Wikileaks: Where the Hole is Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

When I first heard about Wikileaks, I felt that possibly they were providing a much needed ‘heads up’ to the public on important International concerns such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   When I heard about the recent cable releases, I thought they caught the United States in some particularly heinous territory with their International Policy — something that represented a serious shift from the norms of behavior that the country’s citizens would expect from the people who represent them abroad.

Instead, it’s just a leak of cables.   Stories of Omar Khadaffi oogling voluptuous Ukranian blonds.   CSIS members complaining about lawyers.   Frank opinions about Russian dignitaries.    All great stuff to sell newspapers and boost the ego of the ‘leakers’ but nothing representing an international emergency.    Given this lack of urgency, it is my opinion that Wikileaks did the wrong thing when they leaked this information.     There is no ethical standard that I can apply that justifies their actions here.    Let’s go over some of the tests.

Let’s start with Emmanuel Kant’s ‘categorial imperative,’ act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.   I do not accept left-wing minds ought to be allowed to leak private documents to undermine aggressive international policy because I know that right-wing minds would more than enjoy the opportunity to leak medical documents and doctor reports to undermine expensive public health care.

Now, I do not accept Kant wholeheartedly.   I do believe we should make room for exceptions in cases where the action provides a benefit, or prevents a negative that greatly outweighs the negatives that come from the action.     A deontological (Kantian) mind must have a utilitarian conscience.   So, taking the Trolley problem example, I do think there is some justification for pulling the switch that kills one person when it means saving the lives of thousands.    With some clear (and very important) caveats:

  • there is clear evidence of public benefit
  • there is no apparent self-interest in pulling the switch
  • the one person is not known to be vulnerable within the society (see Rawls)

Clearly, I do not see a clear public benefit to the leaks.    I do, however, see plenty of self-interest as media outlet after media outlet uses the juiciest elements of the cables to sell their papers.    The damage that this leak causes, however, will never be quantified.    Government Services will be regulated and secured to the point that they are no longer services in any sense of the word.   Foreign Affairs agents will always be thinking about their (needed) frank opinions in the context of these leaks.   In the best case scenario, this means embarrassment for public officials.   In the worst case scenario, this means a disconnect between diplomacy and policy – which is a euphemistic way of saying “stupid Wars caused by miscommunication.”

The final test is one of my favorites, put out by John Rawls — the ‘original position’ test.   This test would offer that people should act as if they came into society with no understanding of its norms or structure.    The person in this position would want the society that protected its most vulnerable members (because, given no prior understanding of status, someone would want to ensure that they had a decent lifestyle no matter their status).      The so-called transparent society that so many internet lovers desire is not to the advantage of the most disadvantaged.    For one, the most disadvantaged likely have no clue whatsoever that this whole Wikileaks thing ever happened.    All they’ll know is that some authority figure in their country will put two and two together (correctly or incorrectly) and accuse them (correctly or incorrectly) of treason based on pieces of evidence found in these documents.

In short, there is no real ethical justification in my mind for leaking these documents to the public, only a half-baked and obnoxious internet ideology.    It was a wrong-minded action and it should be punished in my view.   Fortunately for the people involved — people who are by no means the vulnerable people John Rawls wanted us to consider — they will be punished in a country that believes in ethical treatment of their citizens and fair trials.

For shame.

18 thoughts on “Wikileaks: Where the Hole is Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

  1. While I admit that the contents of these leaks are not of the same order of worldwide importance as the previous two sets of major leaks, the leaks of the diplomatic cables have to be seen as important in their own right, even if the majority of what they contain is scurrilous gossip.

    First: In your paragraph on the “categorical imperative”, you refer to these documents as “private”. They are documents relating to the state – any left-wing theorist or activist should grant that documents relating to the state should in no-way be kept secret from those who constitute the state, i.e. the people. These document by definition cannot be private since they document the workings of the state. Secret yet, but not private. Medical documents and the reports of physicians are private since they relate to individuals *not* in their function as constitutive of the state. I don’t think you would object to aggregated medical data being publicly available, would you?

    Second: public benefit. Much of what was leaked yesterday has little or no public benefit. But I’ll draw your attention to just two pieces of information: the ordering of American diplomatic staff to spy on the UN and the out-of-hand rejection by American authorities of the request by Gordon Brown to allow Gary McKinnon to serve jail-time in the UK. Not only are these of direct public benefit (as long as we agree on the value of the UN and of civil rights), but they reflect a clear tendency in the US towards arrogance and disregard of the law.

