In the spirit of approaching topics as timeless rather than topical, we're posting these musings on the Wikileaks phenomenon now that the hysteria has died and the issue can be evaluated without the noise brought about by the frenzy of timely reporting. The impetus was born from a comment made in this discussion between Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Matt Welch of Reason magazine. Greenwald mentions near the beginning that the topic had become a proxy for exposing people's worldview. Is this true of any topic or does this particular issue uniquely expose fault lines? I have no answer for that. But here are a few perspectives on the still relevant issue of Wikileaks. This should serve to jumpstart the conversation. We're curious to hear what you think.
If you know me at all, you’ll not be too terribly surprised when I state outright that I am suspicious of power and authority. In fact, I believe the old saw about power corrupting to be about the closest thing to a universal truth humans have yet uncovered – gravity coming in a very close second, mind you.
Our governments, whether liberal or authoritarian, popularly elected or installed by force of arms rarely, if ever, have our best interests at heart. That may seem a tad harsh or even dangerous, but hell, it's hard to convince me otherwise when a simple browse through the list of deceit and diversions generated by my own sitting government (Canada in this case) is so lengthy. Granted, much of it is relatively inconsequential, but if a government is willing to purposefully deceive its population to avoid embarrassment or difficult questions about relatively trivial matters, what more would they be willing to keep secret?
Indeed, the fury with which governments around the world reacted to the Wikileaks exposures simply re-affirms the propensity of those in power to have as a default setting: secrecy. I had thought however, that in a liberal-democracy at least, the government is representative, engaged in doing the people’s business. They are acting for us. And yet, so very quickly and reflexively are our leaders willing to claim some proprietary ownership over information that should, by all rights, be ours, public and open to scrutiny.
That being said, there are probably some things that need to be kept secret. The names of confidential informants in foreign countries, of locals cooperating with our governments and militaries, translators and their families, these are all things that may – justifiably and without much controversy to be sure –remain beyond the common knowledge of a country’s citizenry. But this sort of thing is more of an issue of editing (or lack thereof) than of much else.
That we can’t trust our governments to be, shall we say, forthcoming, with everything they do in our names has been known for some time. Thus we have this idea of a free press being more or less entrenched in any relatively well-functioning, democratic society. Hell, it’s even right there in the American Constitution!
And yet, in the past decades as older industrial models of social organisation have been undermined and replaced by newer information technologies, we have seen a profound breakdown in the ability of the press to keep our governments if not totally accountable, then at least on their toes. This, alongside the 9/11 attacks and the resultant War on Terror, has been used to led us down a dark garden path towards a culture of security and, in particular, secrecy .
Project Censored produces an annual list of the 25 most under-reported news stories of the year with a clear eye on holding the corporate media (what remains of it that is) to account for their complicity in our growing obedience to the justification of national security as a catch-all for keeping us animals in the dark. We are groping our way blindly. And now, instead on demanding that the lights be switched back on, we increasingly accept it when our governments tell us the lights need to remain off, that that which surrounds us is too scary, too dangerous, too complex for us to see; we wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly understand.
There are many issues that I’m sure can be raised against Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organisation, but they are at least attempting to step into a dangerously empty space in the democratic west that was once occupied by a much more robust professional press core. They are looking for the light switch that will turn the lights back on.
Wikileaks is mostly the inevitable response to this growing culture of secrecy. And the answer is not to assassinate Mr Assange (as some have suggested!), nor is it to become more secretive, it is simply to have fewer secrets.
Andrew is a curmudgeon who is finishing his Masters degree in Urban Studies and is planning to build and rule his own city if he can cobble together the resources.
My inclination when it comes to WikiLeaks is to look at the whole issue somewhat symbolically. I mean, whether Julian Assange is a hero or a villain is not really the point. Whether WikiLeaks has done the world an unqualified good or unqualified harm is really a red herring.
Insofar as Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are important, it is because they are an artifact that symbolizes what I think is tetrameshing in action, right in front of our faces.
There is a move towards greater and farther reaching openness and transparency in all corners of the world. Often times those dynamics will have positive effects. In some cases they will not. But data suggests that the greater entitlement towards knowing and a skeptical approach towards power structures, most prominently governments and corporations, is a reality.
These dynamics have existed and been building for some time, of course, but they are newly empowered and invigorated with the rapid and free flow of information.
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are, in some senses, the penultimate conclusion of that movement. They have become the very public face of these dynamics that have been building for decades. And they are the uncompromising and irreverent expression of these dynamics flexing their muscles in ways that seem brash and reckless to some, but long overdue to others.
But Assange and WikiLeaks aren’t the cause of this movement by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, they are an appendage of this movement and seem to regularly acknowledge as much.
The point then of the firestorm that Assange and WikiLeaks have kicked up is to force externalized structures of power to evolve out of their comfort zones and into the new broadly accepted rules of openness and transparency.
