WikiEthics: Why Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Morals Should Not Mix

In the wake of the recent WikiDump of classified US diplomatic cables, questions over the morality, effect and mission of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange have cut to the very core of who journalists are and the responsibility they have for the ultimate effects of the stories they publish. This piece does not seek to challenge Wikileaks' claim that "publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organizations," but only to ask what hidden costs may lie beneath the surface.

An excerpt from the July 2010 TED interview in which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange addresses a video published by WikiLeaks in the spring of 2010 depicting a US Apache helicopter crew firing on Iraqi civilians:

CA: And what would you say to, for example, the, you know, the parent of someone -- whose son is out serving the U.S. military, and he says, "You know what, you've put up something that someone had an incentive to put out. It shows a U.S. soldier laughing at people dying. That gives the impression -- has given the impression to millions of people around the world that U.S. soldiers are inhuman people. Actually, they're not. My son isn't. How dare you?" What would you say to that?

Assange: Yeah, we do get a lot of that. But remember, the people in Baghdad, the people in Iraq, the people in Afghanistan -- they don't need to see the video; they see it every day. So it's not going to change their opinion. It's not going to change their perception. That's what they see every day. It will change the perception and opinion of the people who are paying for it all. And that's our hope.

What Assange describes, and what really defines Wikileaks, is a question of perception and differing concepts of morality. By showing a video of a US Army Apache helicopter crew wrongfully firing upon and killing a group of innocents, Assange tells the truth. No, more specifically, he tells "a" truth. The difference between "the" truth and "a" truth is a difference of perception. To say that one Apache gunship crew seemed inhumanly casual as they fired upon and killed a group of innocent people, is to tell "a" truth, one single set of pure facts. These facts become "the" truth, when someone perceives and then extrapolates them out to cover a much large group of people and situations: i.e. perceiving the video to mean that every US soldier is inhumane.

It is a truth that two US soldiers acted inhumanly and it's certainly moral to expose what happened. What neither Assange, nor any journalist, can control however, is how that information is perceived by others. The rational, "people who are paying for it all" in Assange's words, will be rightfully outraged, ask if the shooting was an isolated incident or indicative of the actions of more US troops in Iraq, and, if so, pressure the government to enforce justice. If this is the outcome of Assange's efforts, then he is a hero and has succeeded. If, however, even one extremist or mentally unbalanced person perceives the information provided by Assange as inspiration to go out and kill innocent Americans, Westerners or random people, then the question of morality gets far more complex. Who is at fault if even more innocent deaths occur, beyond reasonable doubt, because of the video? Does the blame rest with American soldiers for killing innocent civilians, with the person who straps a bomb vest to him or herself, or with Assange for providing the information?

The answer of course depends on the situation that occurs, the information that is made public and the perceptions and feelings of those who see it. I, like most journalists, think what Assange and Wikileaks do is generally important, but not necessarily always right. Do we, for example, really trust Wikileak's editing skills to keep innocent identities safe? It's very tough to say, if, out of ten stories exposed by Wikileaks, nine result in positive change and one results in an innocent death which wouldn't have otherwise happened, that Assange has then been successful. It's impossible to say just how many stunning government scandals, corporate misdeeds and international conspiracies one needs to uncover to justify even the chance of putting more innocent lives at risk. Ultimately, no matter how good a journalist, how objective or how well meaning you are, there is absolutely no way to control over how others will act based on what they perceive in the information you provide.

Sometimes lives are saved by secrets and sometimes by the exposure of secrets. Viewing Assange's mission as a successful moral crusade and every US government secret as inherently immoral is but one opinion. If there is an issue to be taken with WikiLeaks, it's that Assange and those who run the organization view the morality of their mission as completely black and white. Sometimes, odd as it may seem, even government secrets are kept for the right moral reasons. The fact that a 39-year-old fugitive former computer hacker would take it upon himself alone to weigh the moral reasons for secret keeping seems arrogant at its core. Even if Assange's morals are spot on 99% of the time, one must ask who gets hurt as part of the 1% collateral damage.

Wikileaks and Assange are, over all, neither good nor bad and neither moral nor immoral. Wikileaks should not be viewed as an arbiter of morals, only as a tool to get at information. When asked about his core values, Julian Assange responds that "capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture victims." His words ring true, but Mr. Assange himself has very little control over which victims he nurtures, and which he creates.