Does Judaism have any thoughts on press issues such as the Wikileaks fiasco? In Jewish thought, when does freedom of the press and the public's right to know become a security threat?
This issue has come up again recently with the arrest and trial of Julian Assange, and other leaks of other government documents from various sources. What does Judaism say about this?
You have asked a great question! Healthy human relationships are predicated upon a principle of trust. Whenever someone tells you something of a personal nature, it is with the understanding that you will not violate that confidence. Whether a person is a physician, lawyer, or clergy—the world of interpersonal relationships requires that people treat one another in a trustworthy manner. The same principle applies to nation states as well.
When examining the question of revealing secrets, the ancient Judaic philosopher named Ben Sira offered these practical remarks almost 2200 years ago.
Cursed be gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. A meddlesome tongue subverts many and makes them refugees among the peoples. It destroys walled cities, and overthrows powerful dynasties. A meddlesome tongue can drive virtuous women from their homes and rob them of the fruit of their toil. Whosoever heeds it has no rest, nor can he dwell in peace. A blow from a whip raises a welt, but a blow from the tongue smashes bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as by the tongue. 
Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks is an Internet organization that specializes in revealing the hidden secrets most governments prefer to keep hidden. His website began in 2006 and it has produced over 1.2 million documents. There is hardly a country anywhere that has not been embarrassed in one manner of another.
Halachic literature has much to say on this topic. The Talmud mentions that when someone reveals a confidential matter to another, it should not be disclosed unless the person it involves gives express permission .
* Early Halachic Discussions
In the early medieval period, Rabbanu Gershom (ca. 9th century) decreed that anyone who reads the mail of another is subject to excommunication . The principle applies no less to stealing trade secrets as well. According to another Talmudic passage, respecting one’s personal privacy applies no less to the people living in one’s home! R. Akiba warned his son, “My son, don’t even suddenly enter your own home, and certainly not the home of your fellow, without any forewarning.”  Some midrashic texts suggest this is why the High Priest used to wear bells on his garments so that his arrival might not frighten the priests while they were carrying out their priestly duties.
But is revealing information always forbidden? Not necessarily. Sometimes one has a moral imperative to discover confidential information when the evidence is necessary for preventing a serious crime.  This applies no less to opening a letter is considered permitted when the intention is to prevent a crime from taking place.
* The Slippery Slope
This depends upon the circumstances. Jonathan Pollard revealed information to Israel about Sadaam Hussein’s plan to build a nuclear reactor. This was information that the United States State Department was legally bound to share with Israel, but chose not to. Israel used the information to destroy the nuclear reactors, but Pollard is serving a life sentence for committing “treason,” when in reality he was guilty of spying for a friendly nation.
In the end, Pollard’s disclosure probably saved millions of lives from being harmed. There are shades of gray that are not easily discernible. If the information being conveyed serves a positive purpose as it did in the Pollard situation, a case could be made that revealing such information is permitted and even necessary.
On the other hand, if one’s motivation is merely to embarrass a country’s leaders, then the motivation is vindictive in nature and can only cause ill feelings between nation states. Gratuitous truth telling can be very dangerous to innocent people and the Wikileaks information has resulted in the death of innocent lives. Such behavior is immoral and Julian Assange is responsible for the unintended moral consequences of his disclosures.
The ancient philosopher Buddha expresses a similar thought, “Words have the power to destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”
 Ben Sira 28:13-18
 BT Yoma 4b. However, the great early 20th century moralist, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a.k.a. “Hafetz Hayyim” went one step further—one must not even reveal potentially damaging information even when it is about oneself either.
There is a famous story of how the Hafetz Hayim was once riding on a train to the city of Minsk and across from him sat a young rabbinical student, who was studying the Hafetz Hayim’s famous ethical tract on the Laws of Gossip. Unbeknownst that he was sitting next to the author of the book, they started chatting with one another. The young man said, “The famous Hafetz Hayim is a brilliant Sage!” The old pious rabbi demurred, “I don’t think he is particularly brilliant.” The young man countered, “Not only is he brilliant, he is also extremely pious!” The old sage demurred once again, “I personally know him, and I can personally attest he is not so ‘pious.’” The young student got angry and slapped the old rabbi in the face, “How dare you insult the Gadol HaDor—the greatest Sage of our generation?!” And they parted in Minsk. Later that evening the Hafetz Hayim gave a lecture on the Laws of Gossip. In the crowd listening was the young student. After the lecture, he went up to the saintly rabbi and begged for forgiveness, “I did not know who you really were…” The pious sage replied, “It is I who should ask you for forgiveness. You taught me a valuable lesson. Not only is one forbidden to speak disparagingly about others, one is not allowed to speak disparagingly about oneself as well!
 “Enactments of Rabbenu Gershom Meʾor ha-Golah,” quoted in Resp.Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, p. 160a.
 BT Pesaḥim 112a.