The seeming irresponsible manner of these efforts is due to the reality that evolution of this kind (any kind, really) is bound to be messy. Some efforts will be graceful and skillful. Many will be clumsy, careening, and perhaps even regrettable. But WikiLeaks’ efforts will also seem irresponsible precisely because they are challenging old norms and evolution of this variety rarely happens voluntarily.
The end result will likely be far different from anything that we are envisioning at present. But regardless, it will be a different geo-political and interpersonal reality. And good or bad, the constancy of change is simply not something we can ignore."
Scott is a writer who also happens to be an expectant father and will talk your ear off about Canadian politics if you're so inclined to invite your own painful end.
The first thing I think regarding Wikileaks is that the technology available today makes something like Wikileaks inevitable. For the record, I also happen to be one of those who think we are heading to a world of much decreased privacy (in the way in which we’ve understood the term). I’m not a techno-determinist, but I do think technology exerts a powerful influence on the construction of the world. And I don’t find that development altogether good. I think there are some real potential dark sides to it actually. But I think it is increasingly already the case that information is much more easily disseminated and is simply something we will have to learn to live with as a society.
I think on the whole Wikileaks is a good thing. If you listen to this TED interview with Julian Assange, Wikileaks is basically a high-tech medium for whistleblowers.
Assange appears to be something of an ideologue. His public person in interviews (like the TED one) is more moderated (and actually pretty self-deprecating), whereas his writings are more radical. I can’t say as I subscribe (what I take to be) his worldview, but I can still appreciate what he is doing nevertheless.
I assume corporations and governments will learn new ways to protect (most of?) the kind of information they will want to post-Wikileaks. This transition might take longer than most imagine, as the sheer quantity and speed with which leaks can now occur is quite shocking. But I think after an initial shake, the system (as it were) will become more creative in covering things up.
I think groups should be judged on what they do—not any so-called “trajectory” or “slippery slope” argument. Wikileaks to me is a necessary source of disclosure in any age of electronic global power. Do I think Wikileaks is a harbinger of some perfectly free and transparent society? Hardly. Will another group use a similar process for more destructive purposes? Quite possibly. Is that Assange’s fault if that does occur? No.
I think it’s an important but hardly earth-shattering story. At the end of the day, I agree with Gleen Greenwald that the people who’ve had the most extreme reactions to the story are those who are either addicted to power or the mainstream US media (which is basically a subset of the first).
Perhaps the realization that a group like Wikileaks is out there may prevent governments or corporations from committing crimes. More cynically perhaps they will just become smarter about how to hide various acts of malfeasance.
Rather than seeing conspiracies, I tend to see the leaks (especially the State Department cables) as showing a view of evil, more in line with Hannah Arendt: namely the banality of it all. The capacity for humans to de-humanize and disconnect themselves emotionally from the consequences of their actions (e.g. Baghdad airstrikes video) is grotesque. And I’m not naïve enough to think there aren’t conspiracies and cover ups out there (there are). It’s just that I don’t see everything through such a lens and therefore do not see the way in which exposure will lead to the destruction of governments, corporations, and the like. Sunlight is good disinfectant to be sure, but it doesn’t eradicate all germs or bacteria.
Chris is a man of the cloth with the power to declare the forgiveness of sin.
I choose to cede my few hundred words’ contribution to a conservative. The following is taken from a speech Republican congressman Ron Paul made in the House of Representatives, as broadcast on C-SPAN and posted on youtube:
"Just as with the Vietnam War, the Iraq War was based on lies. We were never threatened by weapons of mass destruction or Al Qaeda in Iraq, though the attack on Iraq was based on this false information. Any information that challenges the official propaganda for the war in the Middle East is unwelcome by the administration and supporters of these unnecessary wars. Few are interested in understanding the relationship of our foreign policy and our presence in the Middle East to the threat of terrorism. Revealing the real nature and goal of our presence in so many muslim countries is a threat to our empire, and any revelation of this truth is highly resented by those in charge.
Questions to consider:
1. Do the American people deserve to know the truth regarding the ongoing war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen?
2. Could a larger question be - How could an army private gain access to so much secret information?
3. Why is the hostility mostly directed at Assange, the publisher, and not our government’s failure to protect classified information?
4. Are we getting our money’s worth from the 80 billion dollars per year we spend on intelligence gathering?
5. Which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war, or Wikileaks’ revelations or the Pentagon Papers?
6. If Assange can be convicted of a crime for publishing information that he did not steal, what does this say about the future of the first amendment and the independence of the internet?
7. Could it be that the real reason for the near universal attacks on Wikileaks is more about secretly maintaining a seriously flawed foreign policy of empire than it is about national security?
8. Is there not a huge difference between releasing secret information to help the enemy in a time of declared war, which is treason, and the releasing of information to expose our government’s lies that promote secret wars, death and corruption?
9. Was it not once considered patriotic to stand up to our government when it’s wrong?
Thomas Jefferson had it right when he advised “Let the eyes of vigilance never be closed.”
