I was recently invited to attend the Intelligence Squared debate asking whether ‘WikiLeaks was a force for good?’ and contribute a small article about the debate for the organiser’s newsletter (the St James Ethics Centre). The article was to be a legal companion to the article contemplating the ethical aspects of WikiLeaks by Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of the St James Ethics Centre and Chair of the Intelligence Squared Australia debates. At the debate, this polemical issue provoked a tempestuous dispute by extremely gifted speakers including: Dr Suelette Dreyfus (author of ‘Underground’), Kristinn Hrafnsson (current spokesman for WikiLeaks), and Professor Stuart Rees (Emeritus Professor at Sydney University and Director of Sydney Peace Foundation) for the positive; and Gareth Evans (former Foreign Minister), Tom Switzer (political writer, editor, adviser and lecturer), and Dr Michael Fullilove (Director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute) for the negative. Interestingly, the poll results from before and after the debate suggest that while those believing WikiLeaks is a force for good remained undeterred, those undecided before the debate were markedly influenced against the proposition by the end. The precise results, as well as the audio of the debate are available from the IQ2 website. – Jake Goldenfein
WikiLeaks is a Force for Good
By Dr Simon Longstaff
Speaking at the 25th Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur in June 2011 Rowan Callick (The Australian) quoted Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley who stated “[WikiLeaks is] like American foreign policy being neutron bombed” – the implication being that while the infrastructure of the US State Department survives, the people within the edifice have been badly damaged. Beazley’s analogy is, at the very least, striking. It is also at the more extreme end of the rhetorical scale employed by WikiLeaks’ critics. The core of Kim Beazley’s argument, however, is shared by many members of the diplomatic community. Their chief complaint is that WikiLeaks has undermined a fundamental precursor for the conduct of diplomacy – the maintenance of confidentiality of communications. The argument goes that, without a guarantee of confidentiality, the otherwise essential exchange of information will be curtailed for fear of exposure. Given that effective diplomacy can prevent or resolve conflicts capable of destroying the lives of innocent people, it is further posited that WikiLeaks is a significant source of harm – and not just a minor inconvenience.
It should be noted that this argument does not rely on the claim that WikiLeaks’ release of cables caused serious harm to those named in the published cables. Appearing before Congress, US Secretary of Defense. Robert Gates, testified that no damage had been done to active operations and that no American life had been put at risk by the activities of WikiLeaks. The fate of those who provided information to US officials, however, may not have been so benign – especially if operating under oppressive regimes in countries where even a modest degree of candour can have dire consequences for the individuals concerned.
At face value the criticism mounted by Beazley and those of like mind would seem to have merit. After all, who would deny that effective diplomacy is an important public good. It is less clear, however, that WikiLeaks acted in a manner to undermine the preconditions for diplomacy. For example, although diplomats require some matters to be kept secret, it does not follow that all matters they claim require secrecy should be accorded this same condition. The scope of the Official Secrets Act in Britain was once so expansive that it included the House of Commons’ dining room menu. No reasonable person would assume secrecy requirements for such details. In fact, much included in the trove of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks was mundane. Indeed, the level of American security accorded to the cables was relatively low – with access granted to several million people connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network SIPRNet used to share information in the ‘war on terror’. It is unlikely the United States government would have granted such extensive access if it had considered the cables contained highly sensitive information.
The other point worth noting about the contentious releases is that WikiLeaks subjected itself to external review by agreeing that the editors of mainstream news outlets should vet the material in order to remove any information judged to be genuinely sensitive, This is an important point. In the case of the US cables, at least, WikiLeaks was prepared to accept the judgement of editors who society routinely trusts to be prudent and responsible when determining what should or should not be published. The editors involved in handling the sensitive diplomatic material have been explicit about their determination to exclude material that would have caused risk, rather than mere embarrassment, to others.
As most commentators have noted, the debate about WikiLeaks is about much more than the particular case of how the US diplomatic cables were handled. The larger question concerns the extent to which society should have access to public information that is relevant to its interests. There is a significant difference, however, between what is in the public interest and what the public happens to be interested in – a distinction not always applied by the media. Governments often claim to be guardians of the public interest. They claim a corresponding right to decide what the public should know – and when we should know it. It is also clear, however, that governments will often make decisions in line with personal or political interests – interests that are not always aligned with those of their citizens. Add to this the kind of caution that would include a dining room menu under an official secrets act and it soon becomes evident that it would be unwise to rely exclusively on the judgement of governments.
The vast majority of people recognise the importance of maintaining some measure of secrecy in their own lives. They also know governments must keep some matters secret, for example for reasons of national security. What WikiLeaks has prompted is a public discussion about where the balance should lie. The June 2011 Intelligence Squared debate which is now available at iq2oz.com pondered the proposition WikiLeaks is a force for good. Speakers for: Dr Suelette Dreyfus, Kristinn Hrafnsson, current spokesperson for WikiLeaks, Professor Stuart Rees. Speakers against: Gareth Evans, Dr Michael Fullilove, Tom Switzer.
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre and Chair of Intelligence Squared Australia debates.
