I have been watching, reading, and pouring over the events surrounding Wikileaks, wanting to write some sort of thoughtful commentary. But, as The Atlantic points out, this event has brought about some of the best journalism, political analysis, and writing we’ve seen in years and I find it difficult to try and say something newer or more insightful than those that are more knowledgeable of the past and have more time and acquaintance with the primary sources in question. With more of these leaked diplomatic cables being released every day, this coverage is literally non-stop. My productivity at worked has suffered because of the tangled web of links one can get caught in going from one story to the next to the next; I have at least a couple dozen quotes and links saved in my Evernote notetaking app in order to use in some future writing (or present).
But nevertheless, even among my friends who care about this situation, there appears to be some common misconceptions about this whole situation, leading them to direct their frustrations, diatribes, and anger in the wrong direction. I wish to clarify some of those here today. First, I must say on the outset that I am absolutely, entirely in favor of most all that Wikileaks has done and is doing. I think they are serving America’s longterm interest and the well-being of its citizenry far more than even our own federal government is doing. Do I think they have done everything perfectly and responsibly? No, but no four-year old media organization can be said to have done so. Wikileaks has (and will) make mistakes–its founder has even admitted that–but so will/has our federal government in its own “attempts” at serving the greater good. The only question remains: who do you think does more damage when they make those inevitable mistakes (the government or Wikileaks?), and therefore, who requires more scrutiny, responsibility, accountability, and fear of being out of control? I (as well as Glenn Greenwald and The Economist) wholeheartedly fear the results of a government out of control more than a Wikileaks out of control. But, in fact (as we move on to the misconceptions) ….
1. Wikileaks has not been out of control or indiscriminate in its release of these cables.
As has been well-documented, Wikileaks has possession of over 250,000 State Department cables. Wikileaks has frequently been accused by many in the media of having quote-un-quote “dumped” all of these cables with no care or discretion whatsoever. At the time of this writing, though, of those 250,000 cables, Wikileaks has only released 1193. They have been specific about which ones to release, and further, before they posted the cables on their website, they submitted them to three major well-respected newspapers (The New York Times, the U.K.’s The Guardian, and Germany’s Der Spiegel) who have thus edited out information from the cables that constituted unnecessary bits that would harm American troops or national security. And then, when Wikileaks has posted the cables online, they have kept every redaction these major newspapers suggested, thereby holding back the type of information everyone assumes they are releasing. Further, with both this leak and the last leak focused on the Afghan war, Wikileaks has (according to the AP) “appealed to the U.S. ambassador in London, asking the U.S. government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released.” The government, on both occasions refused to help Wikileaks, but did in turn help The New York Times accomplish the same task.
2. Wikileaks has, in fact, done nothing illegal or wrong.
That is, of course, if you believe The New York Times has not acted illegally in publishing these stories. There is absolutely no difference in how Wikileaks has acted in comparison to these major newspapers (read Dan Gillmor’s essay, “Defend Wikileaks or lose free speech“). If you honestly believe Wikileaks should face some sort of justice, you are basing this on a precedent under which every other legitimate investigative media outlet in the world would be guilty as well, which would be an “extremely dangerous” precedent. Contrary to very popular belief (even among ignorant Senators), Wikileaks has done nothing that would fall under the Espionage Act of 1917. They would only be guilty of a crime if they aided and abetted the original leaker in leaking the information. But, as so far seems to be the case, it did not “obtain” these documents or “pursue” them; they “received” them independently from a military source. It is not illegal to publish classified information (see this 4 year-old article in the conservative–and in this case extremely hypocritical–National Review). Legal experts are “flailing” to figure out, conjure up, or even create a law that Wikileaks has broken, under which to take legal action against them. From the linked article: “And judging from new media reports describing the administration’s thinking on this, there is currently no plausible theory under which Assange could be charged with a crime — despite claims by Obama officials that WikiLeaks has broken the law.” (This also makes wrong and unethical the decisions by the private companies [Paypal, et al.] that have stopped doing business with Wikileaks because “the State department told us Wikileaks was doing something illegal, which was against our terms of service”. The government is simply lying. This isn’t true.)
3. Absolutely no harm has come to any individual of group as a result of any leak Wikileaks has ever released.
As Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks wrote in his wonderful article in The Guardian yesterday,
WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the US, with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates admitted in a letter to the US congress that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been compromised by the Afghan war logs disclosure. The Pentagon stated there was no evidence the WikiLeaks reports had led to anyone being harmed in Afghanistan. NATO in Kabul told CNN it couldn’t find a single person who needed protecting. The Australian Department of Defence said the same. No Australian troops or sources have been hurt by anything we have published.
Neither the Pentagon nor the Defense Department has been able to find a single case where this has brought harm to anybody.
4. Julian Assange is not seeking a “secret-less”, “war-less”, or “government-less” utopian society–just a “corruption-less” one.
Once again pointing to Assange’s article, he says clearly that “People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it.” Todd Gitlin of The New Republic perpetuates this wrong assumption by writing, “… Assange is not just a random leaker. Credit him with a theory. It’s his generation’s anarchism.” As proof, he goes on to quote an essay Assange wrote in 2006 where he says that
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership [leading to] consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.
But Gitlin leaves out the next two sentences of the essay which read
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. (emphasis mine)
This is not a man opposed to “governance”, just a certain “type” of governance. Assange’s goal is to reveal excesses in secrecy and the presence of corruption at both the governmental and corporate level. And he has. These cables reveal so much illegal, corrupt, unjust, unethical, and “Un-American” activities that have been done in the name of the American people without our knowledge, approval, or support. And there’s a reason why we don’t know these things; not because they need to be secret, but because we as Americans would not support them.
5. It is not the case that these cable don’t really say anything new.
As Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com lists for us, this is patently untrue and is only being propagated by politicians in an attempt to stop the media cycle concerning these writings. They are trying to say at the same time that this is a huge danger for American National Security and yet not that a big deal. Here are some of the things Greenwald points out:
- “the U.S. military formally adopted a policy of turning a blind eye to systematic, pervasive torture and other abuses by Iraqi forces;”
- “the State Department threatened Germany not to criminally investigate the CIA’s kidnapping of one of its citizens who turned out to be completely innocent;”
- “the British Government privately promised to shield Bush officials from embarrassment as part of its Iraq War “investigation”;”
- “‘American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world’ about the Iraq war as it was prosecuted, a conclusion the Post‘s own former Baghdad Bureau Chief wrote was proven by the WikiLeaks documents;”
- “Hillary Clinton’s State Department ordered diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data on U.N. and other foreign officials, almost certainly in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961.”
And from the Guardian, last night’s released cables show the following:
- “America asked Uganda to let it know if its army intended to commit war crimes based on US intelligence – but did not try to prevent war crimes taking place.”
- The US and the UN worked together with rich Zimbabwe business men to put in place a plan to overthrow and depose the then-President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in a major coup, simply because he wasn’t implementing economic policy that was helping these businessmen stay rich.
- Also revealed last night was just how entrenched Shell Oil company staff are in the government of Nigeria at every level. They are secretly spying on the government, passing on information to the US, and creating/influencing policy to keep their control of the country’s resources.
Are these not major accusations that deserve further inquiry?