I’ve been reading Born Again, the autobiography of Charles Colson.
Colson was known as President Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Colson as “Richard Nixon’s hard man, the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.” Colson has written that he was “valuable to the President … because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done”.
The book is a fascinating insight into the Watergate saga, and the politics of the time. While after the first 100 or so pages it starts to deal with his conversion to Christianity (which happened in the midst of the scandal) I do wonder how many political boffins have really missed out because they were put off by the title.
Anyway, It suddenly occurred to me this morning that here is a fellow who has possibly one of the most valuable insights onto the Wikileaks saga, particularly the publishing of all the state department memos.
I was not disappointed, but I must say I was somewhat surprised at his position.
When I read about the recent leak of more than 250,000 State Department documents, my thoughts went back nearly forty years. In 1973, I went to prison for leaking government documents – in that case, an FBI file on Daniel Ellsberg, the man who himself leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
Like today’s leakers and those who have published the leak materials, I thought that my actions were justified by a higher, more important, purpose. The release of the Pentagon papers put lives at issue. So I thought I had to stop Ellsberg. Classical ethical dilemma. My actions in pursuit of a noble goal were wrong—and in the end hampered the government’s ability to prosecute Ellsberg.
And now, for the third time this year, the website WikiLeaks has released hundreds of thousands of documents relating to American foreign policy. The first release concerned Afghanistan and the second were documents about Iraq.
As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times this week, this kind of confidentiality is essential to the trust that makes fruitful diplomacy possible. Diplomacy is about more than power — it’s also about relationships. The people we need to get things done in an increasingly dangerous world must be able to trust us which, at a minimum, means that private conversations stay private.
WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, doesn’t care about this. As Brooks notes, his entire life has been dedicated to undermining what he sees as “an unhealthy respect for authority.” Some have called him an anarchist.
None of this would matter so much if major media were responsible. Assange may not respect authority, but papers like the Times and Britain’s Guardianare authorities — they occupy a privileged and powerful place in their societies.
And this privilege and power carries responsibilities, one of which is to ask “what will happen if we publish this?” While the First Amendment gives the Times the right to publish the leaks, that doesn’t mean they should.
Yet they did, driven by a sense of some “greater good.” As I said, I know what that’s like. But I was wrong then, and they are ethically wrong now.