    The fact that diplomats now need to think twice before committing anything to “paper” (for want of a better word) is, I think, welcomed. If they hold an opinion that cannot be aired publicly, then there is a problem either with the opinion or with the public stance of the state. If the Americans don’t want us to think they are arrogant cowboys, the solution is not to supress the arrogant-cowboy opinion, it is to stop being arrogant-cowboys. Also, if we as citizens are going to have to come to grips with the fact that our every utterance and recorded opinion is available in perpetuity on the internet, and that this data is available to the state (i.e. law-enforcement) at the drop of a hat, shouldn’t we expect our public servants to learn the same lesson?

    As for the paragraph about John Rawls, I’m not sure who you’re speaking about? The vulnerable people who spoke to diplomats and had their views recorded? If the West was not an active belligerent in various countries around the world, there would be nothing to worry about. Don’t blame transparency, blame the warlike interventionism characteristic of our monolithic great power and its allies. However, there are other vulnerable people: the people who suffer precisely because there is no transparency or accountability to hold the actions of police-states in check. It begins with – here in Ottawa – three clear cases of violent police abuse. Transparency, in the guise of whistleblowers and leaks, are our only protection.

    Shame should be apportioned where it belongs: with the rogues states and governments who act with brutal repression with no regard to the laws, civil rights, or freedoms of others.


    • Sam:

      I’ll take your retorts in turn.

      1) Replace medical records with ‘doctors emails’ or ‘all emails ever transferred across a government server.’ A universal law of ‘no secrets’ is one that no rational person would ever accept. Holding government to a higher standard may be acceptable, but can you not think that secrets in government are justifiable if they are in the interest of public safety? Even just the Putin comments are worthy of secrecy for that reason.

      2) “If they hold an opinion that cannot be aired publicly, then there is a problem either with the opinion or with the public stance of the state.” That’s just ideology -> more easily said from a safe, prospering-in-Canadian standpoint than in the midst of an Iranian nuclear threat. I need a lot more information before I start seeing the US spying on the UN as anything other than the usual espionage that happens all over the world.

      3) “If the West was not an active belligerent in various countries around the world, there would be nothing to worry about.” So China & Russia would just up and give up all its own national interests just because the US played a nice guy for a change?

      While I do not always agree with U.S. (or even Canadian) national policy, I cannot accept that all authoritarian governments would turn into lovely transparent democracies because of a nicer US foreign policy outlook.

      Again, Rawls would not say that policy should protect all vulnerable people (everyone is vulnerable to some degree), but to the most vulnerable people. I am certainly not talking about people who’ve encountered violent police abuse (who most certainly are now typing away on their home computers / laptops, enjoying all the joys that Canada has to offer), but the people who have no chance of ever seeing a computer, forget reading all these ‘leaks’ that are supposed to protect them.

      No matter how much I dislike US Foreign Policy, the fact is that the leaks do very little to promote public safety and by all standards of ethics that I know are totally an act of wrongdoing. Petty rationalisations are not going to change any of this.


      • Thanks for your reply, Ryan. Here’s my take:
        1) Doctors emails shouldn’t be public, but they should definitely be accessible by the patient. The same is true of government information. “Government secrets being in the interest of public safety” sounds like an oxymoron to me. Only when governments have interests contrary to those of their constituents could/can such a situation arise.

        2) “Midst of an Iranian nuclear threat”; the Wikileaks documents are going a long way toward dubunking the standard American narrative in the middle east (i.e. a belligerent Iran). The Americans will never tell the world (or even their own people) what the truth is in the region, which might be a defensible policy if it weren’t that people are dying because of it, and more will die in the future. When you say “I would need to see a lot more information before I start seeing the US spying on the UN as anything other than the usual espionage that happens all over the world “: 1) how do you think you are going to see that information? The Americans won’t give any of it out. Currently, Wikileaks is the only organization giving us the information we need. 2) Without this expose, most of us would not have seen the UNs response, which is to remind the US that the UN is legally inviolable, and hence is specifically NOT supposed to be spied on, especially by its own constituent members. None of this would have come to light without Wikileaks.

