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Of Ethics & WikiLeaks: “The Job of the Media is Not to Protect Power From Embarrassment”

What everyone now knows
(or ought to know) is that, on Sunday five newspapers—The New York Times, the Guardian of the U.K., Germany’s Der Spiegel, France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Pais—began publishing carefully vetted excerpts from 250,000 diplomatic cables leaked to the publications by the now infamous website WikiLeaks.

It is, as WikiLeaks itself puts it, the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.

The U.S. government is—surprise, surprise— mighty upset by the leaks, and loudly condemned them as “reckless.”

So what are the ethics of such leaks in general and these leaks in particular?

On this topic many are opining like crazy. Among those most worth reading are the following:

1. Simon Jenkins writing for The Guardian. (Jenkins is a columnist/author/BBC commentator who has previously been the editor for both the Evening Standard and the London Times. In other words, he’s a not a trifler in the world of British journalism.)

Here are some clips:

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

In this light, two backup checks were applied. The US government was told in advance the areas or themes covered, and “representations” were invited in return. These were considered. Details of “redactions” were then shared with the other four media recipients of the material and sent to WikiLeaks itself, to establish, albeit voluntarily, some common standard.

The state department knew of the leak several months ago and had ample time to alert staff in sensitive locations. Its pre-emptive scaremongering over the weekend stupidly contrived to hint at material not in fact being published. Nor is the material classified top secret, being at a level that more than 3 million US government employees are cleared to see, and available on the defense department’s internal Siprnet…..


The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.


The money‑wasting is staggering. Aid payments are never followed, never audited, never evaluated. The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations, are all perpetually off script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial but its power projection unproductive….

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

2. The New Yorker’s senior editor, Amy Davidson, essentially agrees with Jenkins

She writes:

Timothy Garton Ash, who writes that he has been taking “dives into a vast ocean” of cables for the Guardian, says of the cache,

It is the historian’s dream. It is the diplomat’s nightmare….a multi-course banquet from the history of the present.

And that sounds right: the Times, in its summary, managed to work in a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse whom Muammar Qaddafi kept near him and a wedding in Dagestan with “drunken guests throwing $100 bills at child dancers.” (Garton Ash called that “highly entertaining” cable “almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh.”) It also has accounts of attempts to gain control the Pakistani nuclear arsenal (for insight into that matter, see Seymour M. Hersh’s 2009 piece), warnings about Iran’s plans in that direction, and contingency planning for the collapse of North Korea. (One suggested measure to prepare for that last one: help the Chinese make money there.) There are so many anecdotes and so much color that one might forget where it all tends, and what one ought to do about it.

It is, for example, intriguing to read in a cable the Times highlights, about the day Afghanistan’s vice president arrived in the United Arab Emirates carrying fifty-two million dollars in cash with him (how much luggage space would all those bills take up?); but it’s also devastating. The cable said that he “was ultimately allowed to keep [it] without revealing the money’s origin or destination.” What are the options for its “origins”? Drug money, bribes, a straight theft of American taxpayer dollars meant to support our effort there? Here as in many cables, the strong narrative only throws into relief the incoherence of our Afghan policy, which remains a story with no obvious end….


….maybe the government, if it expects the word “secret” to constitute a clear warning about the potential for danger to one’s country, should think hard about what the word means. The White House’s protests Sunday, in response to the release, that “President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal,” would be more persuasive if the Administration hadn’t, for example, recklessly invoked the states secrets privilege itself.

That brings us back to Garton Ash, and the idea that the documents present a historian’s dream but a diplomat’s nightmare. Between the two, one’s sympathy is with the former—because what historians dream of is, more often than not, what voters in a democracy require.

3. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Russell Adams and Jessica Vascellaro, don’t take a side, but give a round-up of what others have said.

Read the cables themselves here.

Pre-scribbled bucket image by Thomas Saur


  • Is the comment “The money wasting is staggering” actually a surprise?

    The government defense spending/waste has been happening for decades, it’s infamous. Just look up the “M2 Bradley fighting vehicle”, “Comanche helicopter”. Anybody who has ever worked for a defense contractor knows many military defense contracts are jobs creation programs pure and simple. The story of the Afghan vice-president helping himself to our money was already in the news. Hundred of thousands of people have been doing the same thing.

    Ask any Armenian-American mobster and they can tell you how easy it is to rip-off millions from the government’s Medicare programs. Unfortunately the list is almost endless.

    That is why I am opposed to any tax increases; I can spend my own money on the stripper and bartender jobs program.

  • Where to start, so many issues raised.

    On the one hand, this “leak” endangers the lives of people working with the U. S. and allies, e.g., one guy in Iran whose name is not disclosed but every detail re: his family, that he was head of his national fencing team, etc., are, so he and his family are in danger.

    The arrogance of this Wikileak guy in presuming that all info should be public, is staggering, as is the arrogance of media like the Guardian and NYTimes, who self-righteously put forth their own criteria. But I’ve become of the general opinion that the former “MSM” is now little better than blogs when it comes to sensation for dollars, and the “profession” or journalist is one of the few for which there are NO criteria or licensing or exams, it’s a matter of self-proclamation, in exchange for which, anyone who asserts the title has equal claim to being “entitled” to any info about anyone or any group, however “personal” and invasive that may be.

    That being said, there are some useful general observations which while not earth-shattering to those who’ve been paying attention, ARE news to many. E.g. that it’s not just the U. S. doing the bidding of “the Israel lobby” in keeping Iran’s nuclear ambitions at bay, but of the entire Arab world as well. (Some of whom like the Saudies have continued to fund Al Qaeda, hedging their bets I guess.)

    As for the massive incompetence with regard to foreign aid: no news there either, since every journalist or half- informed citizen from major beneficiaries like Egypt, Pakistan and above all Afghanistan, has been telling us that the money goes straight into the pockets of corrupt officials. IF AMerica wants to give wisely, it must take direct control of project built with the money, things the people can literally SEE. That’s what other countries do. And get a lot more bang for the buck for WAY less. For example, no visitor to Cairo can escape it being pointed out that their opera house was built a couple decades ago bu a gift of $10 million from the Japanese people. Pocket change by our standards, but we have NOTHING to point to.

    That story of the Afghan with that absurd amount of money in his suitcase is just the most visible case. How much infrastructure could that have paid for? Schools, buildings, homes for people bombed out of their homes?

    Also, no one knows WHERE the info came from: it can’t have all come from one 22-year-old low-level intelligence guy.
    That means the very notion that info is “secure” is false, and blame for that goes squarely at the U. S. government.

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