Q. Was the leaking of a trove of private diplomatic communications ethical? And once leaked, is it ethical for news organizations to publish them?
A. It’s rarely ethical to intercept private communications and make them public. But are official state communications ever really private? In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a ban of excommunication to those who opened other people’s mail. But he also stated that it was OK to open mail that had been discarded, i.e. placed into the public domain. After a certain time, most government material finds its way into those very same places, whether the trash bin or some presidential library. I can’t wait to see the Wikileaks exhibit at the Obama Library someday – or maybe at the Julian Assange / Daniel Ellsberg/ Joe Wilson Whistle Blower Museum.
Once the quarter million cables were made available to the public, newspapers like the NY Times were on solid ethical ground in publishing those materials that do not put lives at risk or directly harm the national interest. But freedom of the press carries a moral cost. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Anthony E. Varona, professor and associate dean at American University-Washington College of Law, said the line is still unclear between "giving the public the news it has a First Amendment right to receive and serving as instruments of lawlessness."
Ethics is often situational, and in this case, while the cables have revealed nothing terribly startling, it has exposed the alarm felt within among Arab leaders regarding Iran, which should make it easier for Israel and America to pursue a harder line in responding to the threat. Weren’t you just shocked, shocked to hear that Saudi King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran and that the Chinese had hacked into Google? Assange has not upended the world order; he’s simply removed the emperor’s clothes.
I am troubled, however, that we’ve crossed a perilous line; there is no such thing as confidentiality anymore. Transparency in government is a good thing, but privacy and trust are also vital. We read in Proverbs (11:13) "A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence." The Talmud (Yoma 4b) adds that even trivial details of casual communications should not be disclosed without permission. Jewish sources also indicate that in this case individual needs could be trumped by overriding communal concerns.
It seems that the State Department now needs to learn what the rest of us knew long ago. Every time you click and send, expect that message to eventually be out there for the entire world to see.