        3) Probably: Russia and China have enough internal issues to contend with (mainly to do with industrialization and urbanization). But let’s look specifically at Afghanistan: Western adventurism has been destroying the region since the nineteenth century. Russia and the US have taken it in turns to kill people there for the last 30 years. Any amount of unfettered information which could get that to stop is a good thing in my book.

        Regimes aren’t going to change – fair enough. But it’s the idea of “US foreign policy” that needs to be investigated. What their stated foreign policy is and what the foreign policy actually is (to judge by the Wikileaked documents) are two completely different things. No change in regime or culture is ever going to take place if the US keeps lying about what interests its following.

        Sigh: The leaks aren’t supposed to protect vulnerable people. Their supposed to give those of us who have an opportunity to change things some ammunition. Why would we ever want to change things if all we hear is the official government line?

        Surely “acts of wrongdoing” are relative. If the Wikileaks are an act of wrongdoing (which I don’t admit), how do they stack up against the enormous, horrific wrongdoing they have exposed?

        Let’s bring this down to a more local level: if whistleblowing in a private company or a hospital exposes malfeasance or abuse, but at the same time “leaks” confidential information regarding the company or the hospital (not patient-related, but organization-related), what would your response be?


      • “if whistleblowing in a private company or a hospital exposes malfeasance or abuse, but at the same time “leaks” confidential information regarding the company or the hospital (not patient-related, but organization-related), what would your response be?”

        There is a time-honored process for whistle-blowing and it works like this. 1. Make sure the person at the top of the organization knows the problem exists. 2. Ensure that you have all evidence to back yourself up. 3. ‘Leak’ the information to the body that has the most power to actually fix the problem (almost never the media). Leaks to media are almost always a misguided attempt at pretending to be a superhero. Which reminds me – I think its time to re-read _The Watchmen_.

        It’s interesting that you bring up the distinction between Private information and Secret information, because I think it is as the core of the issue. The distinction between private and secret exists only because of something called ‘due process of law.’ Due process of law outlines the rules for private and secret information, including times appropriate for ‘leaking’.

        For better or worse, what Wikileaks is doing is undermining due process of law. You cannot have it both ways. If, universally, we can accept undermining secrecy laws, then by categorical imperative we should be willing to accept undermining privacy as well. The only difference between private and secret is the process through which information can be disseminated. Remember, we are talking about ethical practice – not legality, here.

        I can accept some level of civil disobedience in cases where there is a clear and outrageous level of wrongdoing going on (perhaps true in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq wars — maybe even in the future ‘Enron’ example as well), but the cable leak is definitely not one of those cases. It makes me feel that Wikileaks is just a band of misguided crazed ideologues and it makes me concerned for a variety of reasons:
        – will the US reaction result in more freedom of information or less?
        – does the existence of Wikileaks make authoritarian governments more attractive (one can surmise that the reason we are not seeing major Chinese or Syrian ‘leaks’ is the threat of physical violence, torture and (possibly even) public execution).
        – when push comes to shove, who will hold Wikileaks accountable for their actions?


  2. From the Economist:

    If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.


    • Wil Wheaton tweeted, “According to my local news, Assange is the “Most wanted fugitive in the world.” Really? More than Bin Laden? Nice priorities, America.”

      Glib, yes, but this “kill the messenger” reaction is, to me at least, frightening and revolting.


      • I wouldn’t exactly call Wikileaks ‘the messenger.’ At least not in this most recent case. For instance, if we take the ‘spying on the UN’ as one of the most revealing of US foreign policy, isn’t the best place to leak it the UN itself? Or in the case of Gordon Brown to his lawyer? There’s no messenger in this. This is just petty gossip for self-aggrandising purposes in my view. I believe in open information. I believe in transparency. But I believe in it within the context of a democratic society, with the people who are properly elected by their constituents making decisions about the degree to which secret (or private) documents are made public.

        These leaks are not revealing anything other than US foreign envoys are human beings. Leaking the information is a purposeful attack on the US and, as Boing Boing asks, are Wikileaks prepared to be held to the same standards they expect the US government (foreign in their case) to be held to? I believe not. I think this is a purposeful attack on the US for ideological purposes – and people who act this way make me very very nervous.


