Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Bradley Manning and the morality of leaking diplomatic cables

[edit: Manning has, since the writing of this post, indicated that she identifies as a woman, and should therefore be referred to by female pronouns, and prefers the given name ‘Chelsea’ to ‘Bradley’]


I’d like to follow up on Joshua Foust’s superb article discussing the case with some thoughts of my own. Basically, I think that Manning was negligent and should be condemned for breaching his duty to keep certain secrets. Or, at least, he should not be seen as heroic, and his actions should not be seen as good.

It seems to me that many who support Bradley Manning’s actions haven’t put a lot of thought into the role of classified information in security and diplomacy, and into the consequences of releasing such information while it is still salient to the lives and jobs of many people. If you’re an anarchist or a revolutionary, and you would like to see those institutions and the people who work in them injured, then viewing what Manning did as morally virtuous is certainly in keeping with your fundamental values. But if you think that there is an important function in keeping certain kinds of information secret, and some worthwhile continued role for intelligence, military, and diplomatic services to play in US society, then you’d have to show a great deal of benefit to Manning’s actions in order to offset the harm that they do or could have done, and you’d probably want to see him criminally prosecuted for them anyway.

All this is, of course, completely separate from the issue of Manning’s abusive treatment while in detention, and the speciousness of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge in particular. These are both bad things. It also seems as though Manning was psychologically unwell prior to his leaking the information, and by continuing to keep him in an operational role the US military probably failed in its duty to provide adequate care to its personnel. It is very risky to have depressed and unstable people working in military intelligence, and Manning’s mental state probably both diminishes his culpability and transfers some of it to the US military itself for what happened.

Anyway, let me clarify why I have these opinions.

First, my view of Manning as negligent here relates to his leaking of large numbers of diplomatic cables. I’ll explain why I think this is a bad thing in a moment. The video ‘Collateral Murder’ that allegedly shows war crimes is more like an actual whistleblowing, in that it appears that Manning released it to make public a specific incident that should concern us. This is still a criminal act, and on Manning’s head be it, but from a moral perspective I am not so troubled by his leaking it. I think this is a worthwhile distinction to make, to differentiate between discriminate and indiscriminate release of secrets.

Diplomatic cables probably should be secret. Diplomats should be candid in informing their governments about their possible partners, both in government and in human rights NGOs or social movements, but they can do this only if they do not need to worry about their candour harming their work. If they are not candid, they will not do their jobs as well. The way to give diplomats the ability to speak candidly in this way is to keep communication between agents of the diplomatic service secret.

We can also look at Manning’s leak as having both potential harm and actual harm. In terms of actual harm, Foust’s article goes over the gist of it. Some human rights workers and employees of the US were put at risk, but it seems as though they managed to escape harm as far as we know. The release seems to have done some injury to US diplomatic efforts [1, 2] and to domestic oppositions in at least one place [2]. It is harder to assess what harm this has produced, because it would require a more abstract historical counterfactual, but that harm may be quite significant. In terms of potential harm, though, we could simply imagine the many NGO workers, US embassy employees, translators, and opposition figures who might have been harmed had they not managed to protect themselves or receive protection from the US government [4 for example], and imagine the many significant diplomatic crises that might have occurred, resulting in a more general sort of harm to all sorts of communities and initiatives. I think it’s also important to note that many journalists and NGO workers have a reasonable expectation that their identities will not be exposed by the governments who aid them, because there is a convention of diplomatic secrecy. If that convention degrades, then the risk they take on is greater and it is above and beyond what they have currently consented to, in many cases. A massive release of secrets like this could plausibly be very damaging, and the decision to make such a release is risky.

We can also talk about the leak having both potential benefit and actual benefit. In terms of actual benefit, I’m not really sure what it accomplished. I’m not aware of any prosecutions or improved mechanisms of accountability resulting from the leaks. They do seem to have made the US intelligence community more sensitive to information flow, which could end up preventing a more harmful breach of security in the future. But the only noteworthy benefit I can see to the release of cables is that they give the public a better understanding of what our diplomats are doing. In a liberal democracy, governmental transparency is a public good. Except that I think secrecy in certain diplomatic channels is also a public good, and one which is key to maintaining a functioning diplomatic service. This brings me to the question of possible benefits. It’s possible that some very significant crimes or wrongdoings might have been exposed in the leak – something so scandalous that it completely justifies the actual and possible harms of making public what diplomats say in private. This doesn’t seem to have happened, but it well might’ve.

However, Manning did not actually comb through the cables. He did not take care to assess what information he was releasing and who it might’ve harmed. And that was his responsibility, as a keeper of secrets thinking about exposing those secrets. Really, whether or not his cables exposed great crimes, the fact that Manning did not discharge his duty of due diligence makes his actions wrong, in my opinion. Certainly it makes them the sort of thing that should be prosecuted, given that they are a precedent we should not want set.



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