An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

It would be very easy for me to quote your own words back at you on the subject of free speech, on the importance of the free flow of information, on your commitment to the constitutional rights of your citizens and on the crucial need for transparency in government. You’ve said a lot of important things. Worthy things. But you said them, so there’s no need to remind you.

What I’d rather do is appeal to your principles, your ethics and your understanding of the mechanics and the spirit of the Constitution of your country.  It is a unique document. It forms a contract between the people and its government that is unlike any other in the world. Woven into its very fabric is the mechanism by which the citizens of your nation can bring down a government that commits wrongdoings or abuses its power. This mechanism is not functional without a free press. I know you are an extremely intelligent and thoughtful man. I am absolutely positive that you understand exactly how the erosion of freedom of speech can turn your unique democracy into something far darker and totalitarian.

How is it that a person such as yourself can, in the space of two years in power, go from being a passionate supporter of free speech to a person who would seek to curtail it? Because, if the US attempts to prosecute Wikileaks, this is exactly what you will have done.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I don’t mean to suggest that you are corrupt but that, once in the seat of power, your perceptions have become corrupted by exposure the culture that two years in the Whitehouse can bring. Once people get into power, it becomes very difficult for them not to prioritize the task of holding on to power above all other things. Please consider the possibility that this may have happened to you, just a little.

I am sure that the diplomatic cables leaked by Private Manning and made available to the world via the internet through Wikileaks would be viewed as a dire issue by any government. But you have the person who illegally leaked these documents in custody and you have legitimate legal channels through which to prosecute him.

On June 30, 1971, in a 6 to 3 landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found against the government and in favour of the New York Times concerning the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. These were judges you would have been very happy to see on the Supreme Court today. They were good people of good conscience.

As a civil rights lawyer, as a senior lecturer in constitutional law you of all people know exactly what the systemic impact and the historical ramifications of prosecuting Wikileaks could be. Please don’t forget your origins, your accomplishments, and the vision that drove you to run for president.

Wikileaks has also given you important information: there are a lot of disgruntled people in your military and individuals with surprisingly low levels of rank and clearance have access to information you consider classified. Now you know the vulnerability of your systems. Good, you can legitimately take steps to fix that.

But prosecuting Wikileaks will lead to a worldwide perception that the United States of America is a hypocritical power who only protects a free press and the free flow of information when it suits them. It will mark you as a President who took significant steps to erode the very unique democracy you live in.

Please don’t be that president. The second half of Acton’s quote – the part that is rarely quoted – is this: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Please don’t be a great man; just be a good man. This is truly what your country needs of you.