 The Mishnah of Sanhedrin 7:10 states that if someone wants to incriminate a person of the crime of idolatry, one may hide the witnesses and solicit the information from the culprit, who would ordinarily deny it in a court of law. According to the Minchat Hinnukh, this method may be done with any crime and evidently carried out in Jewish courts across Europe, (Rabbi Joseph Babad, Minḥat Ḥinnukh, Commandment #462). Cf. Joseph David, Resp.Bet David, I, Yoreh Deah 158.
 Ḥayyim Palache, Resp.Ḥikekei Lev, I, Yoreh Deah 49.
In Judaism, we are forbidden to read another person’s private mail without her permission.The ban was formalized for Ashkenazic Jews approximately one thousand years ago in a decree issued by Rabbeinu Gershom, “the Light of the Exile,” who also is famous for having issued the decree that outlawed polygamy among Ashkenazim.This ban is listed among others of his decrees in note 123 of the Be’er HaGolah footnotes to Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 334:28.That notation adds that the private correspondence may be read if the recipient or writer threw it away, thus abandoning willful ownership or possession.Among the reasons posited for the ban, some believe that reading another’s private correspondence constitutes stealing something of value from them.Others perceive that it implicates the laws of r’khilut and lashon horo (tale-bearing and gossip).Having been issued a thousand years ago, when daily commercial relations with non-Jews were more suspect, it could be surmised at first glance that Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban might not have been intended to govern protecting the confidentiality of private correspondence of non-Jews, but normative Torah interpretation of the ban recognizes that a Jew likewise is forbidden to breach the privacy of non-Jews’ correspondence.
Under a second critical concept – dina d’malkhuta dina (“the law of the land is the law”) – Jews are obligated to honor the secular laws of the government in the countries where we respectively live, and to conform our behavior to those laws where the given laws are not uniquely conceived as anti-Jewish in purpose.Many American states have laws protecting privacy.In California, for example, the state supreme court held in its landmark decision, Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 7 Cal. 4th 1, 26 Cal. Rptr. 2d 834 (1994), that a person’s privacy is protected from invasion when she has a reasonable expectation of privacy, where a legally protected privacy interest is implicated, and where there has been a serious invasion, although the defendant can overcome the allegation if he can show that his invasion was impelled by a legitimate countervailing interest.Even more compelling, American federal law unequivocally forbids stealing, transmitting, or otherwise disclosing secret or classified information without permission.Under 18 U.S.C. § 793(e), “Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit, or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it . . . [s]hall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”
In volume two of his published series on Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Rav J. David Bleich cites a published opinion by Rav David Halevi, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, that the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom does not apply in the event that it would prevent someone from performing a mitzvah.Thus, perhaps a spiritual mentor or parent could monitor a student’s or child’s communications, in certain outlier situations, to assure the young person’s proper moral or spiritual development.However, even if one were to attempt justifying the Wikileaks disclosures on the ground that it is a righteous deed to disclose questionable diplomatic practices, we nevertheless revert squarely again within dina d’malkhuta dina, that the law of the land – e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) – is the law.
Within the American Jewish community, this question has carried particular significance during the twenty-five years since Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to prison for espionage, after disclosing secret American intelligence communications to Israel, an American ally.Despite the increasing call within the organized Jewish community for Pollard’s release from prison for reasons ranging from the disproportionate length of his incarceration to injustices perpetrated against him at the time of his sentencing, those calls typically ask for his life sentence to be commuted, not that his conviction be pardoned, because Jewish law prohibits disclosing private communications to an unintended recipient without the author’s permission, perhaps unless the author has abandoned the material.Espionage is a crime that violates that law, and it is not a defense that the secret communications were transmitted to a source with whom America is allied.
In the case of Wikileaks, unauthorized individuals apparently have purloined and transmitted secret government documents for mass display and publication without authorization.These publications may endanger the lives of American secret intelligence agents operating overseas in dangerous places, compromise American intelligence resources, strategies and operations, and even deter allies from working secretly in the future with American intelligence in the fear that America cannot protect her national defense secrets.Jewish law cannot accept such behavior and, consistent with principles stemming from Rabbeinu Gershom’s decree as well as the overriding legal principle that the law of the land is the law, would deem the Wikileaks transmissions to be criminal behavior properly punishable as the governmentsees fit.
Let us remember that Wikileaks is modern phenomenon that would not have been possible until the era of the computer. The concept of the public’s right to know did not arise until the passage of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. While spies certainly appear in the TaNaKH, the issue of information leaking out and becoming a security threat certainly does not.
That having been said, Scripture certainly does raise the issue of wrongful death. We have no information of that happening as a result of Wikileaks.
To sum up, evaluating Wikileaks can not possibly take place for years, or possibly decades. We Jews, a people that has existed for millennia are by both our experience and our essence to take the long view of history.
Copyright 2020 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.