of the morality of the leaking and publication of US diplomatic cables? In this case we have the indiscriminate leaking and publishing of an entire body of correspondence. I think the indiscriminateness matters.

It would be wrong to leak correspondence that maintains defence and the moral ends of diplomacy. The general requirement of discretion and humility would imply that it would be wrong to leak any such correspondence that was not plainly and significantly maintaining immoral ends of diplomacy. It would also be wrong to leak correspondence that will result in harm to named individuals unless some much greater good is served by the leak. It might be right to leak such correspondence that maintains highly immoral ends of diplomacy. For indiscriminate leaking to be permissible would, to my mind, require that the overwhelming majority of the correspondence was maintaining non-trivial immoral ends, a significant fraction maintaining highly immoral ends and no or proportionately very little harm to named individuals.

The person who leaked the cables had made a promise to his fellow countrymen that they may rely on him on a very grave matter over an extended period of time, namely, to defend them. Breaking such a promise impermissibly is a very grave wrong: furnishing secrets to the enemy is treachery. My impression is that the condition for permissible leaking was not met in this case, and hence the promise was broken impermissibly.

When it comes to Wikileaks, the matter is more complex. Assange himself is not a citizen of the USA and is therefore bound by no special duties to Americans.

Assange has held out indiscriminate publication as a virtue of Wikileaks but for reasons similar to those mentioned with respect to leaking, to me it looks like a fault. Governments and diplomacy are flawed instruments, but they are the only instruments we have. The bravery of Afghans and Iraqis taking risks against the terrorists among them should be respected and their lives should not be put at greater risk. Indiscriminate publication undermines the goods achieved now and reduces the chances of achieving them in the future. That is a very bad consequence and as a result it would undoubtedly be better if he had confined publication to correspondence that was evidence of the diplomatic pursuit of immoral ends.

Freedom of speech, however, is a strong principle that requires toleration of much that is objectionable, including the toleration of bad consequences. Some distinguish legal freedom of speech and moral freedom of speech and on that basis defend the legal toleration of what is morally wrong to say. So one answer here is to say that his indiscriminate publishing may be immoral but it should not be illegal.

The difficulty I have with this is that the justification of the legal freedom must be based in a moral principle. I am unwilling to justify it only on the grounds that in general legally free speech has good consequences. Sometimes it plainly doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it is difficult to see why it shouldn’t then be illegal. Our case in point is one such.

Rather, I think that the justification of the legal freedom is also, perhaps mainly, based in the moral freedom to speak, and that this grounding freedom is limited no more than our other freedoms, that is to say, limited only by being compatible with the like freedom for others. On this basis nothing anyone asserts stops anyone else saying anything, so cannot be limited in that way. It can be limited by the harm principle, a principle that requires not vague and unspecific harms to unknown people but definite and specific harms to known people.

On this basis, then, whilst Assange’s indiscriminate publication harms general diplomacy and whilst we could wish that he had exercised discretion and discrimination, these facts are not sufficient to make it wrong. What makes it wrong is that it harms named individuals, in particular, the Afghans and Iraqis who risked their own good for the good of their countrymen.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. You claim: “What then of the morality of the leaking and publication of US diplomatic cables? In this case we have the indiscriminate leaking and publishing and an entire body of correspondence.”

    This is plainly false. You ought to publish both a retraction of this claim and an apology for such a glaring factual inaccuracy immediately.

    Glenn Greenwald explains why this is absolutely the opposite of what actually happened:

    “In The New Republic today, Todd Gitlin writes an entire anti-WikiLeaks column that is based on an absolute factual falsehood. Anyone listening to most media accounts would believe that WikiLeaks has indiscriminately published all 250,000 of the diplomatic cables it possesses, and Gitlin — in the course of denouncing Julian Assange — bolsters this falsehood: ‘Wikileaks’s huge data dump, including the names of agents and recent diplomatic cables, is indiscriminate” and Assange is ‘fighting for a world of total transparency.’

    “The reality is the exact opposite — literally — of what Gitlin told TNR readers. WikiLeaks has posted to its website only 960 of the 251,297 diplomatic cables it has. Almost every one of these cables was first published by one of its newspaper partners which are disclosing them (The Guardian, the NYT, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Speigel, etc.). Moreover, the cables posted by WikiLeaks were not only first published by these newspapers, but contain the redactions applied by those papers to protect innocent people and otherwise minimize harm.”


