Glenn Greenwald Confuses the Readers

He explains that recent Wikileaks cables reveal that U.S. forces may have murdered several Iraqi civilians (including women and children) in their house, and later covered it up with an airstrike on that house. Then he complains that the U.S. media is far too harsh on Wikileaks for endangering diplomats by accidentally releasing unredacted cables, while being far too forgiving towards the U.S:

As usual, many of those running around righteously condemning WikiLeaks for the potential, prospective, unintentional harm to innocents caused by this leak will have nothing to say about these actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter by the U.S...

Despite the fault fairly assigned to WikiLeaks, one point should be absolutely clear: there was nothing intentional about WikiLeaks’ publication of the cables in unredacted form.

Greenwald is confusing the reader in 2 ways:

1) blaming “the U.S.” for a potential murder carried out by several U.S. soldiers. He’d be on no shakier ground blaming “the U.S.” for an act of theft carried out by a member of Obama’s Green Jobs commission

2) saying there was “nothing intentional” about what Wikileaks did. They have intentionally created a significant probability of great harm to diplomats. This is what is annoying about words like “intentional” and “malicious.” Would it be “malicious” of Tom to punch Scott 10 times in the face, not because he wanted to hurt his friend, but because he preferred that Scott’s nose be a bit shorter? No, not by the strict (but in my opinion flimsy) definition of “malicious” — the puncher in this case was merely punching his friend as a means to an end. But does the classification of this act as not malicous reveal anything useful about how much we should blame Tom? No — Tom is clearly doing a very bad thing by showing more concern for a silly aesthetic idea than for his friend’s well-being. And he is not, in my opinion, any less at fault than if he punched his friend out of malice. When you do something, you do it because the benefits outweigh the costs– “malice” describes a characterization of the benefits, and ignores the extent to which a person’s appraisal of the costs shows immorality. Similarly with Wikileaks, they should clearly be responsible for their apparent lack of concern for diplomats’ safety, even if Wikileaks’ primary concern was not a minimization of that safety.

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6 Responses to Glenn Greenwald Confuses the Readers

  1. Steve Wilkerson says:

    1. Greenwald points to the calling in of an airstrike by the soldiers to cover up their actions, something that in my day could not be done without some serious explanations given. Clearly groups of soldiers do things that do not have US approval but once multiple US forces combine to conduct an operation the line between individuals and their sponsors blurs and the misdeeds are acceptable to the sponsor. That’s why you didn’t read about this in the newspaper or see it on TV, US authorities tried to hide it.

    I also believe that the words you quote from Greenwald (“actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter by the US”) are not limited to this incident but to the history of US actions that have cost so many lives of the inhabitants of the countries we’ve invaded.

    2. WikiLeaks is not the initial source of the public revelation of all the cables; a Guardian reporter who reported the password in his book on the cables and the machinations of a WikiLeaks alumnus unhappy with Assange bear responsibility for that. Once the password was published in the book the cables were open to anyone wishing to use them for malevolent purposes so if WikiLeaks real mission, to make materials on government and corporate conduct open to public scrutiny, it could only do so by releasing them generally.

    The whole episode is regrettable but no more so for WikiLeaks conduct than for that of others. As for intentionality, the law recognizes, and I suspect you do, even though I don’t know you, that unintended consequences may be seen differently from intended ones. Not much comfort for your friend’s nose, but a distinction not unique to Greenwald’s characterization of WikiLeaks conduct. And many of us don’t think open access to information about our government’s conduct of serious public matters can be appropriately compared to a “silly aesthetic idea.”

    Sometimes I disagree with Greenwald but I have not found him confusing. He is one of the better writers on the subjects he addresses.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Steve – thanks for the comment.

    1. My reading of Greenwald suggests that he is talking specifically about the murder he has described, given that he says “*these* actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter” (emphasis mine). He’d be on firmer ground if he attributed the coverup (rather than the murder itself) to “the U.S.”, since that was apparently order from higher up in the command chain, but he’s presented no evidence that the act itself was anything other than rogue.

    2. I agree that there were apparently negligent actors other than Wikileaks that led to the endangerment of diplomats (Guardian reporter, etc.). However, this doesn’t shake my confidence in the idea that Wikileaks’ conduct sets a ceiling on the moral weight that it is placing on diplomats’ wellbeing (e.g. clearly diplomats’ well-being is less important to Wikileaks than it is to diplomats’ families). One has to wonder why Assange gave away the full password – if he cared more about diplomats than about giving away juicy details to a reporter, he would not have done this, right?

    One more example – more relevant than the punching one since its probabilistic – suppose I am in a huge hurry to get some McDonald’s food, so I drive my car at 100 mph in the wrong lane towards McDonalds, and I believe that, by doing this, I incur a 30% probability of killing a pedestrian, which I end up doing. I am not guilty of “malice” or “intentionality” in killing that person, but I have still shown myself to be disappointingly unconcerned with the well-being of pedestrians.

  3. Julian says:

    Regarding the U.S. being as guilty with regards to US soldiers murdering Iraqi civilians as Obama would be for etc etc, I don’t agree because the first is much more foreseeable than the second. Foreseeability matters a lot. We also have much more control over the oversight given to troops on patrol than we do to whether someone on the council of economic advisors pockets a slimjim.

    Also, your hypo about the McDonald’s driver is not legally correct:

    If you’re convicted of driving that recklessly, you can be found guilty of murder by implied malice.

  4. Julian says:

    Another relevant hypo which also occurred as a case (probably more than once) is Russian roulette. You arguably only have a 16.6…% of dying in the first round. I don’t remember the name, but in a case where one participant died from self-inflicted gunshot wound, the other players in the game were convicted of second-degree murder with implied malice.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Julian – thanks for the pointer on “implied malice.” I’d say that is a quirk of the law, and not consistent with how people usually use the word “malice.”

    On Russian Roullette, again, I’d just have to say I disagree with that law, unless there were any coercion involved. If there were, then it would be malicious. The question of probability of death is separate from the question of whether someone *wants* the other guy to die. If person A encourages B to play Russian Roullette because A wants be to die, that is malicious, even though the probability is only 1/6. In the McDonalds case, even the probability > 50%, I’d say (again, using the non-legal definition of the word) that the killing was not “malicious.”

    And my point is that the question of perceived probability is the more important question than the question of whether there is malice. And I believe Wikipedia, in giving away the password, totally unnecessarily, indicated that they were not very concerned with significantly increasing the probability of harm caused to diplomats.

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