Home > ethics > Why Wikileaks is Wrong

Why Wikileaks is Wrong

I’m surprised to see entirely reasonable people I know pondering whether the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables was ethical. Is this like The Pentagon Papers, they ask? I’m puzzled because to me it’s obviously not. And anyone in my undergraduate “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” class can tell you why.

As part of our class discussion of professionalism for software engineers, we review criteria for whistleblowing.  Our textbook, Ethics for the Information Age by Michael Quinn, offers these suggestions and insights. My teaching notes say:

  1. Work within the system first–there’s usually another way.
  2. Misguided protests can be damaging too–make sure you’re sure.
  3. Help people save face.
  4. Think clearly about what really matters and look for compromise.

Quinn quotes Richard De George’s five questions to ask before whistleblowing:

  1. “Do you believe the problem may result in ‘serious and considerable harm to the public’?
  2. Have you told your manager your concerns about the potential harm?
  3. Have you tried every possible channel within the organization to resolve the problem?
  4. Have you documented evidence that would persuade a neutral outsider that your view is correct?
  5. Are you reasonably sure that if you do bring this matter to public attention, something can be done to prevent the anticipated harm?”

(De George, quoted in Quinn fourth edition, p. 429).

De George says that if you answer yes to the first three questions, you may consider whistleblowing. If you answer yes to all five, you may have an ethical obligation to whistleblow. Of course these are written from the point of view of an employee considering reporting wrong doing in their company to outsiders, but the criteria still hold.

What serious harm to the public is Wikileaks trying to prevent? In what ways have they tried to work within the system first? It all doesn’t add up. On the other hand, the release of The Pentagon Papers quite clearly meets these criteria.

There are all kinds of negative consequences of the release of this information. Ignoring political implications of the specific content, the most serious consequence is a likely decrease openness and sharing within the US government. People will spend more time being paranoid, waste effort on more elaborate security procedures, and be less able to collaboratively make sense of what is going on in the world, and develop a coherent strategy. I believe in the good faith of the US government and the sincere intentions of our civil servants to make the world a better place for all nations. But even assuming you are the deepest cynic who doubts the US’s basic intentions, you can’t seriously believe that an increase in our cluelessness will help, can you? Regardless of your political leanings or nationality, this is a negative outcome for everyone.

p.s. And I really wish they wouldn’t call it “wiki.” This has nothing to do with wikis.


Addendum: Wikileaks vs. Bradley Manning

As folks point out in the comments, I think my problem is more with Bradley Manning (the person who released the information) than with Wikileaks.

Categories: ethics
  1. December 3, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Amy, your argument falls by the categorical imperative: if your argument was correct, then any government openness would be bad and all government information should be classified. You are opposing and undermining the very essence of democracy.

    “The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”

    Nils Bohr
    quoted in Kantrowitz, “The Weapon of Openness,” in Crandall and Lewis, “Nanotechnology, Research and Perspectives,” 1992

    Wikileaks has received the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award and the 2009 Amnesty International human rights reporting award (New Media).

    Please reconsider your analysis in this light. Let’s talk about this.


    • December 3, 2010 at 11:42 am

      You make some reasonable points, Henry. But being a diplomat seems hard enough as is. They should be able to talk to colleagues about tough issues in confidence. We can’t run our academic department without having private conversations that don’t get published and shared. Functioning organizations need to have internal communications that don’t always need to be shared.

      I think we agree on the important points: Organizations need to be held accountable for what they do, and we need greater transparency in government. The point of disagreement is how we can best achieve that transparency and accountability.

    • Chris
      March 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      My issue with your statement is that wiki leaks threatens the lives of countless military and government personel and has absolutely zero accountability. If the government disputes the info released they break the law. Wiki leaks can essentially claim whatever they want without being questioned. They can lie without consequence

  2. December 3, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Amy, you quote a five step test for when to whistleblow. Here are my responses regarding the war in Afghanistan and whether or not whistleblowing is justified in this context.

    1 Do you believe the problem may result in ‘serious and considerable harm to the public’?

    The war in Afghanistan has resulted in 1338 confirmed deaths of US personnel and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths, mostly civilians. The US has conducted and condoned assassinations, secret disappearances and kidnappings, torture and rape, all contrary to US and international law.

    2 Have you told your manager your concerns about the potential harm?

    In November, 2001 I attempted to bring a written resolution before the Washtenaw County Democratic Party opposing the War in Afghanistan. It was ruled out of order by the chair without being submitted to discussion or a vote.

    I went to the Rules Committee to ask for a rule permitting debate on my resolution. I was told, “Henry you can stay but if you open your mouth, if you say one word, you will be arrested and removed by force if necessary.”

    3 Have you tried every possible channel within the organization to resolve the problem?

    Since 2001, I have attended public meetings, written extensively in my blog, written repeatedly to my congresspeople and spoken to many of them in person. I have stood on a street corner by the Ann Arbor Federal Building holding a sign on many cold winter days, often alone.

