Thursday, December 23, 2010

Considering WikiLeaks

Like many of you, I’m sure, I had only vaguely heard of WikiLeaks until this year. I’m not even entirely sure that I understood that WikiLeaks and Wikipedia were different operations or—since I’m being totally honest—that wiki itself has become an accepted word in English, albeit a newly minted one, with its very own definition. (According to the 10th edition of Collins Dictionary, a wiki is a web application that allows anyone who visits the site to edit content on it. It’s also used as a kind of an adjective, as in the phrase “wiki technology,” but it seems mostly commonly to be used as a prefix in the names of such sites.) But WikiLeaks itself is far bigger than its etymology, and that much by now everybody knows.

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by individuals who have never been identified, but is represented to the public by the now famous/infamous Julian Assange, who coyly describes himself merely as a member of the organization’s advisory board. The concept behind the operation is also a bit unclear. In its own self-conception, WikiLeaks exists to publish data intended to embarrass repressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet Union, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, but also, to cite their own website, “to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” To further these ends, the organization claims to have amassed a data base of more than 1.2 million documents, all presumably obtained from self-proclaimed whistle blowers who wish to embarrass the organizations, governments, or individuals to whose files they somehow have access. What the “real” motivation behind all this effort is remains unclear, however. (Even the use of the “wiki-“ prefix is misleading in that the website run by the organization specifically does not allow readers or users to add their comments.) But real enough is the praise the organization has garnered. For example, WikiLeaks won The Economist’s New Media Award in 2008 for exemplary service to journalism.

Up until this fall, most people probably knew of WikiLeaks it because of the huge amount of purloined data the organization has made public relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (92,000 documents related to Afghanistan were leaked to the press in July of this year, followed in October by a staggering 400,000 documents relating to Iraq.) But now WikiLeaks is primarily known for its release on November 28 of the first 220 of an alleged quarter of a million diplomatic cables sent from 274 United States embassies located in almost every country of the world. These cables, most rated confidential but not top secret, cover an almost unbelievably wide array of subjects including nuclear disarmament, American efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, and the war against terror. Nor has WikiLeaks acted alone. Also complicit in the effort to bring these cables to the attention of the public are the five newspapers and magazines—El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France, The Guardian in the U.K., Der Spiegel in Germany, and The New York Times—that have undertaken to publish them. For its part, WikiLeaks has announced its intention to release the rest of these diplomatic cables, presumably eventually all 251,287 of them, in small batches over the next few months. What the unpublished cables contain, who knows? But I think we can be certain that they are all being published specifically because they are deemed embarrassing to our government or our nation in some specific way.

The question I would like to discuss today has to do with the specific way we should relate to the release of these documents. Are the five news media organizations that have undertaken to publish the material acting illegally or immorally? Surely the essence of investigative journalism is the concept of finding out things and bringing them to the attention of the public! And in many other cases in which newspapers have uncovered information that has led to the arrest of criminals or to the public humiliation of people behaving immorally or deceitfully, it is surely true that the public has responded enthusiastically and positively. (Think, for example, of the decision by the New York Times in 1971 to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, which effort revealed the degree to which the federal government had willfully misled the American public regarding the war in Vietnam and American activities in Cambodia and Laos.)

On the other hand, there is something that feels beyond wrong about taking what is in essence private correspondence between individuals and making it public. There was once a time when you could be pretty sure that no one had read a letter addressed to you merely because it arrived in your mailbox still sealed. Those days are, of course, long gone. I have no deep understanding of how e-mail works, but I know that the letters that appear in my in-box have travelled through the machinery of a variety of internet service providers on their way from my correspondent’s computer to my own. Surely it would be possible for any number of unscrupulous persons surreptitiously to read my e-mail as it makes its convoluted and complex way into my in-box. Is it reasonable to expect privacy this far down the pike from the concept of a sealed envelope being brought by a team of actual human beings from the mailbox in which it was deposited by its writer to the home of its intended recipient? That, I think, is the right way to frame the question regarding the morality of WikiLeaks’ behavior.

We have our own tradition to take into consideration. It’s amazing how little well-known the figure of Rabbenu Gershom, called by his admirers the Light of the Exile, is in our own day given the degree of renown he once enjoyed. Rashi who was born around when Rabbenu Gershom died, said that all Ashkenazic Jews were almost by definition his disciples. (Rashi actually was a kind of grand-disciple of his in that his own teacher, Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar, was Rabbenu Gershom’s student.) And Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), popularly known as Rabbenu Asher and who himself was one of the greatest of all medieval rabbis, wrote that the teachings of Rabbenu Gershom were so widely accepted that they may as well have been handed down to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Rabbenu Gershom was a leading figure in his day for many different reasons, but the most important event in his professional life was the rabbinical synod he convened in the year 1000 to ratify a number of radical innovations he wished to promulgate. It was at this synod, for example, that the formal ban against polygamy for all Ashkenazic Jews was announced and accepted. And it was also at this synod that the decision was made to prohibit any divorce from being finalized unless both parties to the marriage in question are in agreement that their union be ended, an enormous step forward for women and for women’s rights. The third matter the synod considered was how to relate to Jews who were forced to abandon Judaism. (This was a highly personal matter for Rabbenu Gershom because his own son abandoned Judaism in the wake of the 1012 forced expulsion of the Jews from Mainz, the city in which Rabbenu Gershom worked and lived.) And, finally, it was at this synod that Rabbenu Gershom promulgated his formal ban against reading other people’s mail. The concept was simply that written letters, clearly a form of speech, were henceforth to be considered subject to the laws of gossip and talebearing that govern oral communication. And so just as one has the right to presume that the words one utters will not be heard by anyone other than the individual to whom one is speaking, so does one have the right to suppose that one’s letters will not be read by anyone other than the party or parties to whom they are addressed.

In its own way, this is a parallel thought to the way people have the right to assume that their assets will be distributed according to their instructions after they die. They themselves will not be present to control the situation, but the right inherent in the concept of owning something is deemed to include the right to bequeath it posthumously to whomever one wishes. Similarly, one can obviously not control what happens to a letter once it leaves one’s hand. (How much the more so is that true for e-mail!) But one nevertheless has the right to expect that it will neither be diverted nor stolen, and that no decent person will read what has sent in writing by one party to another merely because the possibility exists to do so.

I think the same principle applies to WikiLeaks. It is one thing, after all, to publish public documents and thus to bring them forcefully to the attention of the public, and another thing entirely to steal letters sent from one individual to another—and diplomatic dispatches are in essence letters being sent from one person to another through the private mail system operated by the diplomatic service—and then to share their contents with anyone who can afford to purchase a copy of Le Monde or El Pais. Whether some greater good was served by making public these dispatches is hardly the point because the deed itself is forbidden, just as one is forbidden to gossip even if one can discern some salutary benefit that might somehow result from doing so. The fact that we live in an age that so little respects the privacy of the individual that such a thought sounds novel almost to the point of being radical, however, says a lot more about modern society and culture than about Rabbenu Gershom or the reasonableness and morality of his edict.

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