WikiLeaks: Ethics to what extent?
HDN | 8/1/2010 12:00:00 AM | C. CEM OĞUZ
Works such as Mahvish Rukhsana Khan's 'My Guantánamo Diary' have not created public discontent; why, then, has WikiLeaks achieved this?
Have you read “My Guantánamo Diary” by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, an American-born daughter of a Pashtun family? If you haven’t already, it may be worth picking up as it adds important perspective to recent events.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision declaring Guantánamo prisoners had to be allowed access to U.S. courts, Khan, while still in law school, began volunteering as an interpreter at a law firm that represented Guantánamo inmates. She first visited the base in 2006 and, except for 14 high-value detainees with alleged ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, met mostly with prisoners of Afghan origin. The majority of these people had spent years in prison before being offered a fair trial or even access to counsel.
Much to her surprise, Khan soon discovered many of the detainees she encountered were merely average citizens handed over to U.S. authorities, often by bounty hunters. One elderly detainee named Nusrat, for instance, was picked up after questioning the arrest of his son, who was accused of having ties with al-Qaeda. Another was Ali Shah Mousavi, a doctor by profession, who, after living for years in exile, had returned to Afghanistan to assist in the reconstruction of his country.
Even worse, however, was the fact that each detainee she interviewed had a story of being brutally beaten, deprived of sleep, sexually abused, soaked with freezing cold water, exposed to constant noise and, last but not least, left in solitary confinement for days.
It is the response by the U.S. Department of Defense to WikiLeaks’ publication of secret documents that brought Khan’s diary to mind.
As you will well remember, last week, three major international newspapers, namely the Guardian, the New York Times and weekly Der Spiegel, simultaneously began publishing information contained in classified U.S. military documents related to the war in Afghanistan. That information came from the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, which espouses government transparency and freedom of information. In response to WikiLeaks’ involvement, the Pentagon soon warned, “WikiLeaks may have blood on its hands.” According to U.S. authorities, the leaking of such secret documents could cost lives and damage the trust of allies.
The reason WikiLeaks has created such a firestorm in Washington is also closely related to the fact that it follows a three-part series ran by the Washington Post questioning the massive increase in the size and cost of the U.S. national intelligence apparatus since Sept. 11.
In revealing the truth, the roles both Khan and WikiLeaks have played are actually the same. More importantly, the “damage” Khan did to the trust of U.S. allies is obviously not less than that the publication of secret U.S. military documents have done. But works such as Khan’s have not created public discontent; why, then, has WikiLeaks achieved this?
The nuance in both cases undeniably lies in the names involved. Australian-born Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, is hailed as a sort of hero for maintaining this kind of service, but experts point out the fact that though names were withheld, such information becoming public can put people’s lives and security at risk.
From a journalistic point of view, the ethical problem that arises is determining who decides what is at risk and what it is worth. There are also serious question marks with regard to the verification of the documents and the motives of those who sent them. My intention is not to elaborate these issues. I rather want to draw your attention to another aspect of the problem.
When it comes to the names of American officers, we show great concern, but who is interested in the names of the Afghans that Khan mentioned, people like Nusrat or Mousavi? All American casualties in Afghanistan or Iraq are being reported by name, but when it comes to the Iraqis or Afghans who lose their lives, they are merely numbers. There is even no agency that keeps track of accurate numbers of Afghans or Iraqis killed. This brings another question to mind: Why is the Pentagon worried about the damage the publication of the documents has done to the trust of its allies, but not about the trust of the Afghan people?
In such a milieu, the U.S. and its allies are supposed to win the ever-worsening war in Afghanistan. This apparent scant concern for the welfare of local people only serves to increase opposition to the occupying forces and makes hopes of peace and stability in these countries a distant dream.
Let me put it another way: Who, for instance, among you, dear readers, is sincerely interested in what Nusrat and Mousavi are doing today?