Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘wikileaks’

Here is his latest article, illustrating how NY Times and other papers routinely divulge information — and rightly so! — that is far more secret and consequential than Wikileaks is accused of doing.

I have admired some of Greenwald’s writings in the past. But on Wikileaks and related First Amendment issues, he has been nothing short of breathtaking, a one man army. He has made every point worth making. He has repeatedly pointed out the dangers to free speech from an Assange prosecution, and the legal equivalence between Wikileaks and traditional newspapers. He was the first to reveal to a broad audience the inhuman conditions in which Manning is being held. He has been passionate in his appeals, razor-sharp in his arguments and accurate in his facts. With every article, he has exposed the hypocrisy/evilness of the US administration on this issue and has furthered the cause for liberty and free speech.

***

I donated some money to Greenwald today via Paypal. It was not so much to help him financially — I am sure he earns a good salary from his Salon column and other gigs — but more to express my support and admiration. This is what I wrote in my message: I am a libertarian. Likely we don’t agree on a lot. But for everything you have written about Wikileaks, you are my hero.

Read Full Post »

I forgot to post this earlier. Ron Paul on the floor of the US Congress:

Read Full Post »

I noted yesterday that the apparent government strategy to indict Assange as co-conspirator rather than disseminator of the leaked cables would be still be highly problematic, and the danger to the First Amendment no less grave. Since then, there have appeared articles by several well known writers and legal experts who have come to the same conclusion.

Here’s Jack Goldsmith:

I’m not so sure this path avoids awkward questions.  Charging Assange as a conspirator to Manning’s leak might distinguish the Times in the wikileaks case.  But it would not distinguish the Times and scores of other media outlets in the many cases in which reporters successfully solicit and arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials.  Prosecution of Assange on this theory would therefore raise awkward questions about why DOJ does not bring charges against the American media for soliciting classified information on a regular basis.  It would be a fateful step for traditional press freedoms in the United States.  Indeed, unless I am missing something, it seems that a successful prosecution of Assange for conspiracy to leak would have broader and more corrosive implications for press freedoms than a successful prosecution under the ambiguity-riddled Espionage Act.

Josh Gerstein:

Reporters seek classified information all the time in telephone conversations, in private meetings and other contexts. Just Wednesday, the New York Times carried a front page story from Elizabeth Bumiller describing two classified National Intelligence Estimates on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Does anyone think she was entirely passive in this leak? That the reports, or some summary of them, simply arrived on her desk or in her inbox and she did nothing either to solicit them or to seek more details about them after receiving them? Frankly, if she didn’t at least do the latter, she wouldn’t be doing her job.

It seems to me if the Justice Department takes the approach the Times describes, the issue of classification might fall away altogether. But that could potentially make the First Amendment questions even more profound. A reporter who asks a county clerk for a document that is traditionally sealed might be committing a crime. And with virtually all information stored on computers these days, almost anyone who asks a government employee a question the employee might not need to know the answer to might be conspiring in an unauthorized intrusion into a government information system.

Jack Balkin:

Journalists are not merely passive recipients of information they receive from their sources. It make take weeks of negotiations (and rounds of drinks at the Mayflower Hotel) to get a source to agree to provide sensitive information, and work out the details of the disclosure. Agreements not to reveal a source who provides sensitive information are just that, agreements. If prosecutors wanted to, they would argue that such agreements were part of a conspiracy to leak classified information under the Espionage Act or related statutes.

Journalists should be very worried about the conspiracy theory that the Justice Department is considering. It puts them (and their jobs) in serious danger.

Glenn Greenwald:

Very rarely do investigative journalists merely act as passive recipients of classified information; secret government programs aren’t typically reported because leaks just suddenly show up one day in the email box of a passive reporter.  Journalists virtually always take affirmative steps to encourage its dissemination.  They try to cajole leakers to turn over documents to verify their claims and consent to their publication.  They call other sources to obtain confirmation and elaboration in the form of further leaks and documents.  Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau described how they granted anonymity to “nearly a dozen current and former officials” to induce them to reveal information about Bush’s NSA eavesdropping program.  Dana Priest contacted numerous “U.S. and foreign officials” to reveal the details of the CIA’s “black site” program.  Both stories won Pulitzer Prizes and entailed numerous, active steps to cajole sources to reveal classified information for publication.

