WikiLeaks, State Secrets, and Trust in Government

When WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department memos, the world was forced to consider, How much do we trust our governments?

WikiLeaks, a whistleblowing website, says “We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government, and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information.” In the past, WikiLeaks had published information on pollution dumping off the coast of Kenya, a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed twelve people, including two Reuter’s journalists, protocol in Guantanamo Bay, and e-mails from Sarah Palin’s personal account. The more recent classified documents and diplomatic cables were published in coordination with major newspapers, such as Le Monde, El Pais, Der Speigel, and The Guardian (who shared with the New York Times).

The publishing of these documents has sparked international debate. On the one hand, greater transparency in government, especially in such areas as war, can bring greater accountability, and, as WikiLeaks hopes, greater morality as well. On the other hand, some maintain that these documents remained classified in order to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens abroad, and that revealing them can be dangerous or even fatal to US citizens and operations.

There has been some criticism on the anticipated changes to journalism that some expect WikiLeaks to usher into the world. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times writes that, “The notion that this experience has somehow profoundly changed journalism, the way that information gets out or changed the way that diplomacy happens, seems rather exaggerated, It was a big deal, but not an unfamiliar one. Consumers of information became privy to a lot of stuff that had been secret before. The scale of it was unusual, but was it different in kind from the Pentagon Papers or revelation of Abu Ghraib or government eavesdropping? I think probably not.”

However the lasting debate remains around the degree to which governments have the right to conceal information from their citizens, and to what degree citizens are willing to trust their governments. Arthur Brisbane has written for the New York Times, “The impulse to obtain and publish inaccessible information is greatly strengthened in an age in which, if anything, government secrecy is growing.”

The question remains to what extent do we trust our governments to make the ‘right’ decision? Are diplomatic decisions best made behind closed doors, or in public spaces?

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