Well, that was only a matter of time. It had been an open secret for a couple of weeks now that Julian Assange was in London. And once the Interpol warrant went out, it wasn’t going to be long before the ever-dutiful British police picked him up. It’s a little surprising – and considerably disheartening – that he was remanded to custody, since that sort of thing is supposed to be based upon an assessment of the threat posed by the defendant. I’ve heard plenty of people call Assange a threat…over his work with WikiLeaks. But no one I’ve heard from seriously considers him a threat in area of the charges against him: no one thinks Assange is likely to run out and begin raping women willy-nilly. There’s an argument to be made that he’s a flight risk, since he does seem to spend a great deal of time moving around and trying to avoid detection…but really? Remand? I suspect (though no one can prove) that has far more to do with Assange’s work with WikiLeaks than it does with the Swedish sex charges.
In other news, Assange has been speaking out when he can. He obviously had this editorial ready to go should he be arrested…or possibly was going to release it anyway, and this is just fortuitously coincidental timing. Either way, it is well worth reading in its entirety, published this morning in The Australian. As is this earlier web-chat with online readers of The Guardian in London. Two passages struck me (well, OK, more than two, but these in particular), one from the first piece and one from the second. In the the earlier Guardian web-chat, Assange was asked this question regarding his increasing role as the public “face” of Wikileaks:
Julian, why do you think it was necessary to “give Wikileaks a face”? Don’t you think it would be better if the organization was anonymous? This whole debate has become very personal and reduced on you…and this, in my opinion, makes Wikileaks vulnerable because this enables your opponents to argue ad hominem. If they convince the public that you’re an evil, woman-raping terrorist, then Wikileaks’ credibility will be gone. Also, with due respect for all that you’ve done, I think it’s unfair to all the other brave, hard working people behind Wikileaks, that you get so much credit.
(edited slightly by me) Assange’s response was – I suspect – not what people who’ve been lambasting him as being a publicity-hound or self-promoter might have expected:
This is an interesting question. I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, “The Bourbaki”. However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force. (emphasis mine)
It’s an excellent point I hadn’t considered (probably because I’m not having to deal with it every day like Assange is): WikiLeaks has no physical presence except in cyberspace, no identifiable “face” like Bob Woodward at the Washington Post or Sy Hersh at The New Yorker. If you were thinking about becoming a whistleblower or leaker, it very likely would cross your mind that a 100% anonymous organization would be totally unaccountable to you, as well as by definition less trustworthy – at least at the beginning. But that’s it: how many fewer whistleblowers would never come forward if they couldn’t get past that initial worry?
In today’s Australian editorial, Assange makes many good points. Read it all. But this one stood out for me in particular:
Every time WikiLeaks publishes the truth about abuses committed by US agencies, Australian politicians chant a provably false chorus with the State Department: “You’ll risk lives! National security! You’ll endanger troops!” Then they say there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes. It can’t be both. Which is it?
Another excellent point. I’ve personally seen both views (that Assange’s actions are dangerous AND yet somehow, he’s publishing only irrelevant leaks) from many people – often the same people, within the same piece or within minutes of each other. It’s a fair point – more than fair – to note that something which is irrelevant can hardly be dangerous. It isn’t that no argument can be made on either charge – they can, and people do, obviously – just that the opposition to Assange’s work seems reflexive, knee-jerk, as demonstrated most effectively by the considerable number of people who argue both things simultaneously without realizing the inherent contradiction.
Witness also the Catch-22esque lunacy of the federal government issuing a blanket directive to all government employees to not read any of the classified material released by WikiLeaks, or visit Wikileaks’ web site:
In an email to federal agencies obtained by TPM, the OMB’s general counsel directed the agencies to immediately tell their employees to “safeguard classified information” by not accessing Wikileaks over the Internet.
Classified information, the OMB notes, “remains classified … until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.” Employees may not view classified info over a non-classified system (i.e., the Internet), the OMB says, “as doing so risks that material still classified will be placed onto non-classified systems.”
It’s one thing to consider certain information privileged and private. Classified. It’s quite another thing to insist that several hundred thousand people pretend something which has happened hasn’t, in fact, happened – which is what the OMB is effectively asking federal employees (not to mention job-seekers) to do. This is quite literally a near-perfect example of the genuine danger to democracy from the culture of secrecy which has been growing ever since 9/11 in this country. Many of us thought that culture, infamously characterized by George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program (also revealed by a leak, I hasten to add), would be reversed or would stop or at least decelerate under an Obama Presidency. Instead, if anything, that culture of secrecy has picked up steam.
Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Obligatory disclaimer after such a statement: while it’s obviously true that Obama is decidedly much better than George W. Bush in many significant ways, there are also an increasing number of ways in which the differences between the real-world actions and positions of the two administrations on critical issues like this are far too similar for my taste. Nearly indistinguishable, even. When the Obama team first presented their “look forward, not back” stance on whether to investigate and/or prosecute the Bush administration for its violations of law (ours and international law) in prosecuting the “war on terror” – and Iraq – they threw their lot in with any illegalities committed by the prior administration. In fact, one of the things Wikileaks’ cables DO reveal is that the US government used back-channel pressure on the government of Spain (at least, and perhaps others) to derail the indictment of Bush-era figures for violating international laws. That’s a piece of information any voter ought to possess regarding the views and actions of their government. “Irrelevant?” Hardly. Do we really need any further evidence that what WikiLeaks is doing is far from “irrelevant?” Democracy, the way we practice it, is based upon the informed consent of the governed. Yet the national security state which continues to grow in the shadows at a pace which is impossible to pin down exactly but which (from various peeks behind the curtain) is quite rapid indeed, is antithetical to the concept of informed governance.
To be sure, every nation, ours included, has always had secrets. That’s as it should be: there are some things they must not reveal because to do so would be catastrophic. But since 2001 at least, and, crucially, under two different administrations, things have gotten way out of hand in this regard. Someone smart once remarked that powers, once given to government, are never voluntarily given up by that government (or any successive ones), and are also never taken away again without a fight. In my experience, that’s entirely correct.
In a similar fashion, refusal to investigate and punish the high-level Bush administration violators of serious international laws (torture, etc.) – not just the Lynndie Englands who carried out the orders – makes us all complicit in our government’s tacit admission that we think it’s OK to have done them in the first place. Or at least not as wrong as parking one’s car illegally. And so those violations – or variations thereupon – will be done again, both by future governments of ours, who will point to this as precedent, and by foreign powers (who will shrug and point to these same instances of us not having punished our own lawbreakers swiftly, publicly and thoroughly as their justification) against our own people. And yes, such future terrorists would probably do those things I’m imagining anyway…but they would not, until now, have been able to bolster any defense by saying “everyone, even the great champion of human rights & the rule of law, the USA, does it as well.”
In the end, any nation which, from the halls of power to the guy on the street, allows itself to be bullied into needless war based upon iffy lies (especially when those doing the pushing claim that some of the information justifying it is “secret” and therefore can’t be shared) & which then refuses to prosecute perpetrators afterwards, desperately needs a corrective mechanism, since the ones it supposedly already has in operation are quite clearly no longer functioning.