Should WikiLeaks be closed down?

What the heck were the people at WikiLeaks thinking when they apparently posted identifying information about Afghans fighting the Taliban?

I honestly don’t know. Did the site really release information allowing the Taliban to identify specific informants?

My New York Times says the following:

The disclosure of documents containing the names of Afghan informants, which was reported Tuesday in The Times of London, could further complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to manage the course of the war in Afghanistan.

A search by The New York Times on Wednesday also turned up several examples.

In one 2007 report, for instance, a military officer discussed meeting with a person who was named in the report, who claimed to have worked with allied forces and wanted to continue doing so. The Times withheld details that could identify the man.

In another 2007 report, American troops met privately with an Afghan official, who was named in the report, who told the Americans about the recent movements of a local militant leader and his heavily armed force. The report also identified several other informants who were part of the official’s network.

For the record, I am a liberal Democrat. I am also a strong believer in the first amendment.

This case has me wondering about that amendment’s proper boundary. It’s one thing to leak classified policy details and debates. Such leaks are often justified to inform the public and to hold government accountable. It’s quite a different thing to reveal operational intelligence details that threaten the safety of particular human beings or that reveal sensitive tactical information while we fight an enemy that specifically targets people for suicide bombings and other forms of grisly intimidation.

We live in a new media age in which the internet facilitates open-source intelligence and allows sites such as Wikileaks to collect and disgorge thousands of raw documents with little careful gatekeeping. I don’t know enough about Afghanistan to have a strong policy view. I do know that we made promises to people there who help us at real personal risk. We have to protect them.

The Pentagon may well be exaggerating the threat to people’s safety here. If these leaks did put people in danger, some legal action is appropriate: against the leakers, but maybe against WikiLeaks itself, too. I’m not very comfortable going down this road, but the subject warrants discussion.

What the heck were they thinking?

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “Should WikiLeaks be closed down?”

  1. If the names had been redacted prior to release, this would be a different story. Citizens and taxpayers need to know when their governments are waging foolish wars, but the do not need to know the names of individuals involved in the ground operations. They need to know the involvement of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not of the company commander and the interpreter who were present in a particular city on a particular day.

    We needed to know that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were “secretly” bombing Laos and Cambodia; these operations were a secret to us but not to the people on the receiving end of the bombs, nor of their governments. The big picture helps to make informed voters. The specific details contribute nothing to this end, but do put the individuals involved in potential danger.

  2. Should the US Army be closed down? Every rocket shot from a drone endangers and kills more innocent people than these leaks could possibly do.

    Atrios got it perfectly right – http://twitter.com/Atrios/status/19529753033 – "prediction: most media coverage of latest wikileaks will be about whether or not it should have been published"

    Why are *you* helping them hijack the conversation?

  3. Two points need to be part of the discussion. First (as perhaps noted in the first sentence of the post) Wikileaks has deliberately and skillfully made itself hard to shut down. It has minimal formal orgainization uses multiples servers, in a variety of countries considered hospitable to freedom of expression. Second, if we give the U.S. government, and/or powers that be generally, a veto based on "we say this threatens individual sources", freedom of exression in this area survives only if we trust the authorities to use that veto with fairness and restraint. Do you? Why?

  4. I don't think this needs discussion. It was wrong to publish information that could get someone killed, even apart from the question of whether or not we are on the "right side" of this. At least, if you're going to do that, don't hide behind freedom of speech. Aren't you virtually a combatant at that point? Someone should have read the documents before posting them.

  5. I don't see how one can be even considering shutting down an organization which serves as an aid to whistle-blowers around the world. Pointing out that you're a 'liberal democrat' (so what?) doesn't make this illiberal notion anymore reasonable (or sensible).

    It's one thing to criticize *how* an organization did things. Completely another to than take that criticism as a means to justify the idea that they shouldn't be doing these things in the first place.

    With regard to Afghanistan; the child has already fallen down the well (and has been down there for nearly a decade now). If this leak actually does become responsible for certain casualties, its moot at this point to the Afghan civilians or US soldiers who've already suffered the consequences of 'irresponsibility'.

  6. When the military slaughters innocent civilians – accidentally of course – while carrying out a war of aggression, it just calls out "collateral damage" and everyone nods their heads understandingly. Suggest WikiLeaks do the same regarding any casualties resulting from its disclosures.

  7. If we were going to shut some sites down, instead of WikiLeaks, why don't we start with these illegal peer-to-peer download sites that offer copyrighted material without the authors' permission?

  8. "It’s quite a different thing to reveal operational intelligence details that threaten the safety of particular human beings or that reveal sensitive tactical information while we fight an enemy that specifically targets people for suicide bombings and other forms of grisly intimidation."

