WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Reuters Oct 23, 2010
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks during a news conference on the internet release of secret documents about the Iraq War, in London October 23, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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The WikiLeaks release of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents related to American fighting in Iraq is not just a domestic American matter. The documents, which showed that the United States covered up Iraqi security forces' torturing of prisoners and hid the true facts about civilian casualties during combat, should not just be stirring up the emotions of those who were directly involved.

The lesson of the release of documents, which has been dubbed "the biggest leak in history," relates not just to the unacceptable nature of the acts committed in wartime, which, it must be hoped, will now be investigated even though the United States is involved. The bigger lesson - which applies to many countries, including Israel, is that it is no longer possible to prevent the release of information concerning illegal activities by soldiers in wartime, or by those who have power and authority in other realms.

Throughout the democratic world, not to mention other forms of government, armies do anything they can to hide embarrassing information. This is done not infrequently by limiting media coverage of wartime activities, creating a conspiracy of silence among those involved, and issuing indictments in leak cases, even when that's unnecessary. In Israel, the military censor has sometimes been used for such purposes, even if there is no real certainty that state security could be harmed.

In the Internet age, efforts by the authorities that reflect the view that information belongs to those in power are doomed to fail. Too many resources are invested in covering up information, even though it cannot be altogether prevented from flowing freely.

A widely accepted thesis against the freedom of information holds that leaders are prevented from making appropriate decisions when the public is informed. But the truth is that as long as it would not pose a real danger to state security or other essential interests, the free flow of information ensures that decision-makers don't make inappropriate decisions or take measures that disproportionately impair human dignity.

Democracy has one hand tied behind its back, retired Supreme Court president Aharon Barak has said. And that's as it should be. The flow of information strengthens democracy.