Yesterday's disclosure that British police helped the Portuguese police “develop the evidence” against Madeleine McCann's parents at the time they were made formal suspects, arguidos, in 2007 comes as no great surprise, but it raises new concerns about the workings of WikiLeaks.
The disclosure was contained in a diplomatic cable marked “confidential” sent by the US Ambassador to Lisbon, Al Hoffman, two weeks after the Portuguese police named the McCanns as formal suspects. WikiLeaks made the cable available to the Guardian and other newspapers.
In the final analysis, the leaked cable adds little to the gargantuan fund of factual information, speculation, fantasies and hogwash that have piled up since Madeleine went missing on 7 May 2007. Even so, it sheds a touch of insight into shared police findings.
In a cable dated 21 September 2007, Ambassador Hoffman said he had spoken about the McCann case during a meeting with his British counterpart, Alex Ellis. Hoffman wrote: “Madeleine McCann's disappearance in the south of Portugal in May 2007 has generated international media attention with controversy surrounding the Portuguese-led police investigation and the actions of Madeleine's parents
"Without delving into the details of the case, Ellis admitted that the British police had developed the current evidence against the McCann parents, and he stressed that authorities from both countries were working co-operatively."
In one of two cables mentioning the McCanns, Ambassador Hoffman quoted Ambassador Ellis as saying "that the media frenzy was to be expected and was acceptable as long as government officials keep their comments behind closed doors"
The cables did not specify what evidence British police had gathered, or whether UK investigators were involved in the decision to name the McCanns as formal suspects. At the time, it was the Portuguese police who took all the stick in the British press for making the McCanns arguidos.
The Guardian reported yesterday: “The comments attributed to the ambassador appear to contradict the widespread perception at the time that Portuguese investigators were the driving force behind the treatment of the McCanns as suspects in the case.”
Said the Daily Mail: “The comments suggest British police had a far greater role in the investigation of the McCanns than has previously been thought.”
In the past, British and Portuguese newspapers have widely reported that the British authorities had substantial involvement in the investigation. For example, a British sniffer dog was said to have picked up the scent of a dead body in the Praia da Luz apartment used by the holidaying McCann family. The Forensic Science Service in the UK analysed material sent to Britain by Portuguese police but British scientists warned that DNA tests on a sample from a hire car used by the McCanns were inconclusive.
Responding yesterday to the latest leak, a spokesman for the McCanns brushed it off as “an entirely historic note”. He said that Kate and Gerry had their arguido status lifted “with the Portuguese authorities making it perfectly clear that there was absolutely no evidence to implicate them in Madeleine's disappearance.”
The couple's lawyer in Portugal, Rogério Alves, said nothing new had emerged to justify re-opening the investigation.
An official response yesterday from the British Embassy did not mention the McCanns. The Embassy statement said: “We condemn any unauthorised release of classified information, just as we condemn leaks of classified material in the UK. They can damage national security, are not in the national interest and may put lives at risk. We have a very strong relationship with the US Government. That will continue.”
Almost everyone will agree with a remark by Portugal's President Aníbal Cavaco Silva. “There is one thing that surprises me,” he said. “How can a country like the United States have a security system that is ultimately so fragile that it allows confidential and secret telegrams from ambassadors in all parts of the world to become accessible in this way? That for me is the big surprise.”
Meanwhile, what is taxing many minds is not the mass of diverse diplomatic material so far revealed by WikiLeaks, but WikiLeaks itself and how far this new form of journalism is prepared to go. Disclosures about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and remarks made by and about various world leaders are one thing, but here was WikiLeaks revealing information about a private conversation about a confidential police investigation into a highly sensitive case about a missing child.
Is this sort of thing right or wrong? Is it morally good or bad?
Can we expect WikiLeaks, or their imitator successors, to move from archived diplomatic cables to current criminal dossiers, personal health reports or other intimate records about ordinary citizens? Where will it end? Will anything at all remain off-limits in future?
The Institute for Global Ethics, an independent organisation with offices in the US, Canada and the UK, contends in an article just published that by pitting truth against honesty, WikiLeaks yanks us between two of the most powerful moral propositions within any democracy.
“On one hand stands our devotion to transparency and the free flow of truth; on the other lies our pledge of allegiance to issues of privacy and confidentiality. Taken to extremes, both propositions can run us off the rails.”
Tyrants and anarchists thrive in extreme situations but so far we’re not operating at extremes, writes Dr Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute. “WikiLeaks isn’t creating wholesale anarchy, and Western democracies aren’t being run by tyrants. In fact, we’re still in the moral middle range, where a genuine ethical case can be made for both transparency and secrecy.”
But WikiLeaks raises other “right-versus-right” dilemmas such as individuals versus community, short term versus long term and justice versus mercy, says Dr Kidder.
“Which of these moral arguments should prevail? Which is right? Searching for answers, we trip over two competing trends. One reminds us that public distrust in government is at historically high levels. That’s fertile ground for WikiLeaks' seeds to take root. The other reminds us that our most effective weapon against terrorism (which is also on the rise) is the clandestine gathering and analysis of intelligence. That’s ample reason for public revulsion against WikiLeaks.”