TJ is a well-known Canadian writer and performer who performs his own original material. Ron Paul is an American Congressman who is not a writer and has never publicly performed TJ's original material.
I think the real issue at hand is best captured by Heather Brooke, who rightly argues that anger over wikileaks (expressed publicly by officials in North America and Europe), has less to do with “the content of the leaks” and more with “the audacity of breaching previously inviable strongholds of authority”. To me this is the only real explanation for the surprising political immaturity and hysteria of many public officials.
These officials have called for the murder of a man who has not even been charged with a crime. Their anger strikes me as grossly overblown, given that only a small number of files have actually been released (not the full 250,000 that is often erroneously claimed) and that all have been filtered by major media new sources (such as the New York Time and Guardian) in collaboration with the US government. For officials to react with calls for murder reeks more of resentment and retribution against Assange, than care for due process, and lends strength to Brooke’s claim that the real issue is one of power and authority.
For those who might argue otherwise, that content is an issue, and that some files risk upsetting global security, I’d offer the recent example of Pakistan. Last week the New York Times revealed (completely unrelated to wikileaks) that the US was planning troop movements into Pakistan.
“Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas… The proposal… would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.”
Normally revealing secret troop movements is highly taboo (for good reason) because it places soldiers in danger. One could argue that this is exactly the type of information that should never be revealed in a leak. (Though in a special case like this, prior to deployment, I think it’s well justified. Citizens have a right to know about the secret wars public officials are waging in their name. A similar situation occurred during the Vietnam War when America repeatedly ventured into Cambodia, destabilizing that country and helping bring to power the genocidal leader Pol Pot). However, those same critics who condemn wikileaks have not rushed to the NY Times and called for the murder of its editors, nor has the government pressured Visa or Pay-pal to cease their business with the paper. These double standards strengthen the argument that the uproar over wikileaks has more to do with the site’s direct challenge to government power and less with the content released.
It’s also very concerning to me that the US government can simply label people “terrorist”, and that it can pressure companies to alter relationships with individuals it doesn’t like - individuals who have yet to be even charged with any crime. In my mind the only reasonable response is public support for Assange and protest against the unacceptable actions of public officials.
Unfortunately, in this climate protesters are being discredited as well. And although this ties into a much larger argument about the state of protest today, it’s worth looking at here. The group ‘Annoynmous’ protested in favour of wikileaks by disrupting internet service to several companies that had hurt the site financially by terminating relationships in the wake of US pressure. The protest was deemed a “cyber war” and “the next pearl harbour” through media outlets, when in fact the nature of the protests were the computer equivalent of blocking a road (flooding a website with too much traffic so that it cant be visited). No harm to technical infrastructure was done, nor was any private consumer data compromised. Yet the media’s amateurish portrayal (albeit of an equally amateurish group) works to breed animosity towards public activism and that is concerning. (more to come on this later).
Bergen just is.
Thou doth protest too much, world!
Everyone has covered the territory pretty well. This is not a crowd that is likely to endorse assassination or reckless censorship (although we've proven we will carve you out of the comment section if you get too frisky. Everyone needs a kingdom I suppose). Really, Julian Assange was inevitable. Heck, he was almost conjured in the 'Millennium Trilogy' by Stieg Larsson's two main characters. Julian Assange is a necessary pawn in a necessary movement in history. While Chris recognized that increased transparency will force more clever acts of secrecy, this too is inevitable and even dialectically useful.
The primary issue here is one of power. Power is like energy: it can neither be created or destroyed, but it can be transfigured. We are still struggling with base, carnal expressions of unilateral power. Wikileaks is a child of the Information Age, a serial adulterer that has us in knots trying to adapt to its emerging generation of bastard, disfigured offspring. But these children promise to help move us past these crude forms of power interaction that are based (still!) in zero-sum logic. This can happen when light is shined where it rarely has been shined before: where we keep our secrets hid. Wikileaks is a step to exposing the shadows that have accumulated behind our compulsive use of unilateral power. (I'm simplifying for effect, bare with me).
I'm an optimist. I believe we are trending towards mutually transforming expressions of power, however slowly. Mind you, we might not make it. As the stakes grow, a wrong step can trip the whole system. We might actually destroy our entire species because we can't hold one another with dignity or nurture the earth with care. I'm an optimist, but I'm not stupid. The odds are still stacked against us.
I'm under no illusion that bad actors aren't out there feverishly searching for that combination of information that will enable them to render this whole human experiment ash. There is an ideal pace of increased openness that we are unlikely to find, and therefore there will be shrill screams and contracted fears every time a new level of transparency is forced upon us. We will writhe and squirm, act out violently and try to cover our private parts. But, as we are finding now that time has past since that rogue Private exposed the now famous cables, we will adapt to the new normal. In fact, it might be damn interesting. But it won't, likely, have been a big deal. Which is what Wikileaks is: no big deal - so far.
The editor has only the highest of praise for Juma. Lively, decent fella.