Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Leak it or Not?

Somebody challenged me to say why I think that some "leaks" of information to the press are justifiable and others, like Wikileaks, are much less so.
It's a good question, and like most such issues we are not always talking about a black and white distinction, it is often a matter of differing shades of grey.
What can justify somebody leaking classified information? What can justify putting into the public domain what was never intended for it? Can anything justify a violation of privacy and confidentiality?

There are many types of "leak". Before we form an opinion, we need to consider two things. Firstly, how did the leaker come by their information and secondly, did they really act in the public interest?
In the case of Mordechai Vannunu, the Israeli nuclear weapons whistle-blower, he came by his information through perfectly legitimate means. He was employed at the Israelis' secret weapons base in a minor capacity and made to sign their official secrets act before he knew what was involved. He believed that the base was merely used for generating nuclear electricity. When he discovered that there were several concealed levels where the weapons research and production took place, he found that he was in the position of being made complicit in a form of illegal conspiracy. He had been tricked into colluding into a secrecy that was in itself illegal and thus conniving in criminal activity.
So he decided to "leak" what he knew. He took photographs and published them in a British Sunday newspaper, thus revealing beyond any doubt that Israel had a secret nuclear arms programme. I regard that as being in the public interest, as I support the world agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and along with that goes an agreement for all governments to make it plain what they are doing. The Israelis deceived international inspectorates, and they acted illegally again when they kidnapped Vannunu and took him back to gaol in Israel. There are good reasons for regarding him as a martyr rather than as a criminal.
Consider also the British cases of "leaks" during the Falklands war. Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall got their information by legitimate means. They were employed within the civil service and felt that the government was misleading the public for propaganda reasons. They thought that this justified breaking their professional contracts of secrecy. Not everyone will agree with them, but they felt they were colluding in dishonest behaviour if they did not reveal what they knew. A jury decided that Ponting had acted justifiably because it was in the public interest.
That is of course just the sort of outcome that the EU wants to prevent by destroying our traditional jury system.
A fourth example would be the Climategate E-mails, which were (it is said) hacked from the server computer of East Anglia University and published on the internet in October 2009. Actually, we still do not know who did this, so we do not know how the people who published it came by their information. I think that it is very likely that they were tipped off by somebody inside the university who had legal access. The view that the leak was in the public interest hardly needs stating. The E-mails revealed extensive fraud and falsification of their research by climate scientists whose motives for wanting to prove the existence of AGW were overwhelmingly mercenary. Their jobs and their lucrative grants depended on it.
A fifth example is the leakage of information that lay behind the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009-2010. Somebody within the House of Commons' administrative sector know what was going on and there was no hacking involved. They decided to leak for reasons of conscience. They saw that hundreds of MPs were making outrageous claims for illcit expenses, bending and breaking the rules, lying and cheating right, left and centre. To keep the facts secret was a professional obligation. But it was also collusion in dishonest, immoral behaviour. So the nameless leaker passed on the files to the Daily Telegraph. Did any money ever change hands? That I do not know. It certainly affects my opinion of the leaker. I hope he or she was not paid. But it would be hard to regret the transfer of the information to the public domain even if there were payment involved.
There really is a genuine distinction between insiders who decide to blow the whistle, and mere keyhole journalists who get information by sneaky means and sell it purely for profit.
So, what about the present Wikileaks case? Unlike the
cases above, this is not a matter of information that was legitimately come by. It was all obtained by illegal means by outsiders, people who had no position inside the departments concerned, and could not justify their access to it. Almost none of the information that has been so gleefully and maliciously spilt out onto the internet has involved anybody behaving in an unjust, dishonest or criminal fashion. It has been a matter of diplomats keeping their opinions and a lot of what they know or what they suspect, private for reasons of tact, discretion and security. There is a strong public interest case for keeping it quiet.

There is no question that anybody in the Wikileaks case acted out of motives of conscience. They were not in a position where they found themselves colluding in immoral behaviour by keeping silent. Far from it.
Julian Assange in particular seems to be a nasty piece of work. My impression is that he is an attention-seeker, a mere anti-social anarchist who hates all government and wants to create disruption. He enjoys publicity and for an anti-establishment protestor, he certainly has an awful lot of rich friends. Enough to put up half a million pounds in bail and enough to invite him to stay at vast country estates for the weekend. No YMCA for him.
I was amazed to hear his lawyer saying on TV that the two Swedish women both accusing him of rape in August (long before there was any other motive for arresting him) could both be dismissed as unimportant. Their combined testimony was, according to his highly-paid and prestigious defence team, worthless againt his denials. Well, it's proverbial that rape charges always depend on the word of the woman against the man. But when there are two women making similar or identical charges against the same man, and corroborating each other in circumstantial evidence about the time, place and details, to dismiss their combined charges as "weak" sounds to me like an insult to women in general.
If two men accused one woman of being a prostitute, would any judge or lawyer dismiss their combined statements? I think not.
I want to know whether these two women can afford a lawyer in the same top league as Mr Assange. If not, why not?
Whatever the outcome of that trial, I have scant sympathy for Mr. Assange and I do not think he is to be put in the same category as the real information-martyrs.

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