Wikileaks and Power


I’ve recently being following the recent Wikileaks story in a variety of Newspapers and the Website itself.
Inconvenient truths have already been revealed in the past, examples include the Pentagon papers and the 1917 Bolshevik release of confidential Russian Documents. These are all seen by some as attacks on imperialism, and it doesn’t seem to much of a stretch to call USA Foreign Policy imperialism. Some of the leaks have been irresponsible – I don’t believe that it is ethically justified or in the public interest to know where the most important Gas Pipelines in the world are. And this doesn’t strike me as journalism.
However this is the web, and this is a technological phenomenon that could only happen in this century – and the underlying infrastructure is the Web.
Increasingly with the web we are facing a specialization and decentralization of knowledge. And a challenge to governments around the world is to engage with the fact that their citizens generally want to be well informed.
As someone who believes in the freedom of information as a fundamental human right, I think this is a sign of the wonders of the web. Whilst
Politically elected officials have a duty to the people, as some say their job is to serve the people.
Wikileaks, and this may be the first of many examples of such ‘whistleblowing’ sites. They position themselves as transparency advocates and Julian Assange stated in an interview that ‘Transparent goverment tends to lead to a more just government’.
What is a just government? Well I’m sure the answer involves a long book – however one that is held accountable for its actions. A lot of these diplomatic cables and Hilliary Clinton’s response – indicate a bias from the governments of the world towards the status quo.
‘Only a free and unrestricted press can effectively expose deception in government’ – U.S. Supreme Court.
The question is what does an ‘unrestricted press’ mean. Chomsky points out wisely that ‘government secrecy is to protect the government from its people’.
Let us assume that the major focus of the state should be to protect the people. Power comes from the people, who elect officials to take difficult decisions on their behalf, and since governments have a history of misdeeds, one should be careful about what Government officials get up to.
However not all leaks are morally defensible, but Geopolitics will probably change as a result of these leaks, and the decentralization of the internet makes it difficult for governments to censor this.
The wikileaks fiasco raises the problem of power of elites versus power of the people. Let us assume that we want ethical, and skilled leaders. However although democracy is the best form of crowdsourcing we have, surely one could imagine a more ethical and just system.

“There is not a national security reason to keep secret, as a general rule and for an extended period, the interactions between representatives of the US government and representatives of foreign governments. We claim a national security imperative by arguing that foreign politicians would not talk to us if we did not hide what they said from their own constituents and domestic opponents and the governments of third countries. To state this argument is to expose its anti-democratic essence. But this is what Hillary Clinton means when she praises secrecy for permitting what she calls “honest, private dialogue.” She means dialogue among the powerful, safe in the knowledge that they will not be held accountable to their own citizens or legislatures.” – Jordan Stancil
The Nation article on Secrecy
The arguments put forward by Hiliary Clinton ‘that lives are in danger’ is unimaginative rhetoric with no basis in fact. In a post 9/11 world where increasingly our freedoms are being taken away for fear of terrorism. A government which is held accountable for what it says in private, is a government that has to think long and hard about ‘governance’. Not much of the material is devastatingly original, but it does expose the hard truths of what we already know about diplomacy – that it is messy realpolitik. Wikileaks releasing of a quarter of a million documents does of course seem like an act of anarchy.
And the careful journalistic reporting by the Guardian and other newspapers has lent some credence to these acts. It is extremely dangerous to claim that these acts of anarchy are not good for democracy and good governance, in the same way as portraying the student protesters in the UK and Europe as anarchists doesn’t engage in a proper discussion of how power should be distributed, and should education be marketized.
We have the opportunity to have a frank discussion about open democracy, and we shouldn’t ignore that discussion. The apetite among lots of people, especially my generation who are sometimes characterized as a Videogame obsessed Facebook generation, shows that there is a hunger to be involved in politics, and for people to be informed as to what their government is up to. Diplomatic cables are by definition ambivalent, and certainly don’t correspond to the ‘truth’.
Disruptive technologies have the potential to change the power dynamics between the government and the people. And as Jeferrson said ‘I hope the spirit of civil disobedience is never lost’
As Columbia University political science professor Nadia Urbinati observed in La Repubblica, the student protests, like those in Britain, France, Spain and Greece, are rightly directed against education budget cuts and fee increases because they attack the democratic basis of education, equality of opportunity, creating systems that favor the privileged. The protests in Italy as well as in other countries highlight a response by the people (brought together by Social Networking, and effective organization) to what amounts to an all out class war.
Julian Assange now faces a smear campaign, this is highly likely. However he also does face the chance to clear his name – if he’s done nothing wrong then he should be able to clear his name.
From his article in the Australian: Julian Assange in the Australian
The US diplomatic cables reveal some startling facts:

► The US asked its diplomats to steal personal human material and information from UN officials and human rights groups, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, credit card numbers, internet passwords and ID photos, in violation of international treaties. Presumably Australian UN diplomats may be targeted, too.

► King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asked the US to attack Iran.

► Officials in Jordan and Bahrain want Iran’s nuclear program stopped by any means available.

► Britain’s Iraq inquiry was fixed to protect “US interests”.

► Sweden is a covert member of NATO and US intelligence sharing is kept from parliament.

► The US is playing hardball to get other countries to take freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama agreed to meet the Slovenian President only if Slovenia took a prisoner. Our Pacific neighbour Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to accept detainees.

In a post 9/11 world we increasingly lose our freedoms for ‘fear of terrorism’. As someone who hopes he is an intelligent and well informed citizen, I welcome this beacon of truth. Even if Assange does turn out to have a contemptuous personality – as David Hume remarked ‘I do not know the man’ – it doesn’t take away from the fact that Human Rights violations have happened as a result of this fear mindset, and we do live in a world where failed banks have been rescued by governments all over the world.
More than ever we need the people need to be trusted to make the right decisions, I hope that we as good citizens can handle this release of the truth. Wikileaks is another fine example that the web is working, and thankfully the world has an appetite for such information. The changing of power dynamics always upset those in power, but surely we as an electorate have a right to know what those in government and corporations are doing. I by no means think that unethical behavior by governments or corporations or anyone is defensible. A society decays when its morals decay.
As I’ve noted before in this essay: In its landmark ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, the US Supreme Court said “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”. The swirling storm around WikiLeaks today reinforces the need to defend the right of all media to reveal the truth. Can we as a public not ‘handle the truth?’