Loose lips used to sink ships, but now they work in more mysterious ways. When the founder of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks received 91,000 classified U.S. documents, he must have known a jackpot had arrived. The military records were published on the WikiLeaks website July 25. Despite withholding another 15,000 documents at the request of the source, there is no doubt that the leak has endangered the lives of individuals previously protected.
Immediately the American government denounced the release of the files. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, and those responsible for the leak are morally culpable for the harm caused. Assange, an opponent of the Afghanistan war, maintains that the public deserves to have access to the classified materials as they give a detailed description of how the war has unfolded. WikiLeaks is an important interlocutor, he claims, and free speech justifies its actions.
Whistleblowers play an important role in a democracy, but only if valuable information is gained. In certain cases, like corporate fraud, whistleblowers are legally protected or obligated to alert authorities to the wrong-doing of their employers. Despite the actions of NATO forces detailed in the released documents, the principle wrong-doing implied is seemingly the war itself. Defenders of the leak might claim that harmful effects aren't as important as the freedom of the information, but this is irresponsible when lives are risked.
The International Security Assistance Force, run by NATO, has been upfront about how the war is running. David Petraeus, the American general in charge of ISAF, has been clear that Afghanistan's outlook is uncertain. The amount of information useful to the public remains similar to before the leak. The war is going badly and we know that. Many have compared this leak to the Pentagon Papers, an official history of Lyndon Johnson's strategy in Vietnam, which showed that the administration lied. The comparison is mistaken because the public was aware of the situation in Afghanistan before the leak, whereas they were led to believe Vietnam was going much better than it was.
In the past, leaks were most often made to newspapers. Editors would typically contact the government to inform them of the information possessed and to allow them to make their case for why the information should be kept secret. Ultimately, the decision rested on the editors. They had to weigh if the material was worth the harm that might come to those affected by the leak. They took on that responsibility and avenues existed to hold them accountable.
Things are much less clear now. WikiLeaks hosts its website in Sweden, where it is illegal to investigate a source. International Internet law is far behind where it needs to be. When an organization releases classified material from a server in another country stolen by an American soldier, the jurisdiction of each government is very grey. Some American politicians are calling for the website to be shut down, but Sweden isn't obligated to change its own laws at the request of another country. WikiLeaks claims they contacted the Pentagon before they released the files, but the Pentagon denies it.
WikiLeaks has accomplished some important things in its past. Shutting down the website will only produce others like it, and it does a valuable service. Information comes at a cost, however. The website's editors are responsible for deciding when that cost is justified, but legal channels must be established to determine when they go astray.