Malachi O’Doherty: Without leakers we’re being kept in the dark
As we begin a week of revelations from WikiLeaks’ Northern Ireland cables Malachi O’Doherty assesses the significance of the website in the complex history of principled whistleblowing
A helicopter crew patrolling Iraqi skies spots a bomb team fleeing the site of an ambush. They chase the bombers in their car along desert roads.
After a time, the bombers realise that they have no chance of escape, so they so they stop the car and get out. They stand together with their arms raised to signal that they are unarmed and have no intention of resisting arrest.
The helicopter hovers in the air above them and the pilot radios for instructions. He is not equipped to arrest these men.
The details of the pilot's dilemma are relayed to a lawyer and, as the bombers stand waiting for a move from the helicopter, the instruction is given to the pilot that, for want of any capacity to effect an arrest, he must shoot the bombers. And he does.
Now, my question is not about the rights and wrongs of the action the pilot took. There is a deep moral problem, no doubt. Western military culture accepted 60 years ago that ‘just obeying orders' isn't a defence against a charge of murder.
But, for now, the question is a simpler one: are we better off for knowing that this happened? I think we are.
There are many young men and women who are recruited into the armed forces on the understanding that they will serve their country and the law and that neither will oblige them to do a foul thing, to execute a prisoner in the act of surrender, for instance.
But now they know that it is not just high-ranking warlords like Osama bin Laden who may be despatched when arrest is, at least, inconvenient.
Circumstances may determine that any suspect in the field may be treated in the same way and that any soldier in arms may be the one receiving the order to kill, without the president watching, as he was when bin Laden was finished off, and without the emotional context in which nearly everyone at home will approve.
We would not have heard the story of the helicopter and the fleeing bomb team but for WikiLeaks — Julian Assange’s website which has published masses of secret material from US State Department communications.
A US Marine, Bradley Manning, stands accused of leaking this material, in breach of the law and of the discipline required of him as a servant of the state.
And where it is clear that the leaking was a crime in law, it is also obvious that much of what was achieved by the leaking was good. That poses a problem.
The leaker and the whistleblower are often heroes. They sacrifice their freedom and safety to share information that is often vital for us to know, yet they have no protection in law. And no one likes a blabbermouth.
All employers expect confidentiality from their staff, though in British law an employee who discloses secrets in the pubic interest may now expect protection and even compensation if penalised.
There has even been discussion on how whistleblowing in the health service can be encouraged and protected, on the understanding that grievances and doubts are better aired than suppressed.
None of which amounts to permission to leak state secrets and intelligence.
Not all of the stuff we got through WikiLeaks was of value. We already knew that the Vatican had declined to respond to an invitation to give evidence into an independent inquiry on child abuse, but we perhaps hadn't grasped that Irish officials had felt themselves to be in a double bind — wanting to support the inquiry, but not to apply pressure on the Vatican.
And there is serious speculation that WikiLeaks triggered the Arab Spring. Amnesty International believes now that the disclosures about President Ben Ali's corrupt regime in Tunisia inspired much of the energy behind the protests that brought him down.
When WikiLeaks launched its flood of stolen secrets, there was massive reaction from those who felt compromised. There was even talk of offenders being charged with treason and executed. And if our secrets were exposed so lavishly, we might feel the same way, too.
That's the thing about leaking; no one is going to approve a universal licence to leak. None of us would keep our jobs for long if we were happy to tweet every juicy morsel of information about the organisations we work for and deal with.
The burden of leaking is always on the leakers themselves; they decide the value of what they disclose and they have no cover unless a lot of others happen afterwards to agree with them.
The leaker is alone with his, or her, conscience; they decide that they are above the law and sometimes the gravity of the issue endorses them. That's what happened to Clive Ponting.
Ponting leaked information about the movements of an Argentine light cruiser, the General Belgrano, to show that it had been spotted a day before it was sunk on the orders of Margaret Thatcher.
That disclosure undermined her claim that the Belgrano was an immediate threat to British forces in the South Atlantic.
Ponting, a civil servant, was in breach of the Official Secrets Act, yet a jury acquitted him.
We should recognise the heroism of those who leak.
They undermine the state at its most devious and they usually do it alone and knowing they will be reviled for it.