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Ten Thoughts About Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andy Worthington     Permalink
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In addition, Assange's close working relationship with WikiLeaks' media partners further undermines the US government's argument, as do comments made by defense secretary Robert Gates, described in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week as "a savvy Washington veteran" by former federal prosecutor Baruch Weiss, who made a point of noting Gates' comments on the supposed WikiLeaks scandal. "I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, but added, crucially, "I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought ... Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

In contrast, ardent right-wingers (and the Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein) have looked idiotic in their hysterical condemnations of the leaks. Feinstein wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which, contradicting Secretary Gates, she argued that the "damage to national security" caused by the leaks "is beyond question." Others, of course, called for Assange's assassination, or described him, predictably, as a terrorist, but perhaps the most damaging response that is somewhat rooted in the real world came from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who suggested that the New York Times and other news organisations, as well as WikiLeaks, should be investigated under the Espionage Act. Lieberman told Fox News, "To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the Justice Department." Lieberman is clearly pushing against 93 years of judicial refusal to prosecute traditional media outlets for their reporting -- and their defense of free speech -- but as has been made clear above, I think it is fair and appropriate to argue that WikiLeaks is more of a media outlet than anything else, and as Steve Vladeck, professor of law at American University, has explained, Lieberman's angling for media prosecutions represents "crossing a proverbial Rubicon that even the most secrecy-obsessed, First Amendment-indifferent administrations have consistently refused to attempt to bridge." The results, as Peter Kirwan noted, "would include a full-blown constitutional crisis."

Even more worrying, however, has been the extra-legal pressure exerted by senior officials in the Obama administration, who, it seems, have been directly responsible for putting pressure on companies hosting WikiLeaks, or companies accepting donations for WikiLeaks, to shut down those operations. Personally, I can understand that, when the US government whispers threateningly down the phone at senior executives of major companies, they do what they are told. As a result, I am unwilling to condemn unconditionally the cowardice of companies like Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard and others, who have been subjected to customer boycotts on a large scale since their capitualtion emerged. What does interest me, however, is how hackers -- including, most notoriously, the group identified only as "Anonymous," -- have responded by taking down some of these sites. Again, I'm not convinced that this is the most appropriate course of action with regard to those individual companies, but as a demonstration of the power of hackers to throw down a gauntlet to a US administration which is clearly guilty of bullying and aggression that has nothing to do with its supposed legal complaints against Assange and Wikileaks -- and fears that the US stance will lead to attempts to clamp down viciously on the Internet -- it is a powerful demonstration of quite what they are up against.

My final point, briefly, concerns reports that Julian Assange has a secret weapon to be used if anything adverse happens to him, or to WikiLeaks, which his lawyer, perhaps ill-advisedly, refered to as a "thermonuclear device." This is a 1.4 GB file, labeled "insurance," which was uploaded onto the WikiLeaks website in late July, just after the publication of the Afghan war logs, and has been downloaded by tens of thousands of supporters, although the 256-digit code required to unlock it has not been released. Assange himself has stated, "We have over a long period of time distributed encrypted backups of material we have yet to release. All we have to do is release the password to that material, and it is instantly available."

The "insurance" file reportedly includes all the diplomatic cables, plus some or all of the following, which are reportedly in WikiLeaks' possession: unredacted military reports from Guantanamo, reports on BP and other energy companies, documents on the Bank of America, and an aerial video of a US airstrike in Afghanistan that killed civilians. While the notion of banking secrets being exposed strikes me as phenomenally important -- and undoubtedly in the public interest -- I am, of course, fascinated by the mention of the Guantanamo files, which I had been told about confidentially some months ago. Theoretically, these could be phenomenally revealing, although I doubt, with the present political climate in the US, that, if released, they would do anything other than reinforce calls for the prison never to be closed at all, which makes me deeply hesitant about the prospect of them being made available.

In conclusion, then, although my inner anarchist has a tendency to celebrate the sweeping disclosure of secrets, the more nuanced person that I have become prefers to occupy a place in which a certain amount of responsible editorializing takes place -- as, indeed, as been happening with WikiLeaks and its media partners. What is also clear is that the US administration's bullying is intolerable, and I have little time for its wailing about secrets that were so ludicrously unprotected in the first place. Moreover, although I have no particular allegiance to Julian Assange, and believe that Bradley Manning is being unfairly overlooked in all the focus on Assange, WikiLeaks itself -- especially in its global context, shining a light on closed regimes, rather than just in its focus on the US -- remains an extraordinarily useful organization, or perhaps, I should say, an extraordinary important concept, and one that others, if they have the necessary security skills, can and should consider emulating.

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All secrets may, indeed, not be worth releasing, just because they can be, but I've yet to see any evidence that the majority of the secrets maintained by governments do anything to improve the lives of the majority of their citizens -- or of those affected by their political maneuvering around the world -- and on that basis this whole crisis is not just about free speech, but about the legitimacy -- and the legitimate reach -- of mechanisms available in the 21st century for exposing the wrongdoing of governments, on the part, generally, of those who want the world to be a better, fairer and more just place.
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Andy Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison" (published by Pluto Press), as well as and "The Battle of the Beanfield" (2005) and "Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion" (more...)

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