Lyndon Baines Johnson made this 1964 campaign promise: “I will not send American boys to fight an Asian War.” But he did.
George Bush in 2003 claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” But OMG, no WMD.
Were these presidents lying? Lies should be distinguished from mistakes.
If a president, for example, says that a foreign leader has weapons of mass destruction and really believes that to be the case, then the wrong statement is a tragic error but not really a lie.
So, did Bush know that Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD when he said Saddam did? There’s a lively internet debate on that question.
One point to consider is this: Weapons of mass destruction are also weapons of mass deterrence. If Bush really believed Saddam had WMD, would Bush have risked attacking him? The more WMDs, the more deterrence against attacks, right?
At least, politicians seemingly have persuaded American taxpayers to fund a large deterrent force on the theory that might makes fright.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that regardless of Bush’s beliefs, somebody had incontrovertible evidence that Saddam didn’t have WMD.
That somebody, a leaker, decided the American people needed the information and gave the evidence to a journalist who then disseminated the information.
Now let’s say the leaker’s information registered with the American public — and maybe even dignitaries in other countries.
And let’s say this information and the reaction to it were enough to dissuade the Bush administration from waging war in Iraq.
If that had happened and war had been averted, trillions of dollars would have been saved. Maybe hundreds of thousands of lives would have been spared. Maybe Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, would still be standing.
And thus, arguably, there is something truly admirable about those who leak information in hopes of triggering positive change. Such leakers are optimists, or perhaps even “cockeyed optimists,” to quote a phrase from the musical “South Pacific.”
They believe that positive change is a possibility and that knowledge is power that can be used to achieve noble results.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears to be one of these optimists, and that side of Assange is arguably praiseworthy. But the U.S. government finds Assange prisonworthy, instead.
On May 23, the United States added 17 counts to its previously only one-count indictment of Assange.
Assange had been pulled out of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on April 11 and sentenced to 50 weeks in a London prison for skipping bail in order to avoid extradition to Sweden for sexual assault charges.
The United States seeks his extradition to stand trial for, among other things, violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
The indictment alleges that “The State Department cables that WikiLeaks published included names of persons throughout the world who provided information to the U.S. government in circumstances in which they could reasonably expect that their identities would be kept confidential.”
The alleged result? “By publishing these documents without redacting the human sources’ names or other identifying information, ASSANGE created a grave and imminent risk that the innocent people he named would suffer serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention.”
Assange, in fighting extradition by taking his case to the court of public opinion, has been trying to ride the white horse of press freedom.
But perhaps he is not the classic journalist with clean hands who receives unsolicited information that is newsworthy — information a good journalist intent on fulfilling a journalist’s watchdog function would surely bring to the public’s attention.
Maybe Assange conspired with Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to steal an amazing amount of classified information
Such conspiracy is one of the charges against Assange that would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
But let’s say Assange didn’t help Manning, that his hands were clean, that he had nothing to do with Manning’s successful transfer of massive amounts of information to WikiLeaks.
Even if Assange is Mr. Clean in terms of acquiring information the public truly needs to know, he still has a cringe-worthy, reckless side and a sometimes perverse set of values.
Assange values free flow of information — and that is generally a positive thing. But he has shown that he can value free flow of information at the expense of the safety of people who need protection.
That reckless disregard for human life is a hurdle that can be hard to overcome, even for people who value free flow of information and government transparency.
While, generally speaking, the First Amendment protects a journalist who publishes truthful information, there is an exception if that publication puts another person at a foreseeable risk of bodily harm. This exception means that ethical journalists, at least in that respect, must be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
WikiLeaks clearly published diplomatic cables leaked by Manning. Apparently Assange was so intent on making information public that he didn’t bother to redact names of some individuals who clearly were at risk if their identities were exposed.
Valuing free flow of information over human life is like valuing truth over human life.
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant got tangled up by a challenge by French philosopher Benjamin Constant concerning the duty to tell the truth.
According to Kant’s “categorical imperative,” a moral principle must be universalizable: It can’t be a moral principle if it’s mandatory for some people to follow that principle but not mandatory for others to follow that same principle.
So here is Kant’s quandary: What about the moral principle that we should tell the truth? Is this a principle that should always be followed?
Constant wrote: “This philosopher goes as far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer has taken refuge in our house.”
Kant took the bait and said we should never lie, thus falling into Constant’s trap. In his short work titled “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” Kant said: “Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom....”
Say a Nazi asked,“Is Anne Frank in your attic?” Say that indeed she was there. Would the moral answer be “yes” on the theory that it’s immoral to tell a lie?
The absurdity of always telling the truth, no matter if it means sacrificing human life, is like the absurdity of always sharing truthful information, no matter whom it harms.
Assange should have redacted names of individuals who obviously would suffer if their identities became known to hostile authorities.
Not hiding the identities of those individuals is on a par with answering “yes” to the Nazi who wants to know if the victim is in the attic.
Or maybe it’s worse. It’s telling the evildoer the identity of the victim.
To reveal the identity is to create a victim, and that might be even more evil than merely confirming the victim’s location.