The Issue

The Case: On July 25th 2010 Wikileaks.org published 90,000 United States military documents, also known as the Afghan War Documents (Appendices one and two are examples of news articles published) . Because of the nature of the sensitive information in these documents it is being described as one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The information includes allegations of foreign support for the Taliban, details of civilian casualties and friendly fire casualties, greater roles of special Ops than previously thought and most significantly the details of informants; for example “[named person] said he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces”.

The WikiLeaks website began in Australia 2006 and is now an international forum for publishing secret documents while keeping anonymity of its sources, or as the website claims; “WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”. WikiLeaks states in their about section, “We propose that authoritarian governments, oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to the pressure, not merely of international diplomacy, freedom of information laws or even periodic elections, but of something far stronger — the consciences of the people within them”. The release of the war documents has resulted in many ethical laws coming into question, and many countries are trying to ban the website (Australia included if the proposed internet censoring goes ahead), it is for this reason that I have chosen to focus on  the issue of Afghan War Documents release. In regards to ethics Wikileaks is a complicated case to approach;  it is for this reason that I have chosen an in depth narrow argument looking at their reasons behind the release rather than a shallow broad scope covering many topics.

Ethical Issues: There are a number of ethical issues to be looked at in this complex case. I will list them here in bullet points, grouped into reasons for releasing documents and reasons for concern before going on to discuss one key ethical issue. In some instances there are overlaps between for and against so I have included a Venn diagram to illustrate this.

Reasons for release:

  • Support anti-war movement
  • Empowering citizens
  • Imposing limits on the state
  • Counter-surveillance
  • Working around mainstream media
  • public right to know
  • communication of raw intelligence reveals corruption in American politics and highlights the ‘almost criminal political back dealing by US’.
  • Releasing these documents may prompt reinterest in the war, which the media appears to be moving away from.
  • It may bring back public interest in what is happen in Afghanistan.
  • provoke positive anti-war action from both the government and public

Reasons for concern:

  • Incomplete and fragmentary nature of documents
  • Lack of ethical concern
  • Dependence on mainstream media
  • The documents leaked were secret military intelligence
  • The Wikileaks website had no standing authority to reveal them and their reasons for releasing them may be questionable. I.e. just making a story, trying to stir reactions, create unnecessary controversy.
  • Information from these documents may endanger public safety
  • It has been suggested it will cause a break down relationships with key allies
  • Provoke “anti-American” sentiments from the public
  • Provoke negative anti-war action

The key ethical issue:

Did Wikileaks have the right to release classified military documents?

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