Betrayal of ‘Truth’

The latest WikiLeaks documents: exposing reality, but at what cost?

Opinion | Justin McCauley | December 2010 / January 2011

Let us be clear about one thing: Julian Assange is not a journalist. Receiving classified documents and uploading them onto the Internet is not journalism. Journalism has a professional code of ethics. When journalists come across classified material, they understand the seriousness of the situation, and the implications of their actions. They do their duty to inform the public – essential to the maintenance of liberal democratic society – while still exercising good judgment; being selective and differentiating between real news and other kind of information that would be irresponsible to make public. Journalists have a moral responsibility to the public no less than that of the politicians they expose.

To what end was the liberal idea of press freedom established? In basic terms, it is supposed to serve as a guarantor of an open society, informing citizens about the actions of their government, thus allowing them to better choose their leaders. Implicit in the concept is the goal of a better end result. This key component has been disregarded by Assange, who seems to think that the exposure of secrets is a goal in itself.

This is a dangerous notion.

WikiLeaks has released the better part of a million classified Pentagon documents pertaining to the Iraq and Afghan wars, and most recently to U.S. diplomacy. To be sure, there is information in these documents that is newsworthy – more light is shed on contentious issues such as wartime civilian casualties and the plight of Guantánamo detainees; revelations that should be reported (and indeed would have been by any professional).

However, the blanket release of these documents – unedited and unanalyzed – is not the conduct of a professional journalist, and is disgracefully careless and irresponsible. Exposing many of the war documents does nothing other than reveal the names of Iraqis and Afghans working as informants or otherwise cooperating with coalition forces. The release puts these people’s lives in danger; some will be killed, if they haven’t already been, by the Taliban, al-Qaeda or some other group… this is an inevitability.

Regarding the diplomatic cables, the damage could be far worse. In modern times, good diplomatic relations has been a vital bulwark against violent conflict. Diplomacy is a delicate process; its quality is based on the level of trust that exists, and by all accounts some of the most fruitful and meaningful diplomatic efforts – the ones that create peace and prevent wars – have been conducted behind closed doors. A good amount of the leaked cables do nothing but destroy this trust, which is detrimental, not helpful, to the pursuit of peace.

Negotiations on some sensitive issues – the nuclear situations of North Korea, Pakistan or Iran for example – must remain secret for any chance of success.

Despite our innate desire for knowledge, and our natural suspicion of secrecy, not all secrets are dirty, and for the public good some are better left undisclosed. Secrecy is not inherently devious or harmful; it is only that sometimes devious and harmful things are kept secret. If the revelation of a secret could have disastrous consequences on international relations, but succeeds in doing little other than satisfying curiosity, it is an absurd endeavor. What possible purpose could revealing, for instance, the technical details of a device designed to prevent the detonation of roadside bombs serve – other than to get soldiers killed?

For someone like Assange – a sort of anarcho-nihilist who clings to those tired, atavistic ideas about all ruling institutions and authority being evil and corrupt – it is easy to say that all secrets are worth exposing. Journalists, conversely, take care in their work – in its integrity, its ethics and its power to do people harm.

Seemingly incapable of coming off as anything but smug, self-righteous and insincere, Assange is a washed up ex-hacker (and possible sex offender), who found a way to make a name for himself as a self-styled subversive, a whistle-blowing pseudo-journalist. But the organization he heads wields considerable power over people’s lives. This is not a debate about whether to keep a government’s dirty secrets; it’s about the potentially destructive nature of information, something normally in the hands of professional journalists, not the likes of Assange and his cronies.

To reveal secrets for revelation’s sake alone is not noble, it’s reprehensible and destructive. What Assange is doing does not adhere to even the most rudimentary ethical considerations…

And it will get people killed.


See also: With Thanks to Wikileaks

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    the vienna review December 2010 / January 2011