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1st August, 2013: Wikileaks - Right or Wrong? 


Many of us took the opportunity to grab a couple of free tickets to see the movie "We Steal Secrets".  Whether you saw the movie or not,  we all have different perspectives on the subject, and also the persona of Julian Assange.   Sam and Peter lead the discussion on Wikileaks and as to how well we should be informed in a democracy.   Should governments keep secrets, or should they be prepared to open up to their citizens?  Has the current political climate changed the response of governments to whistleblowers?  Challenging questions.


Peter and Sam are the convenors of Philo Agora.




Wikileaks - Right or Wrong  


The Pro Wikileaks Case:

Put forward by Peter Bowden

This discussion is wider than Julian Assange It brings in Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou – the CIA whistleblower who revealed that the US used waterboarding torture techniques, and received a 30 month prison sentence in reprisal.

But the talk shall be confined to Assange, for it embraces the issues raised by all others

The talk also brings in those philosophers that have raised the question of a social contract – the contract that we, the governed, have with those who govern us - Thomas Hobbes., John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known.  Machiavelli and Montesquieu have also added their contribution; Machiavelli for the power of the prince and Montesquieu in "The Spirit of Laws" 1748 on the separation of powers.

All, except Hobbes, and Machiavelli, treat the social contract as a contract between equals. Hobbes argues that ought to be willing to submit ourselves to political authority. In The Leviathan 1651.That authority, for Hobbes was a powerful king.  "The war of all against all") could only be averted by strong central government.

Locke 1632-1704 views the basis of all morality, that we not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions in Two Treatises on Government". 1689.  But does not set out who, the people or the government, is the ultimate decision taker

 Rousseau 1762 in The Social Contract has perhaps the most useful concept: in Discourse on Political Economy, he sets out that the law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation.

My own construct is simple. I have a contract with those who are in government. When I come to vote, I have the right to know what that party and that representative believes, and how they act - in dealing with other politicians, and with other powers. I vote for a representative and a party that best represent my values. Although neither may be elected, I still have that right. If that information is kept secret from me, that contract has been broken

In general I wish to know if the extent to which they reflect my own values, so that I make my choice as full partner.  In particular, I would wish to know if they had behaved immorally, for I would like to believe that I would reject unacceptable behaviour.

On this basis, I believe that I have the right to the information released   by Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou.

 I place, however, two reservations or conditions on this assertion

!. Whoever releases the information believes it to be true

2. That no harm is done by the release


Julian Assange, through Bradley Manning, released four sets of documents:


April 2010               The Apache helicopter gunship video, killing Reuters' correspondents and civilians

July 2010                The Afghan war logs

October 2010          The Iraq war logs. It was about this time that the Swedish sex allegations arose

November 2010      The Embassy cables

Under the concept that a social contract that  exists between us and those who govern us, I would argue that we all have a democratic and moral right to the information that was provided by Wikileaks. Some will claim that political discussions between members of say, cabinet, or between the diplomatic representatives of two powers, should not be public information. They argue that the process of reaching a decision is tentative, that political representatives would be unable to reach decisions if all their tentative negotiations were to become public,

To which I answer that tentative discussions would be recognisable as such  And in any case, it is the end position of that political leader  that will come out over time, and that is the position I would like to know,

Before casting this conclusion for Assange and Bradley Manning I would, however, first check the two conditions – honesty of the information and the absence of harm.

There is little doubt that the information was true, for it was presented for the actual documents were presented - Official US documents.  There was editing of the releases, but   they were obviously from the sources that were claimed.

There has been much controversy, however,  over whether the editing was sufficient to eliminate harm to any Afghani or Iraqi who had worked with the US and allied forces, and particularly Assange’ s claim  that  those who collaborated with the allied troops deserved to be named  ( Charlie Beckett with James Ball “Wikileaks;,2012, Polity,p.86, quoting a Guardian Newspaper source).  Assange has denied this allegation but has argued that the risk “was the greater good “.

If true, they raise serious arguments about my willingness to support Assange’s actions. There certainly was editing of the releases, although sketchy with the first set on Afghan. Also there has been no evidence since that any names were released to the detriment of the persons concerned.

A related issue is whether the information gave aid to the enemy. We need to acknowledge that in times of war, to provide such information is not acceptable, but it has not yet been shown how the information has been of value, Bradley Manning was absolved of this charge


The issues of harm to collaborators must also be raised in the case of Bradley Manning, who had no ability to check the documents. I turn to that issue in a moment for they affect how we regard Assange,

One final concluding sentence: Assange has been described in many unfavourable terms He has also fallen out with many of his colleagues. In particular, the editors of The Guardian and Daniel Domscheit Berg, who has published a very critical memoir. He is described and comes through in the movie as egotistical, uncompromising, self –opinionated.

