December 19, 2010

Peter Singer on WikiLeaks

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has chimed in on the WikiLeaks affair, noting that if citizens are kept in the dark about their government's activities, they cannot hold it to account. Ultimately, he hopes that the WikiLeaks cables move us closer to open diplomacy:
Some of the leaked cables are just opinion, and not much more than gossip about national leaders. But, because of the leak, we know, for example, that when the British government set up its supposedly open inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war, it also promised the US government that it would "put measures in place to protect your interests". The British government appears to have been deceiving the public and its own parliament.

Similarly, the cables reveal that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen lied to his people and parliament about the source of US airstrikes against al-Qaida in Yemen, telling them that Yemen's military was the source of the bombs.

We have also learned more about the level of corruption in some of the regimes that the US supports, like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in other countries with which the US has friendly relations, notably Russia. We now know that the Saudi royal family has been urging the US to undertake a military attack on Iran to prevent it from becoming capable of producing nuclear weapons. Here, perhaps, we learned something for which the US government deserves credit: it has resisted that suggestion.

Knowledge is generally considered a good thing; so, presumably, knowing more about how the US thinks and operates around the world is also good. In a democracy, citizens pass judgment on their government, and if they are kept in the dark about what their government is doing, they cannot be in a position to make well-grounded decisions. Even in non-democratic countries, people have a legitimate interest in knowing about actions taken by the government.

1 comment:

FutureNerd said...

While these leaked cables, and earlier leaks, have provided interesting information, I think people keep making a mistake by focusing on the value of leaked material, or on a particular area of exposure. Assange rightly says to look beyond the effect leaks can have after the fact.

The real hope is that the threat produced by a general means of easy whistleblowing will make it harder in particular for groups planning bad actions to coordinate before they carry their plans out. And the real question is not the retrospective benefit on the receiving end of leaks, but whether the impact on future bad planners is disproportionate in that way.

Because our world also depends on people's freedom to carry out large good plans that many would resist.

In the short run, while leaks are still the exception, it may have to do with which group activities tend to inspire defectors. In the long run, in a world where everyone knows everyone else's business, it may depend on whether we maintain an effective distinction between the right to act and popularity. Or maybe wikileaks will fizzle, get silenced, get gummed up by a spam tide of petty blackmail and scandal, or fail in some other way.