Thanks to the era of instant information retrieval, Americans and the Western alliance have a huge problem: silencing Julian Assange as he brings to light 250,000 sensitive documents regarding national security.
Shock, embarrassment, disappointment and no small amount of anxiety have overwhelmed us in recent days.
WikiLeaks raises a number of ethical issues to contemplate.
Recently I listened to an interview with Dan Rather, former “60 Minutes” reporter and anchorman for CBS News. Rather, it will be recalled, was a major catalyst in upending Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks with the infamous secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, and covering Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Rather made the interesting point that insiders knew all the while about those “illegal” activities. The problem, he pointed out, was that the American public did not know.
So, the first ethical issue that emerges is what the public has the right to know in a democracy.
Abraham Lincoln, author of the famous words “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” actually laid the groundwork for modern government security measures during the Civil War as he authorized covert military action, information surveillance and secret negotiations with allies.
We are reminded that there are circumstances that demand and deserve not being made public until their result is achieved. Technical support, military resources, plans and strategies, treaty negotiations, human rights issues and security for leaders are on my list. But the time comes when the government of a free people is accountable for the nature of its action. That’s what the Freedom of Information Act is all about.
Those of us who have relatives and friends who have made the sacrifices demanded of freedom need to be assured periodically that our governments have acted honorably and faithfully with respect to our principles. That comes in part from responsible disclosure to a responsible citizenry.
The second ethical concern is the more urgent. From what we know in the media thus far, the WikiLeaks material reveals a sordid picture of influence brokerage, duplicitous allies and misdirected attempts at espionage using high-level government servants.
I’m trying to figure out why taxpayer funding is being used to collect credit card information and frequent flier numbers for foreign diplomats. And more, why is the U.S. Secretary of State orchestrating such activities? Further, I’m feeling uncomfortable calling certain countries and regimes our allies when they are goading the NATO Alliance into an invasion of Iran while simultaneously bankrolling Afghan insurgency.
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There is a price to pay for that which is done in secret: Jesus said, “Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).
I also take ethical offense at the demeaning caricatures and name-calling that prominent diplomats and leaders have used of allies. Were these folk not taught by parents and teachers that ill words will come back to haunt you? It seems beneath the dignity of a great nation, let alone one where 80 percent of the population espouses Christian ideals, to engage in such obviously offensive activity.
Those engaged in diplomacy might heed the words of the Epistle of James: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. The tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3: 5-6).
From a Christian orientation, I’m not very impressed with the chorus of political voices who are adamant that Assange should be silenced at all costs and treated like an information terrorist. One even suggested that swift covert action should be taken against Assange (code language for assassination?).
There are better ways and means that civil societies deal with assaults upon national security and injuries to national pride. On the one side there are the means of arrest warrants, extradition and criminal justice. On the other side there are the ways of confession and contrition for the sinful behavior that has been brought to light.
It’s time for those with a Christian conscience in public affairs to speak out. Those who have behaved badly, who have spoken injudiciously, who have misused the public trust should be held accountable. Those who would use sensitive information to place at risk the lives of diplomats or defenders should be nullified and prosecuted.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the cherished ethical voice of so many pragmatists in government service today, provided the foundation for acting wisely in the face of prevailing evil.
In the first volume of “The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation,” Niebuhr wrote: “No nation is free of the sin of pride, just as no individual is free of it. Nevertheless it is important to recognize that there are ‘Christian’ nations, who prove themselves so because they are still receptive to prophetic words of judgment spoken against the nation…the final sin is the unwillingness to hear the word of judgment spoken against our sin.”
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.