Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Deadly Principles of WikiLeaks

     On the front page of today’s New York Times web site, there are prominent links to the most recent archive of classified documents released by the web site WikiLeaks. The nature of the documents has been known for some time, but having them made public at last confirms much about Operation Iraqi Freedom that many have feared. One good piece of information is that despite numerous headline writers’ best efforts, the U.S. military did not perpetrate the worst human rights violations in Iraq. That dishonor belongs to the Iraqis themselves, whose treatment of one another has been nothing short of barbarous. Indeed, dampening the free play of sectarian hatred and factional rivalry among Iraqis appears to have been the main object of the Department of Defense in classifying the documents. In revealing the names and particulars of these horrors, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked the documents to begin with, has endangered the lives of many Iraqis. The people of Iraq now have much less hope of cutting short the bitter cycle of vengeance.

     Manning is facing court-martial charges, which include several military and civilian offenses, but which do not include treason. Under Article III of the Constitution, someone commits treason by levying war against the United States or by aiding the enemies of the United States. Pfc. Manning has not levied war. However, he has arguably aided the enemies of the United States, by promoting chaos and inter-faith bloodletting that could undo all the good of the American liberation of Iraq from Saddam. With this in mind, could the Justice Department charge the editors of WikiLeaks with misprision of treason, under Title 18, Section 2382, of the United States Code?

     Misprision of treason is just the crime of covering up someone else’s treason. The law reads as follows: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States and having knowledge of the commission of any treason against them, conceals and does not, as soon as may be, disclose and make known the same to the President or to some judge of the United States, or to the governor or to some judge or justice of a particular State, is guilty of misprision of treason and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than seven years, or both.” Prosecutors always have to evaluate the evidence in a case, to which members of the public usually do not have access, in deciding how to charge criminal conduct. In the WikiLeaks case, federal prosecutors may not have the evidence to support a charge of misprision of treason, especially since Manning himself is not facing treason charges. There is also the fact that although WikiLeaks apparently had planned to release the documents without disclosing the identity of the leaker—and thus failing to disclose his treason—a confidant of Manning’s had already turned him in to the authorities before WikiLeaks published its first set of documents. Therefore, if only by accident, WikiLeaks is probably insulated from prosecution on misprision charges. Prosecutors may eventually charge WikiLeaks on other grounds, such as encouraging Manning to commit his offenses.

     Whatever the legal outcome, it is obvious the editors ultimately decided that any damage they would do by publishing the documents was not enough for them to keep quiet. The case of WikiLeaks presents a clear illustration of competing values. On the one hand, the Constitution does enshrine freedom of the press. On the other hand, irrespective of lawful duty, every American ought to feel a moral allegiance to the United States. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates lived and died by a personal code of honor that placed his allegiance to Athens over his own life. Certainly, Manning’s fellow soldiers have adopted a like code.

     It must be granted that some of the WikiLeaks material does implicate some Americans in war crimes, and clearly not all soldiers are saints—as Manning himself proves. But such soldiers are a sliver of the total Army. Thinking of the sacrifices of the thousands who have endured family separation, primitive conditions, daily combat, the threat of injury and death—not to mention injury and death themselves—the politically correct pieties of the WikiLeaks editors seem no more than an orthodox pose. Whatever value there may have been in publishing Pfc. Manning’s files, WikiLeaks has harmed Iraq and endangered the lives of real people. In their own defense, the WikiLeaks editors would no doubt cite journalistic integrity. However, one test of the value of an abstract principle like journalistic integrity is its effect on real people. We can only hope that WikiLeaks’ “integrity” will not impose too high a body count.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words! A wonder of the web is how many people with shared interests can connect.

    The more I've learned about WikiLeaks, the more it's clear the principals do not owe allegiance to the United States, and so you're right that treason is off the table. On the other hand, the Espionage Act (Title 18, Chapter 37) may be available to prosecute Julian Assange.