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Gordon Campbell Reviews The General Response To Wikileaks

Gordon Campbell Reviews The General Response To Wikileaks

Surprisingly, there still seem to be a few liberals out there who regard Wikileaks as operating in a morally fraught, grey zone. As if there was something shady, or a back of the bike-sheds taint of irresponsibility to what Wikileaks has done. (For those with no such qualms, please bear with my repetition here of what will seem like the bleedingly obvious.)

Among the myths : (a) that Wikileaks dumped 260,000 diplomatic cables indiscriminately (b) that the entire process of diplomacy and frank official exchanges between nations has been put at risk by the Wikileaks revelations and (c) the allegations about Julian Assange’s sexual morality somehow lessen the validity of what the Wikileaks site that he edits has done. All three points don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Wikileaks did not dump the cables indiscriminately. Initially it released less than 1,500, without getting in front of the vetting processes (regarding the personal safety of named officials, and national security issues) of the news outlets publishing the cables. Even now, less than half the reported 260,000 cables have seen daylight.

As for the impact on diplomatic traffic in future…one could argue instead that the cables should force diplomats to lift their game in future, in that US embassy officials should no longer be able to rely on third hand cocktail circuit chatter for their obligatory missives back to Washington. Furthermore, if the prospect of revelation by Wikileaks does obstruct the capacity of US diplomats from being able to (a) conduct secret wars as the cables reveal has happened in Yemen (see below) or (b) plan to establish secret spy networks in Europe, or (c) lobby friendly local bureaucrats to orchestrate events within their host countries, then so much the better.

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Plainly, Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct has managed to divert some media attention away from the content of the cables. The two things are – or should be – unconnected. Just as Assange’s personal behaviour has no bearing on the validity of what his organisation has revealed, the value of the Wikileaks revelations should equally have no bearing on the outcome of the complaints against him. All one can say is that so far, the vacillating course of the investigation makes it unlikely that a prosecution for rape as the offence is normally understood would succeed. In one of the two incidents, the alleged conflict over consent reportedly turns on whether or not (in the midst of what had hitherto been consensual sex) Assange knowingly proceeded after a condom failure had occurred. In the other incident, consent is reportedly not the issue – it is whether the act involved unprotected sex, which is a (minor) offence under Swedish law.

To Assange’s supporters, his currently-in-dispute extradition to Sweden is part of a shuttle process to enable Assange to be handed onwards to the US to face charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, a relay process that would require the assent of British Prime Minister David Cameron – as the originating country in the extradition shuttle - and Cameron’s decision would also presumably, be open to legal appeal. Even if all the charges being readied against Assange prove groundless – as seems likely – the process will have served the purpose of disrupting the Wikileaks organisation and bleeding its funds in legal fees.

History should remind us that there is nothing new about state -run campaigns to hobble and discredit the messenger. Forty years ago when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the Richard Nixon White House sanctioned a burglary at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in order to gain information about his personal instability that could be used to discredit him.. The strategy of taking personal action against Wikileaks and its informants was set out in a Army Counter-Intelligence US Army report in 2008 :

Web sites such as Wikileaks have trust as their most important centre of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the ‘insider’ leaker or whistleblower. Successful identification, prosecution, termination of employment and exposure of persons leaking the information by the government and by businesses affected by information posted on Wikileaks would damage and potentially destroy this centre of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions. [The quote can be accessed here.]

The Public Interest Test

The critics of the Wikileaks cable releases tend to fall into either of two contradictory camps. One argument says releasing the cables was an outrageous, indefensible act that has done considerable damage to US interests – while the other says that the diplomatic cables contain no evidence of wrong-doing and only tell us what we already knew. Neither contention is true. There are major revelations in the cables, and the public interest clearly over-rides any collateral embarrassment to US diplomatic interests.

How so? During 2010, the two main installments of material released by Wikileaks have been (a) the Apache helicopter attack footage from Iraq and (b) the release of the diplomatic cables. In both cases a clear public interest has been served and is easy to demonstrate. The Apache helicopter footage showed the killings of innocent people in Iraq and the callous disregard for their deaths by the people responsible – and the footage retrospectively invalidated the cover-up explanation for the deaths. Few of Assange’s critics have tried to attack him on this front. The evidence is too appalling to contradict.

