I'm hoping putting "wikileaks" in the title of my blog post will prevent anyone in the government from reading it. UPDATED

The current hoopla over the latest gigantic stock of documents made public by Wikileaks is remarkable for a number of reasons, but there are two I find especially interesting. One is that the current divulgation of more than a quarter of a million diplomatic cables has been met with an exponentially higher level of political outrage and media attention than resulted from their significant releases of US military documents over the last year. Even the devastating "Collateral Murder" video demonstrating an American helicopter crew's callous and casual disregard for Iraqi life made only a small ripple in the general consciousness in comparison to "cablegate." Are the diplomatic cables just the proverbial  straw breaking the camel's back? Or is there something fundamentally different about the diplomatic cables versus the military papers? The other interesting aspect of the current episode is the pseudo-Chinese attempt at censorship on the part of my government, unequivocally totalitarian in its effort, and entirely retrograde in its willful ignorance of the realities of the very digital information technology that makes Wikileaks possible.

Profiled in the New Yorker as recently as last June, Julian Assange, the public face and founder of Wikileaks, expressed his frustration that journalists had not done the necessary legwork to exploit previous leaks. Cablegate represents an evolution of Wikileaks' strategy; unsatisfied with the muckraking impact obtained by simply leaking the documents, the organization seems now actively to be assisting the media in finding the stories buried within these vast piles of digital paper. The Guardian, and the New York Times through them, as well as Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais (interesting that the chosen outlets are all in staunch western democracies, but that's probably a subject for another time) are described as Wikileaks' "media partners," and in this round of leaks they were given access to the documents well in advance of their release to the public via Wikileaks.org.

This strategy may have something to do with the extraordinary level of attention being paid to Cablegate, but equally important is the way that people choose their news. The internet lets people decide exactly what they want to read, and the fascination with the cables is not unrelated to our celebrity obsession. Depending on your perspective, war in Iraq and Afghanistan is either a horrifying misuse of American power or a necessary but unpleasant part of the global struggle against Islamic terror. Either way, there's nothing remotely sexy about its inner workings. We don't know the people involved, and we are apparently numb to the spectacle. Not so #cablegate, in which the personality quirks of famous world leaders are revealed and analyzed. Sarkozy, we learn, really is a shallow egomaniac, vulnerable to flattery. Putin and Berlusconi are not only gangsters, in case you didn't know, but they're close buddies, gangsters bro'. René Preval really is aloof and introverted and probably drinks too much. (Okay, he's not exactly Brad Pitt on the celebritometer, but he is the president of Haiti). We love imagining what the iron-jawed and un-cuddly Hillary Clinton is saying in all those apologetic telephone calls she's been making to offended world leaders.

Rather more interesting and much more disheartening is the US government's response, which seems to me to be a sort of China-lite, #fail, attempt at closing the barn door after the cattle have long since left for the pasture. Pressure on Assange and Wikileaks has come in every imaginable form, from leaning on the private sector in an attempt to cut off funding by getting them booted off of Paypal and inspiring Amazon to stop hosting the website to personal attacks in the form of an extraordinarily coordinated international smear campaign which has in recent months made Assange's name virtually synonymous with the word "rape." (Assange might make for an icky bedroom playmate, but in the rare story that actually presents some of the details of the Swedish "case," it hardly sounds like he's a rapist. And even this story has a misleading headline).

The flacks so deftly coordinating the smear campaign must be not be the same ones handling PR for the government, which has issued directives that federal agencies should prevent employees from accessing Wikileaks. Apparently if you are at the Library of Congress, preserver of the word and the freedom of it, you'll find that their computers no longer offer access to Wikileaks. The fatuous justification for this authoritarian Cuba-style nonsense is essentially the government saying "the documents are still classified until we say they aren't, (and we're going to take our basketball home with us and so nanny boo-boo, there will be no game)." And this regardless of whether or not they have been published or discussed in the New York Times or already exist as torrent files on hundreds of hacktivist hard drives. This is embarrassment mitigation? How embarrassing. The USA certainly must know that there is no putting this cat back in the bag; Assange just asserted that he has already sent out 100,000 encrypted copies of the entire archive, just in case anything foul should befall him. He does that with the press of a button. Welcome to digital distribution.

