Wednesday, December 8

wikileaks and the emperor's new clothes

“Which country is suffering from too much freedom of speech? Name it, is there one?” Julian Assange

I didn't want to write this post. I just wanted to watch and post links. I wanted to be a spectator and hope for a good outcome. But here I am. Not writing about it was becoming a distraction that I don't need and so, in spite of the fact that it's a ridiculously complex issue, and that coverage of it in the main stream and alternate media is ubiquitous (if selective), here I am. I hope it's readable, and maybe offers a synthesis of ideas already circulating, but this is my disclaimer: I'm writing this for me. I need to process it here and go on the record. For me.

At best, I'll understand better how I really feel, the whole mess will make a bit more sense, and you'll have found something redeeming in the next many paragraphs to justify the battery power you use and the time I've stolen from you. At worst, I'll be as frustrated as I am right now, and you'll be asleep. Either way, for your entertainment, here's my brain, or maybe my brain on Wikileaks. For the record, the following is based on my understanding of the facts. I'm no journalist (nor do I want to be), or a lawyer, and I'm not doing any vast amount of fact checking beyond reading pretty much everything I can find on the subject. I'll try to avoid making gross errors of the facts, but if I do miss something, or get something wrong, it's an honest mistake. If you find such an error, please post the correction in comments and I'll update the main post.

To summarize then, Wikileaks is a journalistic enterprise dedicated to the ideals of transparency and open government. It supports these ideals by acting as a clearing house for whistle blowers, with systems from simple to sophisticated, designed to allow whistle blowers to provide Wikileaks with secret documents. Wikileaks vets the documents and then, after varying degrees of editorial perusal, they release them. They've been doing it now since 2006. Julian Assange was the original mastermind behind the idea and implementation, and he has remained the 'face' of Wikileaks throughout its existence.

While they've been operating for over three years, Wikileaks hit the big time this year with the release last spring of the Collateral Murder videos, versions both edited for length and completely unedited, of a US helicopter gunship attack on civilians that resulted in multiple deaths, including the deaths of two Reuters journalists. The video, if you haven't seen it, is graphic and disturbing. The audio of the pilots, gunners and their CO's is chilling and suggests a level of inhuman disconnect that shocked the world. Wikileaks was accused of editorializing the video, especially the length-edited version, to make the participant soldiers, and thus the US military, look as bad as possible.

They followed that up with the Afghanistan Logs, and then the Iraq Logs, two caches of military documents that provided unparalleled insight into both wars, the mentality behind the occupations, and revealed dramatically different stories and statistics than the US State Department and Pentagon had previously suggested were accurate. Finally, since the end of November, Wikileaks has been releasing in increments a cache of US diplomatic cables in what is now being called “cablegate”. In all three of the document release cases, Wikileaks has worked with major mainstream media sources, allowing seasoned journalists to scour the caches for weeks prior to public release, assist with redactions, and to help facilitate coverage and add legitimacy to their efforts, perhaps in response to the accusations of editorialization in the Collateral Murder video release. They also, in the cases of the Afghan and Iraq documents any way, invited the US government to participate in helping scour the caches and assist in redacting sensitive information that might put lives at risk, offers that were rejected.

In the summer, US Pfc Bradley Manning was arrested under suspicion of being the source of all of these leaks.

Also this summer, Assange was in Stockholm, Sweden to speak at a conference. He was later accused by two Swedish women of sex crimes under Swedish law. The allegations include sexual coercion and rape. Assange has completely denied any wrongdoing and accused the women and Swedish authorities of participating in a smear campaign against him on behalf of the US government. The lawyer for the two women says that they have no political motives. The allegations revolve around consensual sex that the women say became non-consensual, but the timeline and facts are convoluted, and the stories, so far, are just that.

Assange has now voluntarily surrendered himself to the UK police authorities in response to an international INTERPOL red notice requesting his detainment on a Swedish warrant. That warrant is not in relation to actual charges – no charges have been laid – but rather the desire of the Swedish police to speak to him IN PERSON. Suddenly that's a really big deal, even though Assange offered to make himself available in August and September, and was given permission to leave Sweden, and has offered to speak to investigators by Skype or other means since then.