As for the cables, three examples will suffice. As the columnist Glenn Greenwald has shown on his Salon site, the Wikileaks cables contain evidence of a secret war being waged by the US in Yemen, despite official denials, and despite claims in 2009 by Yemeni government officials in the New York Times that Yemeni aircraft, and not US planes, had carried out the relevant attacks.

Secondly, the Guardian has released cable information this week about the US plan for retaliation against EU countries that oppose trade in GM food. The same cables also show that US diplomats targeted the Vatican to achieve papal support to over-ride the opposition to GM crops being expressed by Catholic bishops in developing countries. In the process, US diplomats championed the interests of Monsanto and pressed to lower the trade barriers contained within Europe’s biotechnology laws. Again, the European public needs to know about this – and so does the public of any ‘clean, green’ country naively seeking to engage in trade pacts with the Americans. Thirdly, the Wikileaks cables revealed that Spain’s politicians came under pressure from the Obama administration to compromise their judicial system - ie, by blocking a proposed court case against the George W. Bush legal team that was being mounted by five tortured Guantanamo Bay detainees :

Civil rights attorney Michael Ratner, whose Center for Constitutional Rights has championed Guantánamo detainee rights, called the cables taken together ``quite dramatic….The U.S. prides itself on our own independent judiciary,'' Ratner said. ``But here you have the hypocrisy of the U.S. government trying to influence an independent judicial system to bend its laws and own rules. And it's the Obama administration doing it to protect Bush people,'' he said.

So much for claims that the content is humdrum, and contains nothing of note.

The Methodology Criticism

Much mileage has been made of the fact that Wikileaks was publishing ‘stolen’ property – as if that was somehow detracted from the actual content. In reality, the Wikileaks provision of an outlet for whistle blowers and for the release of classified information deemed to be of public interest is no different to what good journalism routinely does, and/or should be doing far more often.

It is hard to see how the Wikileaks use of Private Bradley Manning’s access to the diplomatic cables differs substantially for instance, from Woodward and Bernstein using FBI agent Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) as a whistleblower during the Watergate saga. Or how it differs from Bob Woodward’s privileged access these days to White House staffers (and to his being told stuff by them that he shouldn’t know) and then writing about it afterwards. With Wikileaks, the results have been far more transparent, and laudably open to analysis and to alternative conclusions.

Yet as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, Woodward is not being painted - as Assange is - as something akin to a terrorist. Nor are the bank accounts of Woodward’s publishers being frozen. Nor is Woodward facing prosecution as Assange may be under the US Espionage Act (1917) - an ancient piece of US legislation framed to combat the Kaiser’s fellow travcllers and to silence critics of US involvement in WW1.

Again, this looks more like financial harassment to bleed Wikileaks of funds, than a legal strategy with a realistic hope of success in court. An attempt was made to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg in the 1970s under the same statute, but this was thrown out of court. Thanks to Ellsberg, the legal barrier against the US government’s ability to suppress alleged state secrets has been set dauntingly high. Basically, it can readily criminalise the leakers, but not the publishers.

The Torture of Pvte. Bradley

In the wake of the Wikileaks revelations, the US corporate world has put itself at the service of the US government, and tried to limit the public’s ability to donate to Wikileaks. In essence, Visa, Amazon, PayPal etc have chosen to block funding for an arm of the Fourth Estate that has committed no crime, and that has not even been charged with one before an American court. Similarly Private Bradley Manning - the reported source of the most contentious Wikileaks material - has also not as yet been charged with any offence in a US civilian court. Yet without being so charged, Manning has been confined for over six months in solitary confinement in conditions that as this article explains – amount to psychological torture.

Some commentators have concluded that Bradley is being put under intense psychological pressure to crack, and then to accept a plea bargain based on Bradley agreeing to testify for the prosecution in a ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’ case against Assange.

Reportedly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Torture Convention has agreed to investigate a complaint that Manning’s treatment constitutes torture.

The question of how and why Bradley was arrested by the US authorities has been the subject of a recent bitter exchange between Glenn Greenwald at Salon, and Wired magazine. What is not in dispute is that Bradley was turned in to the FBI by Adrian Lamo, a former convicted hacker and long time associate of Kevin Poulsen of Wired.

