I’m fascinated by the WikiLeaks story, but have little to add to the commentary we’ve heard so far.
I will say this: there are some government secrets that need to be leaked. When a government is engaged in illegal activity (either a violation of its own laws or international agreements), then that should be exposed. If we’re killing civilians or violating another state’s sovereignty in the conduct of a war, then the details should come to light. The Pentagon Papers deserved to see the public light of day. I’m not sympathetic to the argument that providing evidence of illegal activity in time of war is aiding the enemy. We deserve a government that conducts its business — including war — with methods that are congruent with our laws and values. For a democracy that respects the rule of law, means matter as much as the end result, and we can’t achieve a just end with unjust means. So, three cheers for sites like Wikileaks when they expose genuine corruption, bureaucratic malfeasance, or violations of international law.
But it’s a huge mistake to assume that all secrecy is evidence of illegality. It’s an equally colossal error to assume that secrecy is invariably incompatible with democratic values. None of us would like our frank assessments of our colleagues or cousins to be recorded and replayed for those people. Few of us would like our children to overhear our intimate conversations with our spouses. As with private citizens, so too with diplomats — it is perfectly legitimate for the US government to want to keep secret the candid judgments of our ambassadors abroad.
Nations, like individuals, work in private and public spaces. And just as we have no right to commit crimes in privacy, neither do governments. But not everything we wish to hide from the world is illegal or unethical. Wikileaks and Julian Assange would have far more credibility had they been more judicious about what they’ve chosen to bring to light. We need figures like Assange and sites like WikiLeaks. But we need them to do a better job of distinguishing that which governments have no right to hide from that which we have no right to know.