WikiLeaks: The Ethics of Revealing Secrets

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WikiLeaks is at it again, releasing a trove of diplomatic cables that the organization claims will reveal "lying, corrupt and murderous leaderships from Bahrain to Brazil." Governments and news outlets around the world are scurrying to pore over the once-secret documents for important revelations.

WikiLeaks has been criticized before for revealing sensitive information. For example, the organization published thousands of reports about the Iraq War. Though much of the information was already known in broad terms, many of the specifics were not. WikiLeaks also released classified U.S. military footage from an attack in July 2007 in Baghdad by a U.S. helicopter that killed a dozen people including two journalists. For these leaks and others, many have praised the organization. But what are the ethics behind revealing secrets?

Despite what conspiracy theorists may think, secrecy is not an inherently bad thing; in fact, it usually keeps us safe. We keep our bank accounts, ATM and Social Security numbers a secret because revealing them could put our finances at risk. We may choose to keep personal information from other people, not to be deceptive but simply because it’s none of their business. Similarly, revealing state secrets could put national security at risk or may just fall into the category of "too much information."

But under what circumstances is revealing secrets ethical? If a close friend confides in you that she has a drug problem or suffered a miscarriage, is it ethical for you to announce that on Facebook? Just because it's true and others may be curious about it doesn't give you the ethical right to reveal it. 

In her book Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok explains that the ethics of revealing secrets lies in the nature of what is being exposed: “Whistleblowing and leaks may be starkly inappropriate when used in malice or in error… the judgment expressed by whistleblowers concerns a problem that should matter to the public. Certain outrages are so blatant, and certain dangers so great, that all who are in a position to warn of them have a prima facie obligation to do so. Conversely, other problems are so minor that to blow the whistle would be a disproportionate response.”

Thus some of what WikiLeaks does is ethical, and some is not. In its three-year history, WikiLeaks has released a wide variety of information from the Church of Scientology’s “secret” bibles to tax-evading Swiss banks. But much of the material that WikiLeaks has published has had little to do with revealing “unethical behavior” in governments and corporations. While many consider Scientology to be a science-fiction-based cult, for example, divulging its teachings (though secret) hardly qualifies as exposing corruption or "murderous leadership.”

One recent example that made the front page of the November 29 issue of The New York Times is a cable that “reveals for the first time that the United States believes that Iran obtained advanced missiles from North Korea.” This information may (or may not) be potentially damaging to national security, but it does not expose or reveal any unethical behavior.

Nor do the dozens of references to analysts’ assessments of foreign leaders and governments; State Department employees’ opinions that Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe “will not wake up one morning a changed man, resolved to set right all he has wrought,” or that Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s “long-time Ukrainian nurse…. has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde” demonstrate no unethical behavior on the part of any government.

In these cases, and many others, the clear purpose is not to expose any wrongdoing or grave dangers, but instead to merely embarrass government officials and complicate diplomacy. In doing so, WikiLeaks undermines its organization's mission and veers into unethical behavior.

As their website states: "Our primary interest in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public."

Revelations, such as a Yemeni official allegedly telling a U.S. General that "We'll continue saying the bombs [against Al Qaeda] are ours, not yours" are certainly serious. But the fact that WikiLeaks is unable (or unwilling) to make a distinction between important information (e.g., genocide) and gossip (e.g., Qaddafi’s arm candy) attenuates its credibility.

Photo: Oliver Lang/dapd