Blame Wikileaks?

By Patrick Coleman.
Exclusive to STR
The media controversy concerning the recent leak of over 91,000 military reports, termed the “Afghan war diary,” by has focused very much around the supposed moral culpability of Wikileaks as an organization, its founder, Julian Assange, as well as the accused leaker, Bradley Manning, who now faces 52 years in prison for treason. While the government’s moral culpability is a comparatively black and white issue, the position occupied by Wikileaks and Bradley Manning seems to be more of a grey area. On the one hand is the apparent ethical righteousness of exposing corruption, and on the other is the risk of further death as a result of the leaking of sensitive information.
The Bulk of debate that has occurred so far has been surrounding this very specific dichotomy, and can be distilled down to a couple of elemental considerations. First, whether this leak will or will not lead to the loss of further (especially non-combatant) life, either because certain leaked documents reveal information that will be used by “enemy” combatants to more efficiently locate and kill US informants and those around them, or that leaked information will lead to the thwarting of US military operations and consequently cost the lives of soldiers. Second, If it does lead to further loss of life, whether those lives are “worth” the assumed benefits that will spring from the government having been forced into a position of greater accountability and transparency as a result of this information. In this regard, there is sound evidence to support the notion that these leaks will, in fact, be net positive results in the actual conduct of war and may perhaps have the consequence of an earlier end to the war than might otherwise have come about. The Pentagon Papers, for example, were similar in nature and are credited with assisting in bringing about an early end to the Vietnam War, very likely saving many, many innocent lives.
We are probably all pretty familiar with these arguments by now, but I think they bear a bit of parsing out. The above arguments are exclusively utilitarian, and a conclusive utilitarian debate is everything but impossible to conduct. So while I will briefly weigh in on the argument from effect, I think the far more important matter is in who would actually be responsible in the worst case scenario.
Utilitarianism is essentially a moral doctrine that promotes the idea that actions are not good or bad in and of themselves, but rather can only be judged good or bad depending upon whether or not the action in question produces a comparatively better or worse result. So, according to this doctrine, the murder of a non-aggressive innocent is not morally wrong, per se, it is only wrong if a greater objective or “greater good” was not achieved by the innocent’s death. One of the many problems with this theory is that it assumes perfect knowledge of the outcomes of one’s actions. Of course, we do not have perfect foreknowledge, or even particularly O.K. foreknowledge, so it becomes extremely difficult for anyone to claim that anyone else is morally responsible for anything until after the consequences can clearly be seen.  And even then all relevant variables usually cannot be accounted for, and thus even after the fact, we are left in the dark.
Obviously, if I deliberately throw a football through your window, it can reasonably be assumed that I was aware of the outcome of that particular action and can therefore be held morally liable. Or if one country invades another, murders its women and children, destroys its economy, and tries to install a puppet government, the invading country can be pretty certain of at least a little blowback. Similarly, if Wikileaks had simply taken the leak and released it without taking steps to verify the information, to protect its source, to redact the names of innocents, and to withhold potentially destructive information, it could easily be argued that they would be culpable for any of the foreseeable harmful consequences that would inevitably ensue.
However, this was not the case. Julian Assange and others took painstaking precautions in order to minimize the negative consequences of the leaking of the Afghan diary. The level of simplicity, therefore, involved in the hypothetical football example, the not-so-hypothetical invasion example, and the hypothetical leak example just doesn’t apply here. What we do know for certain is that both innocent people and soldiers will continue to die unnecessarily for as long as military occupation continues in the Middle East. What we do not and cannot know for sure is whether more or less lives would have been wasted on this conflict if the leaks were not released. If history is any indicator, however, we can reasonably expect that this information is more likely to mitigate death rather than cause it.
As to whether a certain number of lives are worth a particular amount of supposed benefits, I think that is a cold and futile perspective to embrace. Cold, because the calculating is done with other peoples’ lives, a liberty that cannot rightly be left in the hands of any person or group of people; and futile because it is impossible to know precisely how many lives would be lost and exactly what benefits would be gained. I’m no mathematician, but I am pretty sure that it is rather difficult to calculate utils[1] with totally unknown, un-measurable, and un-comparable variables.
