Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Saint or Sinner?

I am no anarchist. I abide by the rule of law and enjoy its protection. But I also have a scepticism of authority and want to see that those whom we entrust to make the laws we live by are not allowed to hide behind secrecy and claims of 'national interest' to abuse the power we have granted to them. Therefore I had mixed feelings about Wikileaks.

I mean, what can be so harmful about a safe channel for exposing corporate wrongdoing, or government corruption? After all, the freedoms we all value, and which many of us take for granted, were won through war, civil disobedience and direct action which was far stronger than breaches of secrecy.

So when a friend from Texas equated Wikileaks with terrorism, after the recent publication of US diplomatic cables, my instinct was to wonder what had prompted such an uncharacteristically intemperate judgement. However I have long known my friend to be a carefully thinking person, so I could not dismiss it as a gut reaction. I therefore determined to look carefully at what was being released, with an open mind, and try to form a judgement based on the available facts.

First of all I noted the hysteria with which many in the US were baying for the blood of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. It reminded me of the chilling fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Then I read that the US government has a networked database accessible to people working in the military, civil service and government. The leaked diplomatic cables apparently had been accessible to some 3.5 million people. Did that fact just pass you by? 3.5 million people. 3,500,000 individual people. Three point five million people. The population of Sweden, where Wikileaks is supposedly based, is 9 million. Imagine a secret known to every male of working age in Sweden. That's about 3.5 million people. Is that a secret any longer? At what point does knowledge shared by many people become considered as published? The precise recipe for Coca Cola is reputed to be known by no more than 5 people. Personally I doubt that, but it does give you a marker at one end of the secrecy scale. By the time you get to 3.5 million, is it a secret any longer? I think not. So this information was virtually in the public domain anyway, and by the hand of the US government itself. So I conclude that a good dose of responsibility must lie there. Perhaps that's why they are so vociferous in their hysteria for Wikileaks in general, and Assange in particular.

If indignation at being found culpable in the release of this information itself was not sufficient, Assange gives plenty of other reasons. Diplomatic embarrassment can surely be painful, and can sometimes be harmful. But when serious wrongdoing is revealed, it can lead to people losing their positions of power, and in some cases of criminal wrongdoing, imprisonment.

To leave aside many other examples and give just one: consider the 2004 kidnapping of an innocent German citizen by the CIA, wrongly identified as a terrorist. When an outraged Germany moved to issue international arrest warrants for the CIA perpetrators, the US government threatened retaliation to bilateral interests. Imagine how the US would react to the criminal kidnapping of a US citizen by a large foreign power, followed by threats to punish the pursuit of legal redress. It would rightly be condemned as state sponsored terrorism, and that charge should be laid at those responsible: both the CIA for the kidnapping, and the State Department for their cynical blackmail.

So clearly the US government comes out of this affair smelling very badly indeed. But what of the other leaked materials, and the motives of Wikileaks and Assange himself? Is he any better?

In the first batch of released diplomatic cables was the revelation that China had become exasperated with a 'childish' North Korean regime. It was further suggested that China was considering cutting it's ally loose and being prepared to concede a re-united Korea, led from Seoul. No one with an awareness of global politics will be surprised by the alleged-facts as revealed. However Asia in general is highly sensitive to diplomatic etiquette. The embarrassment and loss of face by the Chinese government at these public revelations has the power to cause them to rethink their position. Who can tell the outcome of the diplomatic furore which must be raging between Beijing and Pyongyang. North Korea is hugely more unpleasant to its people, and more threatening to world peace, than was Saddam Hussein. If the act of publishing such sensitive material could result in postponing the demise of the regime in Pyongyang, then those responsible have done the world a monumental injury.

The latest and greatest revelations to impact my judgement of this matter relate to the identification of sites of global strategic importance to the preservation of US public health, economic and national security. Taking a look at the nature of the sites revealed, it is clear that they not only relate to US interests but to many if not most advanced nations too. While some may not feel strongly that preserving the US nuclear deterrent helps the rest of the world, the supply of critical medication potentially affects millions and threats to global communications could level whole economies. The meek defence that 'specific locations are not identified' doesn't wash. It doesn't take a genius to use the internet to locate most, or all of the strategic facilities identified. Those who would threaten the capitalist West may try to guess at which sites are of strategic importance. But now they have the assessment of those who know best. And that is damaging on a global scale.

A useful service can be done by giving voice to evidence of corruption and other wrongdoing. Wikileaks had the potential to provide such a service. It would always be controversial, and would always make powerful enemies. But hosted in a neutral country with a strong rule of law protecting the rights of freedom, it may have continued to serve.

Who knows how Assange's ego was hooked by the temptation manifest in 250,000 classified US diplomatic documents. Who knows his motivation for publishing material so damaging to the nations which guaranteed his freedom. How much of an anarchist must he be to threaten not only US interests, but the security at the heart of western civilisation?

I think you can already sense that I have made my judgement about Julian Assange. On the available evidence, he is a sinner not a saint. But his guilt is also shared with the idiotic person or committee who assessed, or should have assessed, the merit of allowing 3.5 million people access to material as sensitive as this. In my view Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of releasing the material to Assange, should never have had access to this material without having undergone security checking consistent with the harm which its release could cause, and in my opinion bears a small proportion of the blame.

So what will happen? Here's my prediction: Assange will be apprehended and either 'dealt with' quietly or prosecuted. His public vilification will preclude a fair trial in the US, but it will proceed anyway. Manning will also be made an example of. Those in the US responsible for the terrible deficiencies in information security will either continue with their careers or will quietly be pensioned off, and otherwise escape Scott-free. That is the way of the world, and is what we collectively allow our representatives in power to get away with. So perhaps, in a sense, we all bear some of the responsibility.

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