Calvin profs discuss the ethics and legalities of leaking government documents.

On April 5, 2010, the nonprofit, new-media website Wikileaks published footage of the killing of civilians in Baghdad by two U.S.-operated Apache helicopters. On July 25, 2010 and October 22, 2010, the site published U.S. military logs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And on November 28, 2010, Wikileaks revealed 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables to its worldwide cyber-audience. All of these were classified documents. The site’s editor-in-chief, Julian Assange—who has been quoted as saying, “Which country is suffering from too much freedom of speech? Name it, is there one?”—was arrested on December 7 for sex crimes. Recently, Calvin computer science professor Joel Adams and political science professor Joel Westra discussed the Wikileaks phenomenon.

How does Wikileaks operate?

Adams: What technology allows you to do these days is have a distributed system of servers and spread them among many countries in the world. This mirroring technology lets you distribute information in such a way that it is not under the jurisdiction of any one country. It isn’t especially new; it’s what the file-sharing people have been doing for years. Remember the original Napster? It was one site and as soon as the forces of justice shut it down, the service was shut down. To avoid that single point of vulnerability, people devised software to coordinate multiple servers distributed across different countries, each “mirroring” the other’s information, so that as long as any of the servers exists, the service is available.

So, imagine that an employee from somewhere wants to leak some documents.  They copy the documents onto a flash drive and get it to someone at Wikileaks. The Wikileaks folks copy the documents onto their servers, and those servers copy the documents to one another. The same information is available on each one, so trying to take out a Wikileaks server is like playing “Whack-a-Mole”—the Wikileaks folks can just launch a different server in another country.

What is the philosophy behind Wikileaks?

Westra: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange believes that transparency blunts the power of authoritarian regimes. While we all might agree with that, at least to some extent, we probably wouldn’t agree with his characterization of virtually all states—including the United States—as authoritarian regimes. Certainly we expect democratic regimes to have some level of transparency. However, we also entrust our leaders with discretion to keep some things secret, in pursuit of the national interest and subject to oversight mechanisms. Assange, however, doesn’t seem to want leaders to be entrusted with such discretion.

Adams: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lous Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” in advocating for openness and transparency. In their rhetoric, Wikileaks seems to take that philosophy to its logical extreme—they’re shining the light on activities of the U.S. by publishing its internal documents. However, Thomas Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, doesn’t think the Wikileaks action matches their rhetoric. He notes that they have released fewer than one percent of the cables and have followed the lead of news outlets by redacting them to protect diplomats’ sources … He suggests Wikileaks is behaving more responsibly than we know.

What do you think about how Wikileaks operates?

Westra: There’s an irony about it. It’s a very secretive organization against secrecy. I read an interview with a former employee of Wikileaks, and even he didn’t seem to understand fully how the organization worked.

At issue here also is the anonymity of the Internet. People who run online forums run into this constantly—that people are more willing to do things in the anonymity of the internet, across the distance of the internet, than they would be willing to do interpersonally. Usually those sorts of forums have moderators who try to govern those interactions somewhat, but within Wikileaks, the person of authority has a philosophy of governance that is, in essence, lack of governance—that restraint isn’t a virtue; the only virtue is an extreme form of transparency.

What do you think of what Wikileaks has leaked so far?

Westra: I don’t think the substance of it is all that shocking, but what will have the greatest impact is that things people before only suspected to be true are now verified—things that government did not want to admit openly were happening or being said are now out in the open. We now know, for example, that U.S. military forces are engaged in covert action in Pakistan and Yemen. We now know the extent to which Sunni Arab governments have encouraged the United States to take stronger action against Iran. We now know the extent to which the U.S. government is aware of corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Adams: I worry most about some of the specific details that are being leaked. One of the documents Wikileaks has released is a list of sites around the world that have been deemed “crucial to American national interests.” It includes things like hydroelectric dams, vaccine factories, underwater cables and so on. Leaking that list seems like an invitation to terrorist groups to attack those sites.

Who is leaking this information?

Adams: U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged with the leaks. Back in June, he was working as an intelligence specialist when the Army arrested him for unlawful disclosure of classified information. The report is that he copied the files to CDs, carried them out of his office and then subsequently uploaded them to the Wikileaks site. These files allegedly included over 250,000 diplomatic cables, a video of the helicopter gunship attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees, a video of a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan that produced many civilians casualties and other classified documents. He was caught because he told a former hacker named Adrian Lamo what he had done (thinking they were kindred spirits), but Lamo turned him in “out of duty.”  Pfc. Manning has not yet been tried or convicted, but he is the prime suspect.

What’s the possible impact of the leaks?

Westra: In the short term, the consequences of Wikileaks probably will include mistrust and increased diplomatic tension, both by states that have had secrets leaked and by states treated roughly within the leaked documents. In the medium term, we might expect less information sharing among states and, hence, less effective intelligence and also harder bargaining, insofar as states will be less likely to reveal information about their bargaining positions. In the long term, I think the practice of diplomacy will have to change to reflect an increasing transparent international system.

