Informational Disobedience: Wikileaks and State Secrets

Posted on October 26, 2010


A few days ago, Wikileaks made a lot of noise on my Twitter feed when they published thousands of day-to-day combat reports from the Iraq war. In case you haven’t been following things, this is the most recent of several huge releases over the course of the past few years. Last April, they leaked a horrific but enlightening video of the New Baghdad Massacre, which reveals helicopter pilots strafing unarmed civilians. On July 25, they released thousands of documents revealing the hidden truths about the war in Afghanistan.  Now they’ve done the same thing with Iraq. They’ve really outdone themselves this time. There is a fantastically organized site designed not only to publicize these reports as efficiently as possible, but to use mass collaboration to root out the most interesting ones. Seriously, check it out.

It should come as no surprise that Wikileaks exists in a perpetual state of controversy, especially when releasing documents related to something as sensitive wartime reports. Much of the criticism they have received rests on factual inaccuracies, such as the commonly stated mistake that the leaks are putting soldiers in danger by revealing their names to the enemy. The leaks do no such thing. A quick glance at the database reveals that all names have been edited out. The suggestion that some leaks may be fabricated is easily refuted by the realization that fabricated reports make their way into the media, anyway. Julian Assagne, Wikileaks’ founder, is right to point out that public access will allow for better verification of documents.

Some criticism, however, is more substantive. As Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Laplan writes,

“We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large”

Let’s take for granted that the state has a right to keep secrets from some of its citizens, just as it has a right to use physical force to detain some of its citizens. I think the comparison is a fruitful one. Both are cases in which the state has been given a right to act against the interests and desires of individual citizens in pursuit of the greater good. Just as few would disagree with the police’s right to forcibly arrest rapists, few would disagree with the state’s secrecy in the waging of a just war*. In many ways, secrecy is a kind of physical force employed by the state.

These rights, however, are not absolute. The state does not get to exercise physical force against whoever it wants without the approval of the judicial branch. Similarly, the state’s right to keep secret must be made contingent on those secrets being necessary for its legitimate operations, and the information being hidden must not be important for the public’s ability to make an informed decision regarding any going political issue. Secrecy, like brute physical force, should not be used as a means of maintaining political power.

If physical force is misused by the government and the judiciary does not step in, the the citizens have the right to civil disobedience-a practice designed to invalidate the state’s monopoly on use of force-against whatever arm of the government is committing the abuses. If we continue our analogy, then information which is being misused by the government for political gain is fair game for being released through other, less than legal, channels.

The three big leaks I have mentioned in this post all fit this description of secrecy being used as a shield for political power, especially given that the true numbers of (and natures of) casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hidden by political authorities with vested interests. Any other information being similarly withheld can also be justly leaked. The ethical requirements for such a leak should read something like this:

1) The release of the information must not bring about harm to any innocent party.

2) The information must be politically relevant.

The first requirement accords with Wikileaks’ posting policy. The second is supported by their habit of redacting names from the leaked documents. Wikileaks is engaged in a kind of global civil disobedience, and its work is not only justified; it is desperately needed. It seems appropriate to the information age that we rebel against oppressive governments not with rocks or hunger strikes, but with modems.

*Just wars may or may not exist in the real world. That’s not what I’m talking about here. All I’m suggesting is that if, hypothetically, the military were justifiably engaged in combat, they would have a good reason to keep secrets from their own citizens.

Posted in: US Politics