  2. Nick,
    I would like to concentrate on just one of your arguments, which seems to me to be at the core of what you say :
    “Between individuals dishonesty is wrong but governments are not persons but instruments, and their entire morality is therefore serving the end to which they are instrumental. To the extent that such diplomacy maintains a moral end it is therefore moral, and to the extent that such diplomacy maintains an immoral end it is not.”
    Is this any more than a longer way of stating that “the ends justify the means” ? And isn’t this in essence one of the main concepts that WikiLeaks is rightly attacking ?
    Incidentally, I also agree with CD, above. If you seek to use facts to support an argument, you have a duty to ensure that they are really facts. As CD states, there is no evidence of “indiscriminate leaking” nor of real harm done to any individual (with the exception of Private Manning).

  3. Although there are some very interesting ethical arguments within your post, you simply need to re-write this article as your primary premise… “In this case we have the indiscriminate leaking and publishing and an entire body of correspondence. I think the indiscriminateness matters….”

    The Guardian are the leading (English) publishers, and they are controlling the distribution (not dump). Wikileaks release “AFTER” – as can be validated by going directly to any of their mirror sites to see that access is only available to around 1500 documents at the moment (not 250,000). For example:

  4. @Anthony: Personally I don’t have a problem with the general idea that the end sometimes justifies the means. I don’t see how one could manage human affairs in any way effectively if one was not willing, at some level and under certain conditions, to “do evil that good may result”.

    What I object to in Nick’s analysis, apart from the apparent factual inaccuracy that others have pointed out, is the contrast between a requirement for total honesty between individuals and what seems to be an almost passive acceptance of realpolitik between nations. Of course being friendly or reasonable is no more a guarantee of protection from “looting” between states than it is between individuals, but it certainly helps. More generally I think an analysis of the right and wrongs of phenomena such a wikileaks needs to take account of the (urgent) need for some kind of global community, and the extent to which they help or hinder it’s creation.

  5. My thanks to everyone for their comments. On the question of how many cables were published by Wikileaks (presumably no one is questioning that the original leaking was indiscriminate?), and setting aside the somewhat high handed tone taken by CD in demanding retractions and apologies for ‘glaring factual inaccuracy’, I would have to refer you to this page, which at this time says ‘Use our guide to find articles by country or subject, as well as the 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables’. The clear implication is that all 250,000 cables are published— but if they are not, then they are not. It is not my fault if the media mislead and people can check out the facts for themselves, perhaps through the links so helpfully provided by CD and Socialtrap1org. The issue is the general one of the ethics of indiscriminate leaking and publishing. That being said, I also have in mind the earlier reported publishing by Wikileaks of 400,000 classified US documents about the war in Iraq (, which is again a matter of indiscriminate publishing.

    Anthony raises a good question of some interest. The position I put forward was in part a de-personalized version of Machiavelli’s claim that the morality of the Prince is not that of the common person. I put it forward on a different ground, namely that international relations are not directly relations between people but between the instruments of people, and hence the moral requirements that apply to persons cannot apply directly; whence the wrongness of dishonesty by a person to a person doesn’t carry straight over to diplomacy. I realise now that I would have to complicate what I said somewhat since I didn’t want thereby to allow that just any means for the pursuit of moral ends of diplomacy would be permissible. I should perhaps have said that, being instruments, their entire morality is *based* on the ends for which they are instrumental, thereby allowing some further story to be told of what constraint on means applies. That story could once again be broadly consequentialist (which would amount to some variety of ends justifying the means) or it might be duty based in a complicated manner from the real goods and duties that ground this all out, that is to say, the goods of persons and the duties persons as such owe one another.

    I’m not sure I agree with Peter’s characterisation. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be friendly or reasonable, just that we must discriminate between those who reciprocate and those who don’t, and between friends and enemies. In general, the very last thing we should be doing is throwing over the (rather small but growing) number of nations working in a way that is broadly just in pursuit of the romance of a global ‘community’. There are better ways of solving global coordination problems than making ourselves subject to yet more layers of power seekers.

  6. Thanks Nick. I certainly agree that individual nations should distinguish between those who reciprocate and those who don’t, and between friends and enemies.

    I think you may have somewhat misunderstood what I meant by the term “global community”. You seem to accept that some form of global co-ordination is necessary. This is basically what I mean: some kind of mechanism for ensuring that we make good collective decisions at the global level. Elements of the global governance that is required already exist, of course – the UN, dysfunctional as it is, and fora such as the G20. From my perspective the more decentralised, democratic and even anarchic (in the original sense of the word) we can make them the better, but they need to be efficient and streamlined enough to be capable of steering humanity through the challenges ahead. (Sorry if that sounds trite, but I don’t think it’s any less true for having appeared in too many political speeches.) The question I have, not least because I haven’t yet formed a clear view myself, is whether phenomena such as Wikileaks help or hinder this process.

    Btw I’d be interested to know which nations you would include in your “small but growing” list, and what your entrance criteria would be!

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