    I don't know if this was what you meant, Harold, but you pretty much destroy your case with your details here.

    (a) "while we fight an enemy that specifically targets people for suicide bombings and other forms of grisly…" So your primary complaint is the "targets people for suicide bombings"? If this enemy "played fair" by using cruise missiles and drones, that would be OK by you?

    Why exactly do the operational details of how the enemy fights matter so much to you that you figure this is work commenting on?

    (b) Would you be this upset if the lists that were posted by Wiki Leaks were of Afghans targeted by the US military? You'd be up in arms if the NY Times posted a list it found in Afghanistan of people working covertly for the Taliban?

    Julian, in the first place, is not American, so there's no obvious reason why he should care about who gains temporary military/political advantage from what he does. But even if he were American, is it so outrageous for him to believe that this is all insane crap anyway? At a time when every day delivers new bad news about global warming, who gives a fsck about whether ten of "our side" or ten of "their side" beat each other up in Afghanistan? The whole thing is a truly mindless waste of money, time, and attention; and Julian is hardly alone in the world in thinking so.

    Given the precious little that the Pentagon Papers actually did to change the world, I suspect he's on something of a fools quest. Nonetheless, I applaud him anyway — what he's doing is a whole lot more constructive than wringing one's hands and saying "oh my, he might just do something that shortens the duration of America's pointless adventure in Afghanistan, and wouldn't that be a tragedy".

  9. If in the dimmest part of the brain of an American who cannot speak the local language, there is even a teensytiny part that believes what the translator says, all I can say is you are a fool. How many American people or contractors even speak the language and go out on these "kill 'em all and let God sort them out" killing sprees in task force such and such?

    No matter who does what when, the war will go on, simply because the politicians and their war profiteer owners, their workers, the bond profiteers, their workers, the "news" organizations and their propagandists, the mercenaries and their support people along with all of the unknown number of American military people employed in Afghanistan and Iraq coming home will cause the economy to crash flatter than history has ever known any economy to have collapsed.

    The Americans will leave when the American economy has been totally destroyed. The collaborators will be killed. When 60+ Americans are killed a month, no one is crying, but when some collaborators might possibly be endangered the war hawks suddenly care. Like s**t.

    I guarantee that the search for the leakers will cost more than the entire amount spent to even try to find Osama Bin Laden. If these murderers have such high grade "intelligence" where is Bin Laden? No Bin Laden, they are just killing for fun.

    What the Pentagon Papers revealed to the public was well known in the latrine rumors that drifted through Vietnam when I was there. It had to have been explained in painstaking detail to the "news" correspondents over there who were "shocked, I tell you, shocked" that My Lai happened.

    Oh, well, the poor guy tried. Hoping against hope that it would help us to get the hell out of the two most unwinnable wars that we have ever been lied into. For American honor, this makes the naked theft of half of Mexico look like a cake festival.

  10. What the heck were they thinking?

    If the Pentagon claims are correct, my guess is that the Wikileaks guys didn't think thoroughly enough. Which certainly would mean that they would need to fix how they operate.

    The worst case scenario would be if Wikileaks had had the same thoughts the Pentagon has when it conducts operations in Afghanistan: "deplorable collateral damage". Are you also calling for the Pentagon to be closed down?

  11. Wikileaks released 91000 pages of documents. The idea that they could have carefully vetted every page is absurd. The only choices were sitting on the information or releasing it. The Pentagon will know what is in these documents before anyone else. It's capable of protecting Afghans identified, should it choose to do so. In the meantime, we continue to prosecute a war that kills many times more than these documents could ever put at risk.

    On the other hand, government secrecy makes a mockery of democracy. There is no democracy without an informed citizenry, and there is no informed citizenry when the government decides what should and should not be known. I understand that some secrecy is occasionally necessary, but concealing information is now the norm, not the exception. Wikileaks makes such concealment more difficult, strengthening democracies not just here, but around the world.

    I can see why you think this is a close call.

  12. According to Assange, WikiLeaks didn't put the complete set of documents on its web site because of concerns about placing people at risk, but appears that the people at WikiLeaks did a less that perfect job of identifying documents that shouldn't have been posted.

    I find eb's point about "collateral damage" convincing. The U.S. military shouldn't kill innocent civilians, but if you support the war in Afghanistan you aren't going to change your mind just because the U.S. military doesn't achieve 100% perfection in carrying out its mission. Similarly, if you are seriously committed to freedom of the press and the public's right to know, it doesn't make a lot of sense to call for WikiLeaks to be shut down the moment it makes a mistake. So I think WikiLeaks deserves criticism, but shouldn't be shut down.

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