Is it Ethical to Leak War Documents?

posted by Laura Wittren

Photo by Andrew Testa for The New York Times

WikiLeaks lives up to its name.  It’s a site designed entirely for people to anonymously leak information to journalists.  According to their website, they provide high security preventing the leaker’s identity to be compromised.  Their goal is to provide news and information to the public, sometimes despite the government’s attempt at keeping it secret.

They may have gone too far this time. WikiLeaks has released the biggest military leak in history.  390,000 classified documents about the Iraq War are now available to the public through the WikiLeaks website and many news sources such as the New York Times.  The war document include reports of a kidnapping plot, an assassination plot, casualties, prisoners abuse, and diaries from soldiers.

Much like the Pentagon Papers of Vietnam War, the documents from WikiLeaks have shown that the Iraq War is not quite going the way the government said it was.

According to Mashable, it was concluded from the documents that:

  • The death toll of civilians in Iraq is greater than the numbers publicly reported by the government.  The leaked reports concluded a total of 109,032 deaths in Iraq, 66,081 being Iraqi civilians.
  • Iran was involved in the training, supplying and support of Iraq.  They may have even engaged with U.S. troops directly.
  • Prisoners were treated with an alarming amount of abuse

Department of Defense Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said in regards to the leak that WikiLeaks puts troops at risk by releasing “sensitive information.” He encouraged the one who released the information to return the information and take it off the website.  But it’s too late now; the word’s already out.

How does WikiLeaks get away with releasing secret military documents?

WikiLeaks has been met by legal and political attacks but has triumphed over these attacks. Their work is protected by the first amendment and the Freedom of Information Act. They also rely on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect their organization, particularly Article 19 which they quote on their site.

While they may be protected by these laws, is it ethical for them or any journalist to leak secret government information, particularly those that may bring harm to our troops?  Is it worth the risk of our soldiers, or do American citizens have a right to know despite this risk?

As a journalist, is it our duty to report the news despite the harm it may cause our country?


3 responses to “Is it Ethical to Leak War Documents?

  1. Nicole Sternhagen

    Thanks for posting on this – this is a fascinating story. I was unaware until now that WikiLeak existed. This is a perfect example of how complicated media law can get, and just how far we should go to protect it. It’s scary to think top-secret military action can be out there for the world to see, including terrorists. But it’s also good to remember that leaks like this have brought important information to the public’s knowledge, like the leaks during the Vietnam war. Journalists need to be aware that the role of the gatekeeper may still be necessary to protect the well being of the American military while still keeping the people informed of any wrongdoings of the government.

  2. This is a tough balancing act for journalists. We have to weigh the value of the information against any threat to national security or to the people fighting the war.

    Does the information help the public evaluate the truthfulness and accuracy of White House and Pentagon accounts of the war? What is truth, and what is propaganda?

    On the other hand, if we publish, do we endanger soldiers, missions, or even the outcome of the war?

    In general, journalists favor openness. If we decide to publish, we must minimize any harm, with independent confirmation of the documents. In this case, I think the New York Times handled the information ethically and responsibly. It didn’t rush to publish. It analyzed the documents and confirmed their authenticity. It decided against publishing certain details that might endanger anyone. (Of course, all the documents are available on Wikileaks, which isn’t governed by a code of ethics like journalists are. )

    As a nation, the most grave decision we make is to send young people to fight and die on our behalf. We should make that decision with all the information we can gather, not only the limited information the White House and Pentagon are willing to provide.

  3. It definitely is a tough decision for journalists. On one hand, I feel we as U.S. citizens deserve to know how the war is going- even when it isn’t pleasant- and the government has no right to deceive us. But on the other hand, I don’t want troops to be endangered because of the information on the internet, which anyone could find and use to their advantage.

    I also felt the NYT did a good job presenting the information. On the website, there is an interactive feature that lets you look through some of the documents featured on WikiLeak, but the NYT blanked out names and I believe even some locations.

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