Read Full Post »

The New York Times reports:

Federal prosecutors, seeking to build a case against the WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange for his role in a huge dissemination of classified government documents, are looking for evidence of any collusion in his early contacts with an Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the information.

[…]If Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped the analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to extract classified military and State Department files from a government computer system., they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.

And what’s the evidence the government has? Apparently Manning, in a chat with another ex-hacker who ultimately turned him in, said the following:

1) He had contacted Wikileaks/Julian Assange and sent him a test leak to make sure Assange was genuine.

2) After being convinced of Assange’s authenticity, he sent him more files, during which he was in direct online contact with Assange who had set up a special server for him to upload these files.

3) Much later, he also physically gave a Wikileaks agent/intermediary a CD containing the files because the slow internet connection made it difficult for Manning to upload these files directly.

The government thinks that if it charges Assange as a co-conspirator based on these facts it can avoid constitutional issues.

There is just one problem. There is nothing in these facts that make Wikileaks a co-conspirator, or distinguishes the Assange — Manning relationship in any way from traditional reporter — source relationships.

Direct online contact? Meeting with Wikileaks intermediary? Every reporter who has unearthed a major story has been in direct contact with his source. Bob Woodward contacted Deep throat innumerable times as he investigated the Watergate scandal. From Wikipedia:

Woodward claimed that he would signal “Deep Throat” that he desired a meeting by placing a flowerpot with a red flag on the balcony of his apartment. When Deep Throat wanted a meeting he would make special marks on page twenty of Woodward’s copy of The New York Times; he would circle the page number and draw clock hands to indicate the hour. They often met “on the bottom level of an underground garage just over the Key Bridge in Rosslyn,” at 2:00 a.m. The garage is located at 1401 Wilson Boulevard.

Or consider the Pentagon papers case, the closest parallel to Wikileaks. Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker, met Neil Sheehan, the NY Times reporter and gave him 43 volumes of the papers.

So if  Assange is charged as a co-conspirator rather than a publisher based on these facts Manning told Lamo, it would be a travesty of justice and the danger to the future of the First Amendment will be no less grave. Every future reporter-source relationship will be in jeopardy; nothing will stop future prosecution of reporters as conspirators.

Who is a co-conspirator? The standard dictionary definition is one who engages with an agreement with another to break the law at some time in the future, and, usually, with at least one overt act in furtherance of that agreement. In this case, by all accounts, Manning obtained the files himself. He contacted Wikileaks because he wanted them published. How on earth does that make Wikileaks a member of a conspiracy?

But the government is no fool. They surely know all this, and the difficulty they will have in convincing an honest judge that Assange is a co-conspirator because he was in early contact with Manning. Why then — apart from the obvious legal and political advantage of going after conspirators rather than media organizations — are they pursuing this angle?

I wondered for a while about this. And I think I now know the answer. The answer lies in Glenn Greenwald’s heartbreaking piece from yesterday, about the inhuman conditions in which Bradley Manning, the supposed leaker, is being held.

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement.  For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell.  Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.  For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).

[…]The brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.

Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture.  In his widely praised March, 2009 New Yorker article — entitled “Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?” — the surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande assembled expert opinion and personal anecdotes to demonstrate that, as he put it, “all human beings experience isolation as torture.”  By itself, prolonged solitary confinement routinely destroys a person’s mind and drives them into insanity.  A March, 2010 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law explains that “solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.”

Gawande documents that “EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement.”  Medical tests conducted in 1992 on Yugoslavian prisoners subjected to an average of six months of isolation — roughly the amount to which Manning has now been subjected — “revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement.  Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”

And so far, Manning hasn’t been even presented in court, let alone convicted. So why is he been held in such terrible conditions, and for so long?

Here is my theory why. The authorities hope that by destroying Manning mentally and spiritually, by breaking him completely from within, they will be able to make him testify against Assange . The government intends to read him a script and force him to follow it.

The New York Times hints at the same thing:

Prosecutors could overcome that hurdle if they obtain other evidence about any early contacts — especially if they could persuade Private Manning to testify against Mr. Assange.

So far they are not succeeding. Manning has refused to cooperate with the authorities.

Manning, as Greenwald writes, is a “whistleblower in the purest and most noble form:  discovering government secrets of criminal and corrupt acts and then publicizing them to the world not for profit, not to give other nations an edge, but to trigger worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” Indeed, from the transcript of Manning’s chat with Lamo:

Manning: i mean what if i were someone more malicious- i could’ve sold to russia or china, and made bank?

