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Matter of Trust

I dunno; this is getting kinda sketchy.

Just a few weeks ago, I voiced support for Wikileaks, when it helped release classified documents confirming that the US knowingly abetted torture of political prisoners in Iraq, with hints of active participation. At the time, I argued that somebody has to act as government watchdog. I would prefer a professional and adversarial press corps, but since news media have largely abandoned their custodial role, we should be grateful for whistleblowers and enablers like Wikileaks, despite a somewhat lower standard of journalistic integrity—for example, less thorough fact-checking.

I still feel that way. Exposing corruption and criminality that citizens of a democracy have a right to know about their government and their officials—indeed must know if it is to enjoy the actual benefits of democracy is vital. Without public knowledge, there is no government accountability. When our government breaks the law or lies to the public, say, for example, to start a war in the Persian Gulf or torture civilians, whistleblowing is right and proper, even if doing so breaks laws concerning classified information; exposing the greater crime is more important, and some very great crimes indeed hide behind the fig leaf of “national security.”

When there is no crime to expose, however, leaking government documents is not admirable. The recent Wikileaks release of State Department documents contained awkward and embarrassing material: unflattering characterizations of foreign leaders, and even a few US figures. But I have yet to hear any evidence of wrongdoing of any kind, much less criminal corruption. The state papers do not, therefore, contain information the public has a right to know, nor a need to know. Consequently, the release of the documents, which embarrassing but ultimately insignificant statements, damages the country without accomplishing a greater good. Our enemies (and allies!) can mine these documents for advantages in negotiations, and the sudden awareness that speaking one’s mind even internally can lead to embarrassment can only have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas withing the State Department and between nations.

Further, in releasing documents that do not damn but merely make trouble, Wikileaks invites just reprisal from the government. So long as they stick to painful exposes, a government that professes a love for liberty cannot act to shut the site down without risking a backlash, most especially demands to see just what makes a given leak so terrifying to authorities. But when leaks interfere with the operation of government to no clear end, the exposed government appears the victim, justified in shutting down Wikileaks, seizing its documents, or even apprehending its staff.

With professional journalism giving way to mere editorializing, he-said-she-said reporting, and “infotainment,” we need Wikileaks, or something like it. The price we must pay to keep it in place is clearly going to be high, for public as well as government agencies and officials. Leaking information simply because they can is no way for a watchdog to act. If only we still had watchdogs who knew how to do the job properly.

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