    4 Have you documented evidence that would persuade a neutral outsider that your view is correct?

    There is ample evidence that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, that it serves no strategic purpose, that it is an illegal war of aggression under US and “customary” international law (the Nuremberg Principles). And bin Laden is not there, he is in Pakistan, protected by our “ally”.

    5 Are you reasonably sure that if you do bring this matter to public attention, something can be done to prevent the anticipated harm?”

    I am not sure that what Wikileaks has done will prevent the anticipated harm. But it will help. I am sure that if nothing is done, the harms will continue and intensify.

    Henry Edward Hardy
    Cambridge, MA

  3. December 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    One of the most thorough and compelling arguments I’ve read in support of Wikileaks is by zunguzungu, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”

    (in case you don’t support embedded links: http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-%E2%80%9Cto-destroy-this-invisible-government%E2%80%9D/# )

    Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraph:

    “to summarize, he [Assange] begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.”

  4. December 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Amy,

    The whistleblower should not be confused with the organization to which the alleged misconduct is being reported. It’s one thing to ask whether the individual(s) who sent the documents to Wikileaks acted ethically, and another to ask whether Wikileaks has acted ethically in how it has dealt with the documents it received. So, the criteria you listed (De George) don’t necessarily hold. In this case we are dealing with issues between states, other states, and their populations. Also, due to the role of the US in the global arena and the volume and scope of the documents, there isn’t even a “neutral” party to speak of.

    I’m also curious about what negative consequences you think there might be (other than the potential decrease in openness). For the Afghan War documents leak, there was a similar amount of outcry but, in the end, even the Pentagon admitted that the leak didn’t compromise operations, reveal key intel, or endanger people (http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/10/16/wikileaks.assessment/index.html?hpt=T2). So, why would things be all that different this time around?

    I looked up the Pentagon papers (on Wikipedia), where (quoting from the NYT) their importance is due to the fact that they “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” If you replace “Johnson Administration” with “US Government” and consider the audience (the public) in this case to be the international community, I’m not sure I see how different the Pentagon papers are from the US Embassy Cable leaks. (Daniel Ellsberg’s commentary on Wikileaks is pretty interesting as well, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1pTl8KdREk)

    It might make sense to look at the Cable Leak on two levels. One way is to see it as a single leak that covers all kinds of different topics and issues. Another is to consider each of its revelations separately and thematically. This perspective is more complicated but may ultimately be more productive because it allows us to separate the different “things” being leaked in order to analyze them in isolation. I would imagine that subsets of the documents leaked, say those that refer to Iraq and Afghanistan, may have the same impact and effect that the Pentagon Papers had for the Vietnam war?

  5. Jofish
    December 3, 2010 at 5:54 pm


    I’m also not sure I agree with you in this post. I think there’s a few things going on.

    It seems to me that you’re conflating the roles of several people. I think the questions you’re discussing do apply to Bradley Manning, and I think a real case can be made that he acted unethically. But I don’t think that the same questions apply to Assange in the same way; he’s a different question, and you do say in the first line that you’re talking about the Wikileaks release. I would argue that they’re actually taking quite an ethical stance: you may disagree with their logic, but they’re being *very* careful about exactly what they release and how. I believe they’ve released along the order of about 250-500 cables (please, correct me if I’m wrong); that’s 249,500 that they’re not releasing. There is a real question about why they have the authority to make these decisions, and whether we can trust them to continue to behave in a basically responsible manner (which I would suggest they have done so far), but I don’t think you can dismiss it out of hand.

    Second, I don’t think you can ignore the power relations here, and I think that’s where Joe’s going with his post. Foucault points out that illegal actions can be the last resort of the powerless. It’s an interesting thought experiment: what if a similar situation had happened with the government of, say, Myanmar? Or Samoa? Or China? Each of those is on a different place on the power-powerless axis, and arguably on the open-accountable/corrupt-unaccountable government axis too. I think there’s some value in thinking about what a viable and ethical response to a similar release of diplomatic secrets might be in those different circumstances.


    • December 3, 2010 at 7:08 pm

      Jofish, I think I basically agree with you and Jose. My problem is really with Bradley Manning, not Wikileaks.

  6. December 3, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    I believe in the good faith of the US government and the sincere intentions of our civil servants to make the world a better place for all nations.

    One of the chief functions of the US government, which is largely independent of whether there are civil servants who are nice people, is to run the largest engine of war and imperial conquest the world has ever known. Putting sand in the gears of this machine is a good thing. Organizations have trouble operating when they can’t keep things private? That’s a shame, but in this case secrecy has been abused over and over to commit the most horrific sort of crimes. So Wikileaks, which helps make us aware of this, is doing a tremendous service. Here’s the same point made at greater length.

    And you should read this paper by Peter Galison on the truly remarkable sheer scale of the world of government secrecy.

    The framing of this as an ethical question seems to miss the point. Did Manning act ethically? Who knows, but his action revealed to the world an array of far worse abuses (spying at the UN, instigating a failed invasion of Somalia, to name the two I read about today). Whether that justifies it or not is an interesting academic question, but I am glad it happened. The more light is directed into these dark places, the better.