The frontal assault on the First Amendment just makes us look like floundering incompetents who don't practice what we preach. The whole situation is reminiscent of our new-millenium lack of credibility when it comes to condemning torture; it's a challenge to present your nation as the guiding moral light in a dark and savage world while at the same time preventing librarians from reading the same documents that are on the front page of the world's leading papers. I don't often find myself standing on the same soapbox as Ron Paul, but as he wrote yesterday in a rather poorly articulated tweet, "In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble."

Welcome to the globalization of information. We'd love to grab Assange for treason, except he isn't American. Also there's another major problem, which is that he doesn't appear to have done anything illegal. The US Attorney has dredged up the constitutionally questionable  "Espionage Act" of 1917, which was most successfully used to prosecute unsavory socialists ninety years ago, and which makes it a crime to pass along information with intent to damage the United States. I'm not a lawyer, but anything Assange and Wikileaks have done, the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais and so on have also done. (As recently as last April he was here, and on the Colbert report. If you want a litmus test of how successfully he has been rebranded as a criminal and a pariah, consider how long it is likely to be before Assange is able to sit for another relaxed chat in a major American television studio). The key to the ongoing persecution (not prosecution) of Assange lies in the multi-pronged attack. As long as the "rape" flag can be held flapping in the breeze at the top of the flagpole, nobody needs to engage with whether the leaks themselves are in any way criminal. Despite ongoing attempts to conflate the crime represented by the original theft of the documents with Wikileaks' subsequent dissemination of them, it seems pretty clear that no laws have been violated.

The problem, perhaps, is the unprecedented scale of these leaks, a biproduct of our digital age. In the traditional model, the budding investigative journalist prays for the day when an anonymous disgruntled insider will hand over to them that one single piece of paper that is proof of nefarious government or corporate activity. Nobody goes after them, except perhaps the evildoer. This is the stuff Pulitzer prizes are made of, and it is in exactly this fashion that wrongs from Watergate to Abu Ghraib have historically been exposed. This is why transparency is to be prized. Someone sent Wikileaks 250,000 potential revelations, instead of just one, and they published them. If you're upset about it, go get the leaker. To assault Assange because he created Wikileaks is like refusing to build a bridge because someone might jump off of it.

UPDATE: Assange turned himself in to British authorities today, December 7th to face the Swedish allegations. Here is the hilarious 20th paragraph of the New York Times story:

The charges involve sexual encounters that two women say began as consensual but became nonconsensual after Mr. Assange was no longer using a condom. Mr. Assange has denied any wrongdoing and suggested that the charges were trumped up in retaliation for his WikiLeaks work, though there is no public evidence to suggest a connection.

Assange is being arrested based on morning-after remorse, what we might call "retroactively nonconsensual sex," or "uncomfortable breakfast syndrome." But what's really amusing about this 'graph is the second sentence. Even the most poker-faced of press secretaries would be incapable of denying "that the charges were trumped up in retaliation for his WikiLeaks work" without bursting into giggles. Isn't demanding "public evidence" of the connection a potent argument for the very work of leaking that Assange is dedicated to?

In their editorial about the leaks, El Pais seems to agree with me that the significant difference between these and prior leaks is just a matter of scale. "There is no historical precedent for this in term of scope," they write. And: "We are, in a sense, freer now than we were before, which is as much as journalism can hope to achieve."

1 comment:

Dr. Ontology said...

Awesome post Richard. I couldn't agree more. The trumped up "rape" charges, and the fact that no media organization from NPR to the NYTimes actually divulges the relevant facts of the case (two women who had one-night stands with Assange in quick succession who discovered each other, a broken condom, and worries about STDs), is really frustrating. With respect to the NYTimes; talk about back-stabbers -- they take Wikileaks' goodies and then turn around and stick a knife in Assange's back.