Lamo: why didn’t you?

Manning: because it’s public data

Lamo: i mean, the cables

Manning: it belongs in the public domain -information should be free – it belongs in the public domain – because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge – if its out in the open… it should be a public good.

As Dan Ellsberg, the hero behind the Pentagon papers said, Manning and Assange are his heroes today. And if they are the heroes, who are the villains? It is not hard to see the answer to that.

Read Full Post »

I am a great fan of Wikileaks. I think they are playing an extremely valuable role in “promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for an authentically liberal democracy” *. As Clay Shirky puts it,

Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name, to engage in what Pierre Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy”*, the democracy of citizens distrusting rather than legitimizing the actions of the state. Wikileaks plainly improves those abilities.

Still, I see the concerns of those who are worried that ongoing leaks from the US embassy cables will affect diplomacy adversely, push things further under the carpet, hurt the interests of the US and other nations, maybe even increase the chance of war. These concerns are legitimate and I will not try to go into a detailed explanation here as to why I think they are overwrought. Suffice it to say that I believe that the status quo is so much to the side of government secrecy these days that that, not too much transparency, is by far the greater danger.

So this post will not defend the thesis that Wikileaks is good and Julian Assange is a hero. That is a thesis both true and worth defending, but not what I wish to write about today. This post will be much more personal. It will be about darkness and disillusionment. It will be about the reaction to Wikileaks, and what it forebodes for freedom in the US.

***

Consider for a moment, what has been the reaction to Wikileaks from prominent US politicians and much of the mainstream American media.

(*) That Assange should be treated as a “traitor” and murdered with no due process has been strongly suggested by Marc Thiessen, Seth Lipsky (with Jeffrey Goldberg posting Lipsky’s column and also illiterately accusing Assange of “treason”), Jonah Goldberg, Rep. Pete King, and The Wall Street Journal.

Not all of the bullies were content with merely making statements. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security, contacted Amazon and pressured the company into cutting off Wikileaks from hosting its files on its cloud server. He did the same with Tableau, a small software company that was merely hosting some charts summarizing the material released by WikiLeaks , such as the charts counting the documents which originated from each country, the number of documents by year, etc. none of which is classified.

There is also strong evidence that the US government has itself been involved in compelling private companies, such as Paypal and Visa, to cut off Wikileaks’ fund sources. Moreover there has been absurd and sad attempts at censorship of American college students. A State Department official warned students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government could jeopardize their prospects by posting links to WikiLeaks online, or even by discussing the leaked documents on social networking sites (!)

And while I think it is irresponsible to make any definite conclusions about the legitimacy of the rape charges for which Assange is wanted in Sweden, going by the fact that the handling of the case has been highly irregular, I will not be too surprised if it turns out that the charges are essentially bogus and the prosecution is acting under pressure from the US so that they can hold on to him till the US formally submits an extradition request.

Note that neither Assange nor Wikileaks has ever been held directly or indirectly responsible for even a single death by their disclosures, and Robert Gates, the US defence secretary himself admitted that while some of the cable leaks were embarrassing or awkward, the consequences for US foreign policy would be “fairly modest”. All of this makes the extra-legal pursuits by the authorities, the dictating of terms to private companies and the equating of an information disseminator like Assange with actual violent terrorists extremely shocking. I think Shirky is right on the money here:

When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. (Calls for Julian’s assassination are even more nauseating.)

***

But yet, strangely enough, it is not the extra-legal methods and the skirting of due process that disturb me the most about the whole affair. It is the fact that if the American authorities ever manage to get Assange extradited and then succesfully prosecute him (neither will be easy) for these disclosures, it will mean the end of the First Amendment as we know it.

Reports suggest that such action is being considered at the highest level. Eric Holder confirmed a couple of weeks ago that there is “an active, ongoing, criminal investigation” about Wikileaks. More recently, there have been reports that the Obama DOJ has convened a Grand Jury to consider bringing charges against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. If this is correct, it would be a greater assault on press freedom than anything attempted by the much reviled Bush, indeed perhaps the greatest assault on press freedom in the last fifty years.

At this point, it is necessary to clear a few things.

