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Wikileaks and Jewish Law

 

I. Leaks

Revealing confidential information is a breach of trust but sometimes maintaining that privacy is an even bigger breach. While you usually only gain access to confidential information after explicitly committing to maintaining that privacy, there are times when you may not obey that promise. Yet it must still serve as your guide absent specific extenuating conditions.

Wikileaks is an organization that publishes documents alleging government and corporate misconduct. It takes confidential documents, attempts to verify their accuracy, and then posts them on the internet to publicize the allegations (link). Does Jewish law allow someone with incriminating documents to publish them via Wikileaks or any similar venue?

II. Revealing Secrets

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a) tells the story of a student who told, twenty five years after the fact, a secret from the study hall. Rav Ami kicked him out of the study hall and announced that he is one who reveals secrets. As Rashi explains, revealing a secret falls under the category of talebearing, lashon ha-ra. (Or, as some ammend Rashi, one who reveals a secret is considered a spreader of lashon ha-ra.)

Based on this Gemara, the Semag (prohibition 9), cited also by the Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilkhos Dei’os 7:7), rules that if someone tells you explicitly that something is a secret, even if he told it to you in front of a large group, you are prohibited from revealing it. Rabbenu Yonah writes in Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:225): “One is obligated to conceal a secret told him by his fellow even if there is no issue of talemongering in revealing the secret.”

Technically, revealing classified information about misconduct is not lashon ha-ra or hotza’as shem ra. It is rekhilus, because you are revealing information that is unrelated to you and the general public. This falls under the prohibition of Lev. 19:16, “You shall not be a talebearer among your people.”

III. Whistleblowing

The conclusion of that verse is: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” It is not talebearing if you are preventing harm from befalling a potential victim. When you are revealing misconduct that can prevent someone from suffering physical harm, you are doing a mitzvah.

The Sifra on that verse adds that you may also not stand idly by if your neighbor is suffering financial damage. If you can prevent that loss then you must. Revealing confidential information is allowed if it will prevent someone from suffering unfair financial harm.

There are some limitations on this obligation if you might suffer physical or financial harm yourself by revealing this information (cf. R. Aaron Levine, Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, pp. 428-438). But we are discussing anonymous postings to an international website where there is, presumably, little to no danger of harm.

IV. Limiting Guidelines

A person who reveals information, however, must conform to a number of considerations detailed in the classic work Chafetz Chaim (lashon ha-ra 10:1-17, rekhilus 9:1-15). R. Asher Meir (The Jewish Ethicist, p. 50) summarizes them as follows:

  • Accuracy – It is forbidden to exaggerate or embellish.
  • Benefit – Revealing the information must be the only way to obtain some constructive benefit.
  • Certainty – We must be sure the information is reliable.
  • Desire – The teller’s intention must be constructive, not vindictive.
  • Equity – The revelation must not cause undeserved damage to the subject. It is not equitable to protect one person at the expense of another.

There are cases where revealing confidential information through a service such as Wikileaks is not only acceptable but obligatory. It is, however, a tool that is easily manipulated and misused. Its potential for damage is as remarkable as its ability to improve the world. Like all tools, we have to use it wisely. The jury is still out over the wisdom and responsibility of Wikileaks (link).

 

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About the author

Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

18 Responses

  1. anony says:

    no the jury is not out. the disclosure of these materials is a major positive event. nobody is waiting to decide. where did you get this notion? you just say whatever you please! secrecy is an evil mode of the manipulators. this is not confidential information. this is data relating to the lives and livelihoods of thousands of good people. how can you be so enmeshed in the activities of others and still defend the practices of the ultra right?

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  3. I think the big question is if WikiLeaks conforms to the conditions of the Chafetz Chaim as you related. I for one am more than a little skeptical about accuracy certainty and equity. Unfortunately the track record of internet journalism is not so great in this regard.

  4. Hirhurim says:

    anony: The NY Times article to which I linked at the end shows differing views on the activities of Wikileaks.

  5. micha says:

    I don’t think R’ Asher Weiss fully captures the CC’s creiteria. Part of (C)ertainty is that the information must be first-hand. The rules are about repeating lashon hara, and there is no parallel rule for rechilus (see CC, Hilkhos LH 10:5). Also, one must try to handle things privately first (ibid #7) — you can consider that part of (E)quity, but it really needs spelling out.

    BTW, R’ Daniel Eidensohn’s forthcoming sefer will (among other things) cover the application of these laws to cases of abuse. Obviously (I hope), the prohibitions have MANY exceptions in this context.

    -micha

  6. micha says:

    Err… R’ Asher Meir.

  7. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    not everyone agrees with the specifics of the chofetz chaim’s criteria for revealing lashon hara / rechilut. (though of course, he is the chofetz chaim, and b: he is the standard bearer of yeshivish / litvish world).

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Unfortunately, the founder of Wikileaks has shown no willingness yet to reveal documents from any other country other than the US. One wonders if and when we will see documents from such wonderful protectors of civil liberties as N Korea, China and Iran.

