But for Adrian Lamo, the decision was whether or not to call the U.S. Government and turn in a U.S. Army intelligence analyst. Adrian made the right decision.
Here's the cast of characters. First, there's Adrian Lamo. We in the tech sphere got to know him some years ago for his hacking exploits, back when he broke into the New York Times and eventually turned himself in to authorities.
Then there's U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who apparently passed classified secrets on to Wikileaks, the Web site that publishes pretty much anything explosive it can get its hands on.
Finally, there's Australian Julian Assange, the founder and operator of Wikileaks, who moves around a lot and is not exactly on the top of the U.S. Government's Christmas card list.
Manning (the Army intelligence analyst) did some very bad things. He leaked classified information he had access to as part of job. This information included a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed several civilians. Far worse, he is also thought to have leaked upwards of 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables.
Let's be clear here. Manning, who's all of 22 years old, broke the law in a big way and is being punished. He's currently under arrest in Kuwait.
Adrian (the American hacker) got sucked into the story when Manning contacted him about the documents he'd stolen. Apparently, Manning read a profile of Adrian in Wired and thought him a kindred spirit. Manning was wrong. Manning is a traitor. Adrian is not.
That's why Adrian Lamo made the tough decision to contact the government. In doing so, he did exactly the right thing, but at a cost to his reputation as an outside-the-law hacker. Since this story broke, Adrian has received numerous death threats and is in regular contact with the FBI over protective measures.
Then there's Julian Assange, one of the key people behind the infamous Wikileaks Web site. The U.S. government is looking for him. They're still trying to recover the missing diplomatic documents and, apparently, Assange is on the run.
Examining the moral and ethical issues
On one hand, the moral and ethical issues of this story are about as simple as they come. An Army intelligence analyst leaked secrets, those secrets need to be recovered, and the leaker must be punished. Lamo's a hero and Assange is a bad guy.
But there's also another side to this, one that's ethically murky but equally worth consideration. Wikileaks provides a brave and necessary function in our society: they shine light on information that was once hidden in the dark. In many cases, maybe this information should be visible, because we often can't right wrongs until we know about them.
And then there's the soldier, Manning. On one hand, soldiers must follow orders. They must uphold the requirements of their superiors. But what happens when those orders are illegal or horrifying, as they were, for example, in Nazi Germany? Then, the real right action for soldiers is to stand up against those orders, to fight for their fellow citizens, and right the wrongs being perpetrated.
Did Manning think he was righting some wrong? After all, there's been considerable debate about the Iraq war and our conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history.
If Manning thought he was righting some wrong, is he still a traitor? Or is he a hero? To some in the anti-war movement, Manning is a hero. The reality, though, is he's a young man who made the wrong decision.
Make no mistake, it was the wrong decision. Manning is not a hero. By his actions, he's put American lives at stake, potentially derailed worldwide diplomatic efforts, and could cause a war to take a new and potentially even more deadly direction.
What about Julian Assange and Wikileaks? Here, it's a little less clear, because Assange isn't an American citizen nor an American soldier. The purpose of Wikileaks is noble, but with that noble purpose comes responsibility.
If Assange (and his Wikileaks cohorts) believe that anything can and should be posted to Wikileaks, then they're wrong. Some secrets should be kept secret, for the benefit of our civilization. If, for example, we have Americans embedded with terrorist cells, searching for missing fissionable material, "outing" them would not only put those patriots at risk, but potentially entire populations.
It would be wise for Wikileaks to cooperate with American authorities. First, we make potent allies -- and even more potent enemies. But even more to the point, if Wikileaks wants to continue its noble purpose, then it must make value judgments and moral and ethical decisions. To do otherwise wouldn't be noble, it'd simply be fostering chaos for the purpose of fostering chaos.
Finally, Adrian Lamo did exactly the right thing. Adrian's had a difficult life these last few years and I'm sure he would rather he was never placed in the position Manning put him in. But given the emails that arrived on his laptop that fateful day, there was nothing else Lamo could have done, or could have done better.
Tough choices. I'm thinking I'll wear my red, white, and blue T-shirt today.