  3. Ryan,

    all humour here, but I dislike your but :
    But I believe in it within the context of a democratic society, with the people who are properly elected by their constituents making decisions about the degree to which secret (or private) documents are made public.

    And here is why: you presuppose that this functions and is functioning now. I too believe in the items preceding this statement. Without any “but” after them. To get to a democracy from where we find ourselves now, even the “drink from the firehose” information blast that was this last round of wikileaks is mandatory. Disclosure of character, disclosure of not-directly painted by PR bits and bobs, and the list goes on.

    Yes, they only reveal that these people are human beings. And human beings are capable of smiling while committing acts of atrocity by policy and greed and by hand and heart. Your position acts to dehumanize while upholding the ideals of democracy because of that “but”.


    • The question is not whether governments (or, in reality, all of the many people who work for them under a variety of different contexts and circumstances), but whether the actions of Wikileaks can be justified ethically.

      What I am arguing is that I prefer due process of law. The reality is that governments *have* to commit all kinds of atrocities all the time. Collecting Taxes itself is extortion, but justified by the fact that the people can hold those governments accountable for those actions. There are no such restraints on WikiLeaks, and this time, they have shown themselves to think they are beyond ethics. Again, if I saw anything I consider shocking coming from this revelation of the wild west of international diplomacy, I’d be on side. But no. There is nothing in these that justifies the means through which Wikileaks behaved. Nothing.

      Sure, the system may very well need to change. But it’s very easy to criticize from the outside. The thing about democracy is that anyone has the opportunity to be the one making the atrocity-avoiding policies. Obama proved that even a black man can do it.

      I’m not by any means calling for blind trust here. In this case, neither the ends nor the means add up. Not from any ethical standpoint that I can think of. Low benefit for high potential cost. Not something they would apply universally (proven by their focus on U.S. policy). Obvious ideological and purposeful intent to undermine. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

      As far as my position being ‘dehumanizing’ – that’s just an appeal to emotion. There’s nothing wrong with applying some sober second thought to some highly charged feelings and anti-government/anti U.S. ideology. I was much more onside when the issues related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. No one who knows me would ever consider me anti-human.


      • Ryan,
        Thanks for the reply. I certainly am not saying nor implying that you are anti-human. That is conflation of two separate meanings associated with “dehumanize”. I am using it in the sense of “to deprive of human qualities” (which is part of systematization in itself) and not in the “make inferior” sense (which is what you are responding to in the last paragraph). Your thoughts are sober and appreciated, but that does not mean practicable or right. I believe that the positional support you show for wikileaks in the Iraq/Afghanistan context and your transition to shaming wikileaks for this last round is what I am truly responding to in your post.

        Can you deny that our society and power structures are in transition? I don’t think anyone can. We have seen the demise of the longest running constitutional democracy in history, have an obscene population, and are confronted by global catastrophic change of our own, albeit unintentional, making. In this setting, I find that the very act of the wiki-leak hacks have meaning and content.

        I would love the due process of law to apply also. But can you honestly say that it is working as well as it originally was striving to work? Or is likely to in the near future within the existing confines of our society as it is today? This sounds like convenient clinging to an ideal in the least of ideal situations.

        The action itself has benefit (a la the Kantian model you put forward): transparency of all data is beneficial to someone. It may not benefit those that we would prefer it benefits, but it benefits. (Way too broad an application of the model, but I know you get my point.) And it is not hurting anyone in any disproportionate way – millions are not suddenly crying out in anguish, so to speak. Not even hundreds.

        You speak to this in your reply paragraph starting with “I’m not by any means calling for blind trust here.” But, in another reply, you go on to state:
        If, universally, we can accept undermining secrecy laws, then by categorical imperative we should be willing to accept undermining privacy as well. The only difference between private and secret is the process through which information can be disseminated. Remember, we are talking about ethical practice – not legality, here.

        That is wrong. That is not the only difference, and it is a critical issue that makes casual what I consider to be giant and fairly radical changes of scale as well as context. You okay’d the ethics of the leaks in the war context but not in the “says stupid shite” context because of benefit and your criteria of urgency, yes? And next you utilize sound but inappropriate philosophical reason to slide from secrecy to privacy.