Currently, we are reliant on Lamo for how and why Bradley first contacted Lamo back in May of last year. Yet as Greenwald has pointed out, Lamo has now given several contradictory versions to the media of how this encounter came about – and therefore, Greenwald has called on Lamo and his friends at Wired to release the chat logs they hold that contain the information that would verify which of Lamo’s various versions if any, is true. Greenwald’s initial analysis last June of the Lamo/Bradley relationship is here.

Last month, Wired replied (not very convincingly, IMHO) to Greenwald’s criticisms of their journalistic ethics here.

Greenwald’s devastating rebuttal to Wired’s comments can be found here.

The relevance of the Lamo chat logs is that their (as-yet unreleased 75 % of ) content is likely to not only reveal the exploitation of Bradley – at the time, a scared, isolated 22 year old whistle blower on duty in Iraq – by someone who seems to have promised him confidentiality and support on one hand, while then colluding to turn him in. The full logs also seem likely to contain relevant information about Bradley’s working relationship with Assange, relevant to any subsequent court action against the Wikileaks editor. As things stand, Wired’s continued refusal to release the relevant chat log information that it holds is looking more and more indefensible.

As Greenwald has pointed out, what has been released to date from the Lamo/Bradley chat logs, indicates that an entirely appropriate arms length relationship existed between Bradley and Assange. Moreover, Bradley’s own motives appear to have been those of a classic whistle blower :

Lamo: what's your endgame plan, then?. . .

Manning: well, it was forwarded to [WikiLeaks] - and god knows what happens now - hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms - if not, than [sic] we're doomed - as a species - i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens - the reaction to the video gave me immense hope; CNN's iReport was overwhelmed; Twitter exploded - people who saw, knew there was something wrong . . . - i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

Bradley seems to have been radicalized by his experience of US operations in Iraq and in particular, by what he saw of the treatment of Iraqis handed over for interrogation. He now faces up to 60 years in jail for exposing how his government routinely goes about its business.

Not many people advocate total transparency. There should always be debate about where the line needs to be drawn. Obviously though after 9/11, those boundaries were vastly expanded, and – arguably - Wikileaks has emerged to provide a welcome and necessary corrective to that trend. In the process though the interesting thing is that it has aroused the ire not only of governments, but of many journalists who had willingly signed up to the cult of secrecy. It has become seen as a mark of maturity and responsibility that certain things should be kept hidden from the public – and ongoing access to political sources has come to depend on the evidence of such discretion, even – in some cases - if it means turning the media into a conduit for government spin and disinformation. Glenn Greenwald again, spelled this out in his Wired rebuttal :

Journalism in the United States has become at least as much about preserving secrets as it is uncovering them. Reporters routinely grant anonymity to government officials to spout all sorts of falsehoods -- from the gossipy to the consequential -- while shielding those officials from accountability. Numerous media stars for years knew the key facts of the Libby case but withheld them even as they purported to "report" the story. The New York Times sat on the NSA story for a year -- until Bush was safely re-elected -- because the President told them not to publish it….

That's what so much "journalism" now is : a means of shielding secrets from the public. We're a society in which media and political elites keep secrets compulsively with one another -- doing that is one of the hallmarks of membership in those circles -- and there are thus plenty of people trained to believe that Good, Responsible People keep substantive secrets from the public. It's the same mentality that has spawned the hostile reaction to WikiLeaks: people are happy -- grateful even -- when institutions keep substantive information from them.

In that respect, new technologies guru Clay Shirky likens Wikileaks in this post to the 16th century rebels against Catholic religious orthodoxy :

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

Unlike the United States’ current pursuit of Wikileaks…. The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. In the US, however, the government has a “heavy burden”, in the words of the Supreme Court, for engaging in prior restraint of even secret documents, an established principle since New York Times Co. vs. The United States, when the Times published the Pentagon Papers. If we want a different answer for Wikileaks, we need a different legal framework first….

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change.”

It is not OK, Shirky concludes, for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing,

Footnotes :

Next week : A review of some of the New Zealand cables

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