    • December 4, 2010 at 8:16 am

      Mike I think you’ve expressed the core of the issue here. Some people think “The US is so evil we should throw sand in the gears.” I don’t agree with that. I think sand in the gears will make it worse. I agree that we need much more government accountability and transparency, but sand in the gears isn’t going to help those things. And my belief in privacy extends to government workers trying to do a very hard job.

      Which comes back to the distinction between Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. I probably buy the argument that Wikileaks might be trying to do something good by selecting among the information and releasing some of it to try to open a dialog and lead to change. But Manning? He betrayed the trust his employers put in him, and that means that others in his position in the future won’t have enough access to be a meaningful part of the solution. To say it a different way, if transparency is a virtue, Manning has just radically decreased transparency within the government. That’s not good. Very not good.

      • December 4, 2010 at 1:57 pm

        For the record, I don’t believe the USG is solely evil (it does some good things) nor uniquely evil. All governments have a built-in tendency towards abuse of power. It just so happens that it is our government that has the most far-reaching, bloated, expensive, and secretive security apparatus ever seen. An empowered press and transparency are checks on the tendency of governments to expand their powers indefinitely, and I generally support such efforts to strengthen those.

        I do not believe that Manning has “radically decreased transparency in government”. He’s obviously increased transparency locally, and the global consequences are unclear. It is hard to imagine a government that is more secretive than our — did you read that Galison link?

        You seem to be viewing this from an inside-the-institution point of view. Perhaps you’re doing too much administration work these days? Manning broke the rules, betrayed the institution he was supposed to be a part of and loyal to. Possibly true. But I view this from an outsider’s perspective, and I care more about the effects of the institution than its supposedly sacrosanct internal rules.

  7. December 6, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Some further thoughts on my own blog.

  8. December 13, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Nice piece in the Huffington Post making my point more eloquently. They argue that WikiLeaks “is likely to result in less transparency in the long run.” http://huff.to/fuokIZ

    • December 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm

      Some follow-up to that piece, which led to the resignation of Glenn Greenwald from the sponsoring organization.

      I think this supports my original analysis — the conflict is between institutional insiders and outsiders. There are reasonably good arguments on both sides, but irrespective of which side holds the ethical high ground, that seems to be where the fault line lies.

  9. December 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I think you’ve gotten some cogent and detailed critique but there are at least two fundamental points I think you missed, and why I think your list of criteria is inapplicable. You operate from the stance of an employee considering whistleblowing against his or her employer.

    In the case at hand we’re considering whistleblowing not against our employer, but against an entity that, at least nominally, works for us. We, the people, are the authority. The government may have certain rights ceded to it by the people through documents such as the Constitution, its Amendments, and laws that fall under that umbrella. Nevertheless, those are limited grants of rights and there’s long case history to say that things not granted to the government remain the rights of the citizens.

    This is a fundamental distinction between democratic or republic-style governments, and monarchies, statist, or authoritarian regimes in which all power resides with the government, except that granted to the people.

    (I can make detailed arguments here related to our lack of a State Secrets act, and the classification of many of the cables as NOFORN but let me instead move on to the other major point.)

    Your list of criteria presume a level of nicety and gentility that are inapplicable in cases of criminal action. It’s the Marquis of Queensbury rules applied to gang warfar. We’re not talking about someone who is colluding to overprice printer cartridges here; we’re talking about evidence that a high official of the government (the Secretary of State) is ordering people to commit a crime (spying on the UN). In this sort of situation the duty of the honorable citizen is to publicize the prima facie evidence of the crime, not to build a preponderance of evidence case. That latter is the job of whatever legal body might someday be persuaded to undertake to investigate the allegation.

  10. December 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    I think you and Mike make some cogent arguments. At its core, the nature of our disagreement is about some nuanced details of how the US government operates as a socio-technical system–a complex combination of people, rules (written and unwritten), and physical artifacts. We can all agree I think that some of those people are incredibly dedicated, loyal, hard working, and committed to the highest standards for the government. And some are not. Each person falling somewhere on an n-dimensional scale. So the question is, how do we help the best folks in government to have their voices heard and their view of things hold the day, within the complex culture they inhabit with a myriad different sub-organizations with different common practices and values? Certainly transparency is a virtue, but some communications need to be private. If we can’t conduct the business of a PhD program without a certain amount of confidential communication, how could we do so with the business of a nation? It’s absurd.

    Long story short, I refuse to believe that the US being blackmailed by a self aggrandizing Australian citizen is a good thing. Do we need more transparency and accountability in government? Of course. But this isn’t the way to achieve it.

  11. June 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    “Long story short, I refuse to believe that the US being blackmailed by a self aggrandizing Australian citizen is a good thing. Do we need more transparency and accountability in government? Of course. But this isn’t the way to achieve it.”

    I’m afraid there is no other possible way to get transparency from governments. Governments are natural enemies of transparency.

    I cannot have any kind of “faith” in governments, goes against my principles. Matters of state, should be rational and administrative, facts and proofs based.

    They are (ought to be) executers of people’s will.

  1. December 3, 2010 at 11:55 am

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