The timing and circumstances are, needless to say, suspicious, and it's not hard to start drifting into conspiracy theory territory, but essentially, those are the facts and the end of the boring part. I say boring because, well, if you've been reading the news, and if you are Google-capable, then you can find it all out yourself. Go to it.

There is also a cult of personality issue here, and I despise the cult of personality. I despise unjustified fame being heaped on people of questionable character, whether it's heaped in response to talent or ability or luck or success. In a perfect world, fame would be reserved for those who were of the highest character only. But character isn't sexy. Character doesn't sell. And we do love the fall of our icons as much as the meteoric rise, don't we?

More important by far than Assange is or will ever be, is the underlying reasons and actions behind Wikileaks, and one of my frustrations is that Assange's soap opera is detracting from the message. It's the same problem I have with Black Bloc protesters that feel direct actions against postal boxes and corporate store fronts are an effective way to get an activist message of dissent across: It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of public perception, and a basically selfish and childish motivation to serve self ahead of the cause.

All of that said, the response to Wikileaks and cablegate has been electric and fierce. For the first time in such a public way, the governments of the West have embarked on an unprecedented extra-judicial attack against a non-American site, with massive Denial of Service hacker-style attacks being mounted against Wikileaks servers around the world, and pressure being applied to the “American” companies that have been hosting or allowing Wikileaks to work through them for parts of their operation. That response is a de facto admission that, as much as the US government protests that Wikileaks is only a minor inconvenience, they've really touched a nerve.

But why? What nerve have they touched? The US Government says that any disruption to diplomacy is only a minor inconvenience. If so, then why have they mobilized what amounts to an illegal attack on all things Wikileaks? An attack that, if perpetuated against the US government, would result in federal charges and aggressive prosecution. They are obviously afraid of Wikileaks far more than they are wiling to admit if they're willing to adopt the tactics of those they call cyber-terrorists to try to combat them.

I believe that the answer is obvious: Wikileaks is showing the world just how corrupt and morally vacuous our leaders actually are. As one writer put it, the emperors' clothes have just been shredded by the web, and the naked truth is that our political and plutocratic leadership is utterly devoid of anything remotely redeeming. In war, our “leaders” act like sociopaths, and incite and train soldiers to do the same, and in politics and diplomacy they act with all the aplomb and sophistication of three-year-olds fighting over the sandbox. Our leaders, in short, are not leaders at all. At least not ones worth following.

Several other pundits have also pointed out that, in the wake of the reaction to Wikileaks and Assange (especially if it is ever proven that the Swedish allegations are politically motivated), we will never be able to take self-righteous allegations against totalitarian regimes made by the West seriously again. The West has shown in the most public way that they are just as willing to suppress freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and dissent, as any of the regimes that they point at derisively to make themselves look better by comparison.

The illusion that we live in a free society has been completely stripped away. Our society may not be as oppressive as those totalitarian regimes, at least not on the surface of things, but the people in power are just as desperate to hold onto their power as any other dictator. When someone manages to pull the curtain aside, and we see not only the weak false-wizard back there, but see that the wizard is utterly naked and pathetic, those supposed leaders of the free world react with the same kind of violence and disregard for the law as any dictator does.

That we, as voters, are complicit in their tyranny just makes it a little more sad. 

Again and again, writers who see the value of what Wikileaks is doing, even if they question the details, have reiterated the concept that the best defense against Wikileaks and those who will inevitably follow it is a more open, less deceitful form of government, one that actually does work on behalf of people, and does so with transparency. If you are blameless, the logic goes, the reason for whistle blowers disappears. Even if accusations are leveled, it is easier to defend and prove innocence. 

That's a lesson that most of us are supposed to learn by grade one. I hope that Wikileaks and those who are like-minded manage to break the dysfunctional system we currently languish under so completely that re-making it becomes impossible. I hope that enough people open their eyes to the truth that we can reach a tipping point, and that this time, when the shit truly hits the fan, we can learn lessons from our history that actually stick.

I hope that Wikileaks makes it impossible for us to ignore the truth, and impossible to forget. This is, perhaps, an unrealistic hope. We've been here before under different circumstances, and supposedly we learned unforgettable lessons from those horrific times. Obviously, our ability to forget is directly proportional to our greed and selfishness and laziness. Maybe this time we can get it right. 

I know- doubtful. But then, I've been accused of being an incurable optimist before...