Are there potentially serious consequences to what Wikileaks is leaking?

Westra: If states become less likely to share intelligence and find it more difficult to bargain successfully in multilateral forums, then the process of global governance becomes even more difficult than it already is. Challenges such as WMD proliferation, transnational terrorism, and environmental degradation become even more difficult to address than they already are. In that sense, the long-term consequences of Wikileaks could be far more negative than positive.

Adams: Aside from the President of Iran claiming that the whole thing is an American conspiracy, the world’s reactions to the content of the cables—what our diplomats actually think—has been mostly positive. Our diplomats come across as sensible, responsible, earnest, and professional in the cables … . The most negative response from the world has been in reaction to our politicians’ rhetoric: Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Robert Gates, Mike Huckabee, Joe Lieberman, Sarah Palin and others have made very reactionary statements, including calling Wikileaks a terrorist organization, calling for an investigation of the New York Times, etc. We frequently chastise countries like China and Russia for restricting freedom of the press—and then we call for the New York Times to be investigated? If our reaction to Wikileaks lets the world paint us as hypocrites and costs us the moral high ground, I think that could be more damaging in the long run than the leaks themselves.

Do you think Wikileaks will spawn copycats?

Probably. There’s already been a trend toward increased transparency, driven by non-state actors using the internet. For the most part, this has been based on data gathered in more legitimate ways. Wikileaks seems, in some sense, just to be the next step.

Is the site doing anything illegal?

Adams: That’s an interesting question. My understanding is that the files they’ve posted are not technically stolen because they weren’t removed from the government’s computers—they were copied. But when you copy material, you normally shift from criminal law into intellectual property law, which typically protects copyrighted materials and the like. But government documents are not copyrighted nor protected as intellectual property, so that doesn’t seem to apply. Assange describes Wikileaks as a news organization or publisher, like the New York Times (which has also published some of the documents), and the government has never successfully prosecuted a journalist or publisher who published leaked materials, because the first amendment comes into play. The lack of any formal response from our government suggests they are still reviewing their options.

Westra: The way the system works right now, it’s quite difficult to charge members of Wikileaks with a crime. The courts would have to find that the members of Wikileaks intended to harm U.S. national interests—which is not easy to do. However, those who leaked the information could be held accountable under the law for leaking secret state documents.

Do you think these documents should be leaked?

Adams: Certainly not documents whose publication might endanger people’s lives.  For months, Wikileaks has been leaking documents about the wars in Iran and Afghanistan, and to the extent that they put people’s lives at risk, those seem more worrisome to me than the diplomatic cables that have triggered the current fuss.  But there may well be more damaging documents still to come.

Westra: I don’t think these things should have been leaked. They certainly were not intended for publication or attribution, and the leaks probably will have negative consequences for international diplomacy in the near term. On the other hand, though, history has demonstrated that most covert actions eventually will be found out, and with negative consequences: the U.S.-British coup in Iran in 1953, the Bay of Pigs intervention in 1961, the bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 70. If leaders find covert action less attractive now than it was in the past, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t mean to suggest that states never should act covertly, but I do think covert action sometimes can be a poor substitute for working through proper domestic and international political channels.

What can be done about it?

Adams: The story continues to evolve. On the technology side, a group of “patriotic hackers” have been trying to prevent people from accessing Wikileaks’ servers using distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks—flooding the Wikileaks servers with so many requests, they cannot respond to normal requests.  Wikileaks was using some of Amazon.com’s servers as their servers—Amazon routinely rents out their servers for usebut Amazon kicked Wikileaks off their servers a few days ago. Then PayPal, Mastercard and Visa all stopped accepting donations to Wikileaks, making it harder for Wikileaks supporters to provide financial support.

Then a group of cyber activists known as Anonymous (who support Wikileaks) began launching their own DDOS attacks against Amazon, Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, etc. in retaliation. These activists used Facebook and Twitter to marshal supporters and organize their attacks. Facebook had been accommodating the group, but once they started advocating DDOS attacks, Facebook blocked access to the group’s page. Then Twitter also began blocking these activists’ communications.

An Icelandic–Swiss company named DataCell is now filling the financial gap for Wikileaks by letting its supporters donate directly from their bank accounts. And there are reportedly over 1,000 different servers now mirroring encrypted copies of the Wikileaks documents around the world.  That makes it difficult to undo.

As a preventative measure against future leaks, some branches of the military have ordered their soldiers to stop using removable media—flash drives, CDs, DVDs, etc.—on computers connected to the military’s network, or face court martial.

On the legal side, it’s not clear what (existing) law can be brought to bear on the Wikileaks organization. The Espionage Act doesn’t seem to apply to Wikileaks. Intellectual property law apparently doesn’t apply either. And Assange is not a U.S. citizen. But stay tuned—the story isn’t over!

Computer sciience professor Joel Adams

Computer sciience professor Joel Adams

Political science professor Joel Westra

Political science professor Joel Westra

Recent stories