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The ethics of leaking

October 06, 2006|Kirk O. Hanson and Jerry Ceppos | KIRK O. HANSON is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. E-mail: JERRY CEPPOS, a former vice president/news of Knight Ridder and a former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, is a consultant in San Jose. E-mail: jceppos

THIS WEEK, for the second week in a row, the big news came from a leak. Someone gave ABC News shocking e-mails between Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and congressional pages. Last week, the major story was either the leak of part of the National Intelligence Estimate or the hearings about Hewlett-Packard's invasion-of-privacy case, which started with a leak.

All three stories generated huge quantities of news coverage and babble on talk radio. Lost in the heat was an examination of the ethics of leaks and of leakers. Was the leaker of Foley's e-mail exchange guilty of serious ethical breaches, especially because the messages dealt with sexuality? Did the leak of part of the NIE enlighten all of us or only the terrorists? Did George Keyworth, a longtime member of HP's board, violate confidences and his fiduciary duty by talking to reporters about company business?

The answers can give guidance to others about whether and when to leak information. Is it ever ethical to leak? Is there sometimes an obligation to leak?

The first question a potential leaker should ask himself concerns the status of the information. Is the information classified, proprietary or otherwise protected? Is there a system that clearly considers this information restricted? If so, then the leak must be worth the betrayal.

The second consideration is whether the potential leaker has a specific obligation, legal or ethical, to protect the information, or perhaps has the information only because another person violated an obligation to keep it secret. If either is true, it is a more serious matter to reveal the information.

The third consideration is whether the information is about public or private matters. Information about another's sexual orientation, about private finances or about personal phone calls has more of a claim to privacy than information about a person's actions as a corporate executive or a government official. The difficult cases are those in which the private life of individuals influences their public actions, as in the Foley case.

After the privacy issue comes the most important consideration: the public benefit that would result from a leak and the harm that could be done.

If the leak serves the purely political or self-interest of the leaker, for example Richard Armitage's outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, then it is wrong.

If the leak reveals a government action that is illegal or behavior that harms individuals significantly -- as in the Foley case -- then it can be more easily ethically justified. Sometimes that's a tough call. The New York Times learned about the Bay of Pigs invasion before it happened and famously soft-pedaled the story. President Kennedy supposedly said later: "If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake."

As for assessing the harm, self-interest and self-righteousness can cloud the potential leaker's view of the damage a leak may cause. It's crucial to get another's perspective on what harm will result. Taking the attitude of "the ends always justify the means" is inadequate.

Do these ethical principles help us assess the leaks of the last two weeks?

In the case of Foley, earlier complaints to the authorities and even to newspapers appear not to have worked. Thus, the final set of leaks to other media seem appropriate because they may have stopped behavior that could have caused emotional or physical damage to other young people. In the case of the National Intelligence Estimate, we learned that people in government concluded that the war in Iraq might stoke terrorism. While unsurprising, this conclusion seems important information for Americans, even if it also served political ends.

In the case of Hewlett-Packard, we still don't know if any damage was done by the leaks. On the other hand, Keyworth may have violated a fiduciary duty, and the culture of trust on the board clearly was damaged. But did the leaks justify the methods -- which included impersonating people to gain access to their phone records -- that HP used to track down the culprit? Clearly not -- and five people, including HP's former chairwoman, were charged with felonies Wednesday.

In general, leaks always will be part of a free society, but we need some skepticism about claims that all leaks and leakers are unethical. British Lord Northcliffe had it right when he said that "news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

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