        First, the harm that is being done under secrecy is not equivalent to the harm that is done under privacy. And the privacy applies more to humans while secrecy applies more to institutions/structures : hence my original comment about your dehumanizing “but” as I find that that “but” was your argument eliding the concrete scales that stand behind the philosophy. Societal systems are built by humans but are not humans – we can all agree.

        Second, I think that there is urgency in knowing that the human side of an extraordinarily powerful person is obsessed with tit-oogling if they are meant to be paying attention to their power and influence. I am again making light to draw to a point – while you address this power-imbalance by giving an example of tyranny pouring on the unsuspecting, I give and example of how the cumulative data that I can derive from these leaks may empower me to empower the vulnerable. And empowering the vulnerable as an act to balance how disproportionately we are out of balance is urgent. I am a social justice librarian, and not some deluded internet lover.

        I love Rawls for a lot of reasons (though I am no uber-scholar)but I think that the wikileaks are ethical in our current, real time context because they DO empower. They may not empower in a manner that you deem ethical (like PR, celebrity, fame, etc), but they have empowered a great deal of people to find leverage against those that were unassailable but worth targets.

        Rawls has a fair amount to say on Justice – which is really the subject here for me. And I will cherry pick some ideas from what I understand of Rawls’ position and assert that wikileaks speaks volumes to the Difference Principle and how access to the privilege and well being has been utterly blocked by discrimination according to irrelevant criteria”. And some of that irrelevant, but completely human, criteria is coming right back at those that do/did the discriminating.

        The means are more neutral than you categorize them and the ends are not quite played out enough to make summative judgment. Though, obviously, I think that they are well within ethical bounds.


      • Well, if you mean they empower other regimes to attack the U.S., well then, I think you are right. In terms of empowering democracy, I highly doubt we’ll see any real change from this current set of Wikileaks.

        Do I think that we are in a transition phase for the systems in process? Sure. Do I accept Wikileaks world view as a desirable model or alternative for that transition? No. What’s the likely result of all this? Well, it might put the dems out of office and give the republicans an issue to attack them. That doesn’t sound like any sort of world-improving move. It will probably lead to more secrecy on the part of the US and other states. It gives power to worse powers (Russia and China) against their major world competitor. Who knows what this will all mean for autocratic states like Syria, Iran and North Korea?

        In the end, I see this all as naive populism. “The harm under secrecy is not the same as the harm being done under privacy.” Totally false. There are all kinds of private things that cause all kinds of harm. Abuse of insurance claims, spousal abuse, planning for a terrorist attack etc. all come to mind. The categorical imperative (and understand that I do not stand by the categorical imperative alone in my argument) states that you should not do something for which you cannot apply a universal law. You would not want your secrets put out in public for everyone else to see. There are all kinds of people in the world whose secrets must be kept for their own personal safety — including children.

        I say I might be willing to accept a breach of the imperative if the benefits from the leaks were particularly compelling. They are not. They may be in the case of the war leaks (provided they are understood in context). But not for some populist ideology about a transparent world. An ideology that appears to have no respect for due process of law, is targetted at one particular regime rather than all oppressive regimes, and seems to have supporters that have no understanding whatsoever of Hanlon’s razor.


  4. Keeping both stupidity and malice aside, are you still asserting that personal secrecy/privacy and state secrecy/privacy are co-equal? Yes, harm is done under privacy. Egregious harm. On a human scale. Harm done under secrecy, however, given the institutional v. human scale issue already framed out (however poorly), is part of policy that is underwritten by an economic evaluation of worth. Scale change that makes personal insurance fraud and spousal abuse seem trite – though I am arguing that they are not even comparable! People need privacy, and very few institutions – if any- that need secrecy.

    I have learned a fair amount from this dialogue, and I am appreciative of your time. I am right with you on the idiocy of having a wikileaks worldview – that is untenable. Wikileaks is naught but punctuation that alters the meaning of the sentence. And, I believe we will have to agree to disagree about your estimation of “worse powers” – as I am completely and utterly convinced after 20 years of research and revelation that the USA is any “better” on a global, human scale. What with being fraught with fat and false choice that funds atrocity as a matter of policy. Not unlike its major competitors at all.

    always a fan,


  5. Assange is a journalist. Someone gave him information. He published it. That’s what they do. On the other hand the person to leaked the information broke laws. If I found any of this in my domain of concern I know who I’d be after.


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