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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Wikileaks informants

On July 25, the New York Times reported on the release by of more than 92,000 U.S. military documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. While interesting from a number of angles, for our purposes the story is a tale of two informants that highlights complicated questions of loyalty and society's treatment of informants. The first informant in the story was Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army soldier who allegedly transmitted the leaked reports to Wikileaks. While not an "informant" in the traditional sense, as he did not help the government apprehend criminals, Manning played the informant's role by revealing miscalculations and fatal mistakes, if not crimes, committed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The second informant was Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning's involvement in the leak to federal authorities.

What no one seems able to agree on, however, is whether Manning and Lamo are heroes, villains, or something in between.

Seen in the best possible light, Manning is a classic whistle-blower. Disillusioned with his employer's actions, he revealed them publicly in the hopes of forcing change. What some see as treason, then, could also be viewed as the highest form of loyalty to America's ideals of openness and public debate. But even if he did not betray his country, Manning certainly betrayed his fellow soldiers and those Afghans who have assisted the United States by placing them in mortal danger. And, at least according to Lamo, Manning's motives were not altruistic: he leaked the documents because enjoyed the attention that his contact at Wikileaks lavished on him, not because it was the right thing to do.

Lamo, on the other hand, is an informant in the more typical mold. He is a hacker with a previous conviction for breaching computer networks. He lied to Manning in order to gain the soldier's confidence, claiming to be an ordained minister so that Manning would feel comfortable giving his "confession." And he has at least arguably milked the situation for attention. Yet Lamo says that he came forward out of a sense of moral obligation: he believed that Manning had endangered human lives and felt that it would be cowardly to do nothing.

Neither Manning nor Lamo would seem to be a clear-cut hero or villain, then, and each has been both celebrated and condemned. Some call Manning a hero (the website for the Bradley Manning support network is here), while others have called for his execution. For his part, Lamo has received death threats and has been shunned by the hacker community, but he also has been hailed as a patriot for doing the right thing in a tough spot.

Moreover, the situation is even more of a moral and ethical morass than the typical criminal informant case, because there at least the underlying criminal conduct is considered unquestionably wrong. Here, though, one's perspective on Manning and Lamo may depend on one's view of the war in Afghanistan. If you believe it is a just war, then you may feel that Lamo did the right thing, but if you think that the war has been mishandled, then you may see Manning as a hero. Alternatively, some will fall back on equating legality with morality. In that case, Manning is a villain for breaking the law, while Lamo, though maybe not a hero, at least committed no crime.

But what should the government do? It does not prosecute every crime, and whether Manning is charged is a decision within the government's broad prosecutorial discretion. Without knowing all of the facts, I don't know how that discretion should be exercised. What I do suggest, however, is that whoever makes the final decision must consider more than the letter of law and focus as well on the morality of Manning's actions. It appears to me that he betrayed his compatriots, but it is less clear that he betrayed his country. The crime charged must fit his moral desert. Treason may be going too far, but something less than treason may be appropriate.

Meanwhile, what do we do about Lamo? He lied to and betrayed Manning, and he did so at the instigation of the government, with whom he was actively cooperating during his discussions with Manning. This raises a larger question that applies to the government's handling of many criminal informants: should the state encourage informants, as private citizens, to commit immoral, if non-criminal, acts? As I see it, there is something unsavory and disquieting about the government, in the name of enforcing criminal laws that are themselves based on society's moral code, pushing civilians to act immorally. And certainly law enforcement's involvement in private immorality weaken the communicative force of the criminal justice system. But is that a price we are willing to pay for the information that informants like Lamo provide?