  9. DJ Clawson says:

    I am a supporter of Wikileaks and have given money to the them in the past when they were having a fundraising drive. They’ve been instrumental as a safe place to host secret documents about the evils of the dangerous cult of Scientology, which is notoriously litigous, and they also post a good deal of stories from survivers of torture in Tibet.

    On the other hand, the owner did not act responsibly when he released the video of soldiers shooting people in Iraq. As news commentators pointed out, he didn’t NEED to name that page “Collateral Murder” and put up the edited version ahead of the unedited raw document. Once you do that, it becomes a “When did you start beating your wife?” scenerio.

    So far though the good has massively outweighed the bad.

  10. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    to dj clawson:

    out of curiousity, are you a regular reader of hirhurim / torah musings?

    its just that i find it interesting that someone who reads this blog regularly would donate to a concept such as wikileaks.

    no objection to your reading this blog, intended.

  11. DJ Clawson says:

    I do, but this is the second comment I’ve ever left.

    Media transparency is not, you know, bad, especially in the case of human rights violations, which is 90% of what Wikileaks deals with.

  12. SF2K1 says:

    I disagree with your labeling of Wikileaks as possibly coming under the problem of rekhilus. As you said: “because you are revealing information that is unrelated to you and the general public” This is actually not remotely true. Wikileaks is not a gossip magazine. Everything that the government does is directly related to me as a tax payer, and the underhanded tactics taken by corporations is relevent to me (at worst) and the General public (at a minimum). If company X is knowingly putting dangerous materials in their product, the hope is wikileaks will receive anonymous information to prove that.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    DJ Clawson-please define “human rights violations”. In the absence of documents released from totalitarian regime, the term has a LW political conotation as justifying any conduct, however illegal, against a democracy.

  14. A Joe Schmo says:

    The moment I saw this article I knew it was coming, but then finally the can of worms was opened with this particular section:
    “III. Whistleblowing

    The conclusion of that verse is: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” It is not talebearing if you are preventing harm from befalling a potential victim. When you are revealing misconduct that can prevent someone from suffering physical harm, you are doing a mitzvah.”

    Now the million dollar question. Doesn’t this justify Jonathan Pollard’s transmitting of secrets of vital Israeli security interest to the Israeli govt? It would seem to me a resounding yes. Am I missing something?

    And why haven’t we heard assimilated Jews calling for the wikileaks perp to be strung up in town square like they self-flagellated over Pollard (and still do)? Hmm…

  15. SAMMY FINKELMAN says:

    There is good reason to be suspicious of the motives – or the judgement – of whoever is running Wikileaks. It is sometimes accompanied by leftist rhetoric.

    That’s the sort of thing that would strongly discourage anybody from sending anything from inside some regimes. They could think it is a trap. In fact the site could indeed be a trap where people trying to reveal information could get caught and their information not even be made public.

    Wikileaks has said that it doesn’t release everything but has it vetted. This raises the question: By whom? It means information might be suppressed, if too different from what they expect and if they have no genuine documents to compare it to – the people doing the vetting could even be double agents. Wikileaks total unconcern with what could happen to people from certain quarters is not a good sign.

    The people potentially harmed by the Afghanistan material are people who informed against the Taliban. In many cases villages and family nams are in there.

    I wonder if it was Wikileaks or the New York Times (or one of the other newspapers they brought in) who realized the significance of all that material about what the United States believed or was hearing about Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. Wikileaks may just have wanted to show how “bad” the U.S. was.

    Wikileaks did not listen to the New York Times when they said don’t post certain things that could lead to people being identified as U.S. informers.

    In the meantime maybe a few countries – not efficiently totalitarian or all that evil – may be worried about it:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/business/global/02berry.html?_r=1&hp

    U.A.E. Is to Bar BlackBerry E-Mail Over Security Issues
    By JOSEPH BERGER
    Published: August 1, 2010
    »

    “Today’s decision is based on the fact that, in their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns for the U.A.E.,” the statement said on the Web site of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the emirates.

    There were indications that Saudi Arabia, the emirates’ neighbor, would follow suit. The Zawya Dow Jones news service said Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission issued a memo to telecom firms operating in the kingdom to block BlackBerry’s service later this month. Zawya quoted an official who asked not be named and who gave no reason for the ban. The Associated Press issued a similar report, also quoting an unidentified telecommunications officials in that desert kingdom.

    Saudi Telecom, however, said it had not received any instructions about the BlackBerry from the communications ministry.

    The ban would have no effect on other so-called smartphones that can access e-mail and the Web because the BlackBerry service is the only one that sends users data via computer servers overseas, thus eluding monitoring by the U.A.E.

  16. jay says:

    MiMedinat HaYam

    *cough* Counting myself, that would make at least two hirhurim readers / wikileaks donators.

  17. […] Wikileaks and Jewish law ▪ Ban on ritual poultry slaughter nixed in New Zealand ▪ Amish community asks forgiveness of […]

  18. Mr. Cohen says:

    Midrash Tehillim, chapter 7, Paragraph 1 of 14:
    The wall has ears [people may be listening even when you think they are not.]

 
 

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