Patrice Riemens on Thu, 11 Nov 2010 22:19:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Steve Coll: Leaks (The New Yorker)

A useful & sobering comment (immo) on the ongoing Wikileaks saga ...
Cheeers, p+3D!


original at:

by Steve Coll November 8, 2010

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had a tumultuous youth in
Australia and grew into an autodidact with eclectic skills and a deep
distrust of hierarchies and governments. In 2006, as he prepared to launch
a digital enterprise devoted to the exposure of secrets, he wrote a sort
of manifesto about the structure of official conspiracy and its effects on
human welfare. He quoted Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Lord Halifax; the
writing veers between lucidity and opaqueness. Its tone, familiar from
science fiction, echoes the purifying language of purges and revolutions:
?We must understand the key generative structure of bad government. We
must develop a way of thinking about this structure that is strong enough
to carry us through the mire of competing political moralities and into a
position of clarity.?

In July, WikiLeaks defied the Obama Administration by publishing
seventy-six thousand intelligence and military field reports from the
Afghan war. In October, it posted nearly four hundred thousand secret
documents generated on the front lines of the Iraq conflict. The archives
are bracing and valuable. There is a literary quality to their all-caps
urgency and secret jargon. They disclose important new facts about
civilian casualties, the torture of detainees by our allies, Iran?s
exported violence, the disruptions caused by private contractors, and the
debilitating patterns of clandestine warfare in two benighted regions.

America?s all-volunteer military has left many in the country at a remove
from the debasements of the wars; the WikiLeaks archives offer an
authentic transcript of them. All wars are terrible, but some must be
fought. A democracy is strengthened when its citizens are confronted with
the raw truths that follow from the choices of their elected leaders.

Whether WikiLeaks will prove over time to be a credible publisher of such
truths is another question. Assange disclosed the names of informants in
some of the war reports, even though doing so might endanger them and
possibly cause their death. That action has prompted defections from the
organization, as has some of Assange?s recent comportment. Internal
messages quoted in the Times portray him as a self-aggrandizing control
freak. In Sweden, prosecutors are reportedly investigating sexual-assault
allegations against him. No charges have been filed in the case, and last
week, on CNN?s ?Larry King Live,? Assange dismissed it as a ?relatively
trivial matter,? adding that King ?should be ashamed? for raising the
subject. In response, King, a scholar of the communications strategies of
accused celebrities, tutored him on his tone-deafness: ?Rape is not
trivial. To say they??the allegations??were false, that?s your answer.
?They?re false.? That?s fine. That?s all we wanted to hear.?

Henry David Thoreau, in his founding essay on civil disobedience, wrote
that ?action from principle . . . divides the individual, separating the
diabolical in him from the divine.? He meant that a dissenter?s human
frailty should not undermine the righteousness of his message. In the case
of the WikiLeaks project, however, the sources of doubt involve more than
Assange?s behavior and his editorial calls. They also involve his
political conceptions and acuity.

In rolling out the Iraq files, Assange won an endorsement from Daniel
Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation analyst who, in 1971, leaked the
Pentagon Papers to the press. Assange has suggested that his
organization?s disclosures are similarly important. At a press conference
in London, he called the Iraq documents ?the most comprehensive and
detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record.? In
fact, the archives that WikiLeaks has published are much less significant
than the Pentagon Papers were in their day. Ellsberg and his collaborators
in the press exposed lies by President Lyndon Johnson and his cabinet
about critical decisions in the Vietnam War, such as Johnson?s
exaggeration of enemy action in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which he used
as a rationale for escalating combat. The WikiLeaks files contain nothing
comparable. Nor are they distinctively comprehensive; there are many open
archives in the United States and Europe that chronicle the depredations
of wars past, unit by unit, prison camp by prison camp. It is not
necessary to promote the value of the WikiLeaks archive by overstating its

If the organization continues to attract sources and vast caches of
unfiltered secret documents, it will have to steer through the foggy
borderlands between dissent and vandalism, and it will have to defend its
investigative journalism against those who perceive it as a crime. Assange
is animated by the idea of radical transparency, but WikiLeaks as yet
lacks a fixed address. Nor does it offer its audiences any mechanism for
its own accountability. If the organization were an insurgency, these
characteristics might be in its nature. Assange declares that he is
pioneering an improved, daring form of journalism. That profession,
however, despite its flaws, has constructed its legitimacy by serving as a
check on governmental and corporate power within constitutional
arrangements that assume the viability of the rule of law. The Times and
the Washington Post, in successfully defending their decision to publish
the Pentagon Papers before the Supreme Court, extended considerably the
political impact of their revelations.

WikiLeaks has recently been in discussions with lawmakers in Iceland about
trying to concoct the world?s most extensive press-freedom regime there.
The idea apparently is to transform Iceland, in the aftermath of its
recent, disastrous experiments with offshore banking, into the Cayman
Islands of First Amendment-inspired subversion. A volcanic-island nation
may well find whistle-blowing to be a compatible flagship industry. And it
could provide the project with a sustainable basis for legal legitimacy.

It is not clear, however, that such normalcy within a national system
would entirely suit Assange?s purposes. In a part of his manifesto titled
?State and Terrorist Conspiracies,? he wrote, ?To radically shift regime
behavior we must think clearly and boldly, for if we have learned
anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed.? If dissenters
hacked and published enough secret information harbored by governments, he
went on, this might disrupt what he imagined to be the absolute dependency
of governments on flows of hidden data. ?An authoritarian conspiracy that
cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself against the
opponents it induces,? Assange concluded. That is, he believed that he
could break governments by siphoning the secrets that nourish them.

But something like the opposite may be the case: if WikiLeaks cannot learn
to think efficiently about its publishing choices, it will risk failure,
not only because of the governmental opponents it has induced but also
because so far it lacks an ethical culture that is consonant with the
ideals of free media.

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