My final statement is that it matters little, even if all these statements are true, One’s like or dislike of Julian Assange is immaterial,

To return to Bradley Manning: He has stated that he could not keep quiet about the issues he saw - the Apache helicopter. That the US was condoning the torture of captives by the Iraqi military. There is no doubt that Manning could not check all documents and therefore released information that had the potential to harm.

The alternative was not to release it. I trust that you may join with me in saying that the world has moved one step further forward through in Manning having no choice but to release the material And Assange in publishing it 

The Case Against

Put Forward by Sam Alexander

There are three parties involved in the movie: “We Steal Secrets”.

1.    Private Bradley Manning.

2.    Wikileaks

3.    Julian Assange

For the sake of the discussion, I believe that Wikileaks and Assange are one and the same.

The debate is whether one or both acted morally in respect to the 700,000 files, known as The Afghan War Diaries, The Iraqi War Diaries and the Embassy Cables, given to Wikileaks by Manning and dispersed by Assange through Wikileaks, The German Der Spiegel, British Guardian, and the New York Times.

In respect of Manning, he is a member of the US military which has strict laws and rules which outline the service ethics. They are not grey, they are not an illusion or suggestion, they are there in black and white. Manning acted against these ethics and therefore without doubt, acted immorally. This is not an opinion; it is a fact, a fact proved in that he was found guilty for violating the Espionage Act.

The argument for Wikileaks not acting immorally is that of one film clip of a helicopter gunship killing innocent civilians justifying releasing the information. This may be true of one file, but did Assange go through every one of the 700,000 files and make a value judgment?  At 10 minutes per file that would take 65 man years of reading. We know not!

The movie showed that he had an opportunity to redact the information, screening the names of all informers. He chose not to.

On that premise I believe Assange acted immorally. It appears Afghani informants have been executed for assisting the US military.

It is also interesting to note the role of the three newspapers in the dissemination of the information. If Assange is extricated to Sweden and ultimately the USA, will the same charges and fate befall the publishers?

The only concession I would be prepared to make is that if we have a right to know classified information, it must be a discreet, considered piece of individual intelligence, proven to be factual and released as a public service. However, here I am referring to a specific situation that can be argued on its merits, not a scatter-gun approach to publication.

On this note, I question the motives of Assange. It strikes me that Wikileaks is a business, no better or worse than other websites and publications. Wikileaks funded his life, for better or for worst, I do not believe the release of the information was altruistic.

On a philosophical bent, I do not believe it bears discussion, we have set of values or beliefs established over hundreds of years; we have our rules and laws known as our ethics, structured around our values; and finally our morals or behavior in respect of these ethics. What right do two individuals have to challenge our governance and expect to get off without punishment? They committed crimes against the state and should expect to be charged. A whistleblower is an anarchist writ large. If you don’t like the system, change it or move on, do not postulate that you are doing a noble act when in fact you are undermining society.


The subsequent discussion

Your organisers have attempted to capture the principal thoughts and ideas that emerged from this discussion. Some great insights were provided, which we hope we have captured, but on the whole the discussion reflected the sometimes conflicting values and ideas that Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have generated.

Quotes (Most of the discussion issues are quoted, as best we could capture them)  

‘Is the law of the land right? Was it right in the times of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao?’

“In the McCarthy era people dobbed in others. That was accepted practice”

“People must keep their government accountable” 

“The documentary did not get the Wikileaks side. To see both sides is mandatory for a balanced picture.”

“When one person says ‘This is right” that is just one person’s opinion.  Who is to say? It is their own values, not others.”

“Nothing done against the newspapers that carried the Wikileaks releases. Why not?”

“Do we support people stealing?”

“Bradley Manning - a tragic figure”

“The problem is in the bureaucracy. The wrongdoing there, what to do?”

“The struggle for power is historical, and universal “

“Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" 

Other comments:

The Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellesberg were raised a couple of times as an example and question on whether the Bradley Manning, Julian Assange controversy was not a new issue.  It was mentioned that the Pentagon Papers were not exactly parallel but that Ellesberg is championing the current “Free Bradley Manning” campaign.


It was also claimed that no Afghan informers have been executed.

An attempt to take an  informal vote on whether attendees supported Julian Assange’s actions or were against them was disrupted by those who claimed that it was not possible to vote as the only answer was approval of some of Assange’s action, disagreement with others. The final count was 10: 6: 5.   For: Against: Could not vote

It should also be noted that in the news on the morning after the café discussion, Brig Gen Robert Carr an intelligence expert who led a Pentagon task force investigating the damage done by the leaks stated on the first day of the sentencing hearing in a military court in Fort Meade, that no-one named in the Afghan war logs was killed (BBC blog, “Manning Sentencing" August 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk)

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