This article will also be published in the St James Ethics Centre Newsletter and at thepunch.com
WikiLeaks: legal status and political choices
A survey of whether or not WikiLeaks is a force for good does not necessarily consider the legality of its actions. At this stage there is only indirect legal action against WikiLeaks. For example, many consider the accusations against Assange to be politically directed at the WikiLeaks organisation, and the severe incarceration of Bradley Manning, the source of a great deal of WikiLeaks material, surely has a deterrent motivation targeting potential leakers. Beyond that, neither WikiLeaks nor its activities are outlawed. A Grand Jury in the US is attempting to assemble a case against WikiLeaks for crimes under the Espionage Act, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and for conspiracy, however most commentators consider constitutional free speech protections to be a significant impediment to prosecution. But WikiLeaks legal status also reflects its ‘organisational status.’ That is to say, whether WikiLeaks is considered a journalistic organisation, a publishing organisation, or simply a source, affects which laws are relevant. The laws applicable to each category vary, and despite often being treated by mainstream media as simply a source of leaks, WikiLeaks is not being prosecuted as such, meaning it need only comply with laws relevant for journalists or publishers. American precedent such as the famous Pentagon Papers case suggests that the messy balance between the administration’s need for secrecy and the public’s right and need to know should enable the administration to function, subject to occasional disclosures to keep it honest. ‘The rare exceptions would require a combination of high likelihood, magnitude, and immediacy of harm to justify suppression,’ meaning there is a very high threshold to WikiLeaks prosecution under that doctrine.
It is difficult to assess whether WikiLeaks legal situation would be different if pursued under Australian law considering we have no express constitutional right to free speech (though we do have an implied right of political communication), and our whistle-blowing laws do not apply to the media at large. Commonwealth v John Fairfax and Sons (1980) 147 CLR 39 (‘Defence Papers Case’) and Attorney-General v Heinemann Publishers (1987) 8 NSWLR 341; (1988) 165 CLR 30 (‘Spycatcher’) are potentially relevant Australian cases indicating that under our law WikiLeaks may be exposed to a breach of confidence action, and the Fairfax case points out that copyright may also be relied upon where documents are copied. But prospects of success are not guaranteed and there are some important limitations and qualifications on liability (for instance the defence of fair dealing for purposes of news reporting vis-à-vis copyright, the need to demonstrate Australian public interests vis-à-vis breach of confidence). Of course assessments here will be very fact specific and we do not necessarily know all the relevant facts at this stage. Katy Barnett wrote a nice piece on ‘Spycatcher and Wikileaks’ in the January issue of the Fortnightly Review.
Despite its relatively stable legal status, WikiLeaks has certainly still come under attack from institutional actors. And those attacks, generally effected through privately owned intermediaries, expose some of the more concerning aspects of the new media environment in relation to freedom of the press. ‘Extra-legal’ actions (including denial of service cyber-attacks) by companies that control crucial aspects of cyber-infrastructure like Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, EveryDNS, and Amazon, betray a private-public partnership with dangerous censorship implications. Scholars like Yochai Benkler suggest these censorship actions would have been practically impossible under legal and constitutional frameworks.
After the original reaction to the ‘CableGate’ leaks, the rhetorical framing of WikiLeaks shifted away from a major threat to the peaceful world order towards a more realistic suggestion that it undermines the checks, balances and accountability established within traditional media organisations. Indeed, no significant harm (apart from embarrassment) to any diplomatic or military institution has yet been claimed as a consequence of the leaks, suggesting the established media and state institutions reacted primarily from a motivation of anxiety than actual danger. However, that anxiety could be valid, as WikiLeaks may have serious implications for traditional media models as well has profound consequences for nation states and democracy. For example, Professor John Keane from University of Sydney places WikiLeaks at the vanguard of the emerging ‘monitory democracy’ in which democracy has shifted away from simple ‘parliamentary democracy’ towards a form of democracy that includes the permanent scrutiny of power wherever it is exercised.
Therefore, if we take the starting position that WikiLeaks’ publication of materials (often in conjunction with mainstream media) is not clearly illegal (although not clearly legal either), and that the releases seem to have caused no real damage to date at least, then deciding whether or not WikiLeaks is a force for good requires the personal determination of whether we approve of WikiLeaks’ fundament and mission, an inherently political decision. On the whole do we consider the outcomes of WikiLeaks’ actions beneficial?
WikiLeaks’ neutron bomb effect described above by Dr Longstaff, may indeed curtail some exchange of information, however that itself is not determinative of whether the outcomes of WikiLeaks actions are positive or negative. Without doubt governments need secrecy for certain actions (for example effective diplomatic practice), however they also need sufficient trust from the citizenry to maintain that secrecy. Raimond Gaita recently said in a lecture at Melbourne Law School that the current political situation (for example the spin and misinformation) has led to an absence of the conditions of sober judgement and ultimately an incapacity for people to consent to their states’ actions. In that sense WikiLeaks is facilitating the information necessary for consensual governance. Another fundamental effect was described by Glenn Greenwald, who recently wrote that the republican ideal requires that governments are transparent and citizens are private, yet the past decade has seen a wholesale reversal of that ideal. WikiLeaks therefore stands as a subversion of that reversal, a goal that goes beyond embarrassing diplomats or bringing political pressure to end a senseless war. Finally, commentator Guy Rundel has argued WikiLeaks gives whistleblowers a new choice, a chance to avoid the decision between life and truth, with the outcome that pursuing honesty can result in a flourishing of life rather than a suicide mission. Perhaps these outcomes are worth diplomats being slightly more cautious in how they communicate, or perhaps not.
Jake Goldenfein is a PhD student at the Melbourne Law School
This article will also be published in the St James Ethics Centre Newsletter.