Getting back to the issue of culpability from more of a moral absolutist’s perspective, let’s assume for argument’s sake that people will in fact die because the wrong information gets into the wrong hands as a result of the Afghan diary leak. Even if this were the case, the moral onus would still be on the actual perpetrators of the war.
It is a pretty well established fact by now that the US’ aggressive military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was sold to the American population through a deliberate campaign of lies and misinformation. Whether one believes that the reasons for war were fabricated in order to gain more secure control of the Middle East’s oil resources, or to feed the military-industrial complex, or simply as a religious crusade, or all of the above, it is clear that it was definitely not started to keep Americans safe from WMD. This is NOT a defensive war. That is to say, the people comprising the government of the US were not only willing, but eager to spend the lives of countless innocent civilians, as well as many of their own soldiers, in exchange for whatever political gain they were trying to purchase through that aggression. The government is obviously not concerned with human life. I guess there must be another reason for their moral indignation concerning this Wikileaks situation. Not-so-surprisingly, if I may digress, the US government and its allies have received sparse moral outrage concerning the information revealed by the Afghan diary, either from people generally or the mainstream media, which could really only lead to one of two basic conclusions: either 1) people do not care about lies, murder, and corruption when such are committed by “their” government, or 2) people are so jaded that they have come to expect such as a matter of course. Both are scary prospects.
In contrast, since Assange apparently is concerned with human life, he decided, through his efforts as a journalist, not only to oppose, but to play a part in bringing an end to an unjust war. He had reason to think that the means he had chosen would be effective (recall the Pentagon Papers), and he took many precautions to avoid foreseeable negative consequences. This was not a “reckless” endeavor as some would have us believe. It is also worth noting that neither Wikileaks nor any other person or organization has any reason to believe that governments keep information classified for any other purpose except to maintain their own façade of moral rectitude, but, even so, Wikileaks checked to make sure.
Which of the parties described in the above two paragraphs strikes you as having blood on their hands?
Consider a closely analogous situation. Please assume for the duration of this analogy that the government is not an evil and inept gang of criminals, and also that organized crime would exist in the United States such as it currently does were it not for government prohibitions on drugs and so forth.
We have all seen the movie or TV show in which the police are attempting to bring down an organized crime ring, but in order to do so they need to put a witness on the stand. If they put the witness on the stand, however, it is a near certainty that the gang will go after the witness along with his family and close friends. Knowing this, the police decide to take precautions, such as putting the witness and his immediate family in protective custody. But despite the police’s best efforts, the witness is somehow found and killed. Of course, if they had not tried to put the witness on the stand, the witness and his family would very likely not be in danger, but they would also be willingly leaving violent criminals on the street. Who do we blame for the death of that witness? The murdering gangsters, or the people taking every responsible step they can to stop the murdering gangsters?
The answer, I think, is evident. The US government has plunged itself, the people under its rule, the occupied portions of the Middle East, and arguably the entire world, neck-deep into a mire of destruction. It has facilitated and maintained an environment whose only product is death, and whose only escape is truth; but the truth, in this case, is dangerous. The ruling class would have us believe that our ignorance is necessary for our security, when it is really only necessary for their continued theft and expansion. Were it not for the actions of unaccountable and sociopathic politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate interests, over 900,000 Iraqis, Afghans and coalition troops would still be alive today. Are we really going to believe that people who are responsible for extinguishing that many lives, the overwhelming majority of which were innocent, and have shown no sincere care or remorse for their atrocities, actually possess the empathy to be concerned about the remote chance that a few people might die because certain details might have been missed in Wikileaks’ three month harm minimization process? I think not. And in the tragic and, unfortunately, likely case that more people do die, keep in mind that it is because a coalition of violent governments started a war, not because peaceful activists tried to end it.

[1] Units of utility


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Patrick Coleman's picture
Columns on STR: 2

Patrick is a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studies philosophy and history, specifically ethics and the individualist-anarchist tradition.