Governments always tend to be secretive. But democratic governments also claim to believe in openness. The tension often emerges through leaks. Governments deplore them but campaigners for freedom of information justify them on the grounds that voters have the right to know what is being done in their name and if leaks are the only way of finding out, then so be it.

In the days when government business was all recorded on paper, leaks of documents were frequent enough but usually on a small scale: there’s only so much paper that can be smuggled out of government offices without it being noticed. But in the new era of e-government – government by email – that has all changed. Huge quantities of secret government information can be leaked at the press of a button.

That is what the whistle-blowing internet website, WikiLeaks, has been exploiting. It has been releasing hundreds of thousands of secret US government documents relating to the conduct of the American military and its allies in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last week came a flood of 400,000 US Army field reports from Iraq over the period from the invasion in 2003 to the end of 2009. These showed, among other things, how the US military handed over detainees to Iraqi military units notorious for their brutality in handling individuals under interrogation; how the American authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi security forces; how a US helicopter gunship turned its fire on Iraqi insurgents in the process of surrendering; and how, despite earlier denials, the American authorities had been keeping a count of the number of Iraqis, including civilians, killed as a result of the invasion.

These revelations followed the release earlier in the summer of 90,000 US military documents related to the war in Afghanistan.

On both occasions the American Government has expressed outrage at the leaking of the documents. Last weekend the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, condemned 'in the most clear terms the disclosure of any information … which puts the lives of United States and its partners’ service members and civilians at risk.' A Pentagon spokesman said: 'This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.' The British Government has protested in similar terms.

Those running WikiLeaks say that the same complaint was made after the release of the Afghanistan documents in the summer but that no evidence has yet emerged of any lives having subsequently been at risk. In any case, they add, WikiLeaks has gone to even greater lengths with the leaking of the Iraq documents to ensure that no individuals can be traced. However, say the Governments, it is still early days.

Nevertheless, although Governments have deplored the leaks they have not been able to ignore what has been leaked. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said: 'We can bemoan how these leaks occurred, but I think the nature of the allegations made are extraordinarily serious. They are distressing to read about and they are very serious. … I think that anything that suggests that basic rules of war, conflict and engagement have been broken or that torture has been in any way condoned are extremely serious and need to be looked at.'

Some people have taken the view, however, that although the revelations may be serious they are not in the least surprising. Reports from Iraq itself suggest that most Iraqis think that nothing has been revealed that was not already common knowledge anyway. Despite all the noise created both by WikiLeaks and by the governments involved, some people are saying: 'What’s all the fuss about? This is what goes on in wars, everyone knows it, so getting specific details doesn’t really add anything.

The counter to this line of argument is that though it may be true that the leaks merely provide detail of a story about which we could guess the broad outlines, nonetheless actually seeing all this detail in black and white is sobering and worthwhile. It is rather like the way that photographs or television footage of conflict bring home the reality of war in a way that print reports or statistics rarely do.

But that is why some of WikiLeaks’s opponents feel so strongly about the leaks. Their argument goes that some wars have to be fought; that war is necessarily, in part, a dirty business; but that exposing the dark side of operations in such specific terms serves only to make it more difficult for democratic governments to conduct wars because it makes voters more squeamish, which in turn places unhelpful constraints on the military in carrying out their tasks.

To many supporters of WikiLeaks, though, that is exactly why its activities are so valuable. The revelation of what actually goes on in wars makes it more difficult for governments to embark on wars in the first place.

In the end the battle between WikiLeaks’ supporters and opponents may simply be a mirror of the dispute between those who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who backed them. But a more fundamental question is thrown up by the row over WikiLeaks: is it better that we know everything that governments do in our name, or better that we don’t?

What’s your view?

  • What do you make of the claim by the American government that the leaks could endanger the lives of service personnel fighting in these two countries?
  • Do you share the view of Nick Clegg that the substance of the leaks is 'extraordinarily serious'?
  • If so, what do you think should happen now?
  • What do you make of the claim that the leaks told us nothing that we didn’t already know?
  • Do you think such leaks make it harder for democratic governments to wage war and, if so, do you think this is a good or a bad thing?
  • And do you think it is better if we do know everything that governments get up to, or better if we don’t?
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