Home > News, Politics > The Rights and Wrongs of WikiLeaks

The Rights and Wrongs of WikiLeaks

Diplomacy sometimes requires secrecy and hypocrisy. Photo: The New York Times.

I started to write something about WikiLeaks when I got back to school last night after Thanksgiving recess, but I was too tired from the trip to finish it. Sorry. Here it is.

WikiLeaks publishes confidential documents it receives from whistleblowers in government and corporations. Naturally, governments and corporations want to keep the documents secret.

Sometimes, secrecy is a good thing. It means that people can give their honest opinions without being afraid that what they said will end up on cable news or in The New York Times.

Just as often, though, governments and corporations use secrecy to cover up crimes and keep the public from learning what it needs to know.

During last spring’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the BP oil company tightly controlled what information people could get about the spill. It kept most of the information secret, even hiding a lot of it from the Obama administration, Congress, and the EPA. That fact was discovered later.

The U.S. government tried to keep secret the fact that soldiers, contractors, and intelligence agents had tortured and even killed prisoners in Iraq. It also tried to keep secret the fact that soldiers and helicopters had shot unarmed civilians, including reporters.

WikiLeaks’ latest release of documents seems to mix important information (such as U.S. spying on U.N. diplomats) with other revelations that are trivial and embarrassing (such as  ambassadors’ snarky comments about foreign leaders). A lot of it is no surprise: For example, the government of Afghanistan is corrupt, which everyone already knew.

And some of the information is valid but would have been better kept secret, such as private communications between the U.S. and foreign governments.

Yes, it helps understand the Middle East to know that Saudi Arabia wanted America to attack Iran. It means that our pressure on Iran is not, as some people have alleged, all about our “slavish support for Israel.” And the fact that Saudi Arabia wanted us to attack Iran probably did not shock anyone who had thought about the situation.

Still, suspecting something is different from knowing it.

The publication of confidential negotiations will embarrass some people and humiliate other people. It will even endanger people such as the president of Yemen, who rightly or wrongly gave secret permission for the United States to bomb his country in fighting terrorism.

The fact that the information is now public will force governments to react to it in ways that they wouldn’t choose if they knew about it but it was still private. And WikiLeaks’ publication of some U.S. diplomats’ trivial but negative comments about world leaders might damage our relationships with their countries.

Some people have said that it’s the U.S. government’s just punishment for claiming that it can eavesdrop on everyone else’s telephone and Internet communications. That might be true, but it’s not the issue. The issue is whether the WikiLeaks document publication helps or hurts the cause of human rights and international peace.

And I’m afraid that the answer is yes. It helps and hurts.

Some of the information probably should have been revealed. But WikiLeaks would have been on better moral ground if it had released only documents that showed criminal activity, not just the hypocrisy that international politics sometimes requires.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

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