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Truth is Important

How important is the truth? Should it be suppressed for reasons of convenience? What about to reduce the embarrassment of key public figures? Or national security… or how about to save lives? I mean is it OK to withhold information which directly interests many people because that information might lead to deaths?

The questions above arise from the Afghanistan war log leaks recently published by WikiLeaks. It seems apparent from those documents that a lot of what we have been told about the war in Afghanistan simply isn’t true or at the very least vast amounts of information have been withheld by the military.

Recently, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the WikiLeaks web site is morally guilty for putting lives at risk. Of course he would say that because he was one of the people in authority who have tried to stop bad news leaking from the Afghanistan war zone. So his opinion needs to be treated with great skepticism.

They do say that the first casualty of war is the truth and there’s no doubt that secrecy and distribution of propaganda are very important factors in any victory. I recently watched a really interesting TV series about World War II (yes, a TV program worth watching – what a shock) and one factor which arose many times was how information can often lead to success in battles. For example, the German’s codes were broken by the British code cracking team which allowed the Allies to avoid surprise attacks, and the Americans also intercepted Japanese transmissions which gave them an advantage in the Pacific war.

So its obvious that information is important and there is a case for keeping certain facts secret. It would be unwise, for example, for the US to create a public web site posting the location of every patrol in Afghanistan! So I don’t think anyone will deny that there is a case for keeping some information secret but how far should that go?

Ultimately its the government of the major powers, especially the US, who make decisions on how wars should be fought (and whether they should be fought at all). But those governments are ultimately controlled by the people of the countries concerned. If the people don’t want a war to continue they can vote out a pro-war government or use pressure to have the fighting stopped. There are plenty of examples where this sort of thing has happened: the most obvious would be Vietnam.

So ultimately the people have the power but how can they exercise that power if they don’t know the facts? It seems to me that the military has a duty to provide as much information about their activities as they can, and that should include failures as well as successes. Its a bit like the management of a company’s obligation to its shareholders. No one expects every tiny sensitive detail but they do rightly expect a lot.

The information published by WikiLeaks seems to be in the category of the sort of stuff that the public have the right to know so I think WikiLeaks has done the world a real service by leaking the stuff they have.

Its actually an interesting example of freedom of information in the internet age. Its increasingly difficult to get away with the type of propaganda and subterfuge that large organisations have in the past. BP found this out when they grossly mismanaged the publicity around the oil spill and now even the most powerful organisation on Earth (the US military) has been defeated by free information on the internet as well.

Surely this is a warning to anyone who hopes to disguise the truth for their own benefit. Its just not worth the risk any more because there’s a good chance the deception will be exposed and that will probably lead to a worse outcome than if they had just been truthful to start with.

So the truth is important and everyone should fight to keep the internet as open and uncensored as possible so that we at least have a chance to discover what the truth really is.

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