1. For the purpose of American law, Wikileaks most definitely qualifies as a member of the press. Note that Wikileaks does not solicit newsleaks directly and they do not contact potential leakers. If the leaks come to them voluntarily, they simply take steps to protect the identity of the source, and eventually, if deemed newsworthy, the leaks are published on their site, along with commentary and explanations. If Wikileaks did not exist, the leakers would go to traditional newspapers, such as the New York Times. As far as this case is concerned, there is no intellectually coherent way to distinguish between Wikileaks and other members of the press that have also published the same leaked cables (NY Times, Guardian, Der Spiegel…), often before Wikileaks has.

2. Some have suggested that Wikileaks could be prosecuted for possession and distribution of stolen property. It seems ridiculous to have to point out something so elementary, but information isn’t and has never been “property”. A property exists in physical form and has a unique copy. In this case, the computer files were not stolen, but copied. If someone takes a book and makes unauthorised copies of it, he is not charged with violating property laws. He is charged with violating copyright laws, a very different beast. And there are no copyright issues involved in distributing embassy cables, because according to American law, any work “prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. Government as part of that person’s official duties” is not entitled to  copyright protection. Yes, the person who actually leaked the cables can still be charged with high-level breach of contract, but Assange is not the leaker, and there is no evidence he or anyone at Wikileaks helped the leaker with the unauthorized copying.

3. Some have suggested that all these laws and protections don’t apply to Assange because he is not an American citizen. Apart from the gross immorality of such a stance and the terrible consequences it would lead to if actually implemented across the board, it is also factually untrue: once the US takes jurisdiction of someone, any prosecution must be in accordance to the law and the defendant, whether US citizen or not, typically enjoys all the constitutional protections (with a few exceptions that are not relevant in this context).

4. Some have suggested invoking privacy laws to go after Wikileaks. But privacy laws are very specific; they apply only to sensitive personal details (medical records, private letters) of private individuals and not to public figures in their official government correspondence.

But there is one law that Assange on a literal reading seems to have broken, and that is the Espionage Act of 1917, passed during the First World War. The language of the Act is breathtakingly broad: it makes it a felony for any person “having unauthorized access to…any document…relating to the national defense…which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully…[to] cause to be communicated delivered, or transmitted [any document]…to any person not entitled to receive it.” So on a literal reading, this Act would apply to the actual leaker as well as Wikileaks and the various newspapers that republished it, and even your next door neighbour who puts a link to Wikileaks on his Facebook profile. As American University law professor Stephen Vladeck told ABC News , “one of the flaws of the Espionage Act is that it draws no distinction between the leaker or the spy and the recipient of the information, no matter how far downstream the recipient is.”

There is just one problem. The Espionage Act has never been successfully used to prosecute a media organization. It is generally believed that such a prosecution would fail because of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.

There is little doubt that the First Amendment applies in this case. Wikileaks is certainly a member of the press; besides, as the Supreme Court once noted, “Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which is not confined to newspapers and periodicals.” Indeed, the freedom belongs to everyone from “the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph . . . [to] the large metropolitan publisher.”

Let me repeat that for emphasis. Wikileaks and its leaked cables is exactly the sort of thing that the First Amendment protects. Free speech gives Wikileaks, and other members of the press, the right to disseminate any information provided by a source, regardless of whether the said source obtained this information legally or illegally, so long as the material is not libelous (and even this would only invite a civil penalty) or incite imminent lawless action (which is a very high standard to meet and is certainly not the case here).

The closest parallel to Wikileaks was the Pentagon Papers case. There, the federal government took the New York Times to court under the Espionage Act because it was about to publish classified documents relating to the Vietnam war. The government lost that case. The New York Times went ahead and published the truth about the Vietnam war in what was a watershed moment in American history.

Dan Ellsberg, the whistleblower behind the NY Times Pentagon Papers leaks, is a fan of WikiLeaks in particular and whistleblowers in general. He argues that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law… I’ve sort of been waiting for somebody to do this for forty years.”

Based on the Pentagon Papers precedent, it may seem obvious that Wikileaks is in no real danger of prosecution. But there is a small problem. In the Pentagon papers case, the government wanted the Supreme Court to issue a prior restraint injunction barring the publishing of the documents by the NY Times and other newspapers. The Supreme Court declined to do so on First Amendment grounds. But what if the government had gone to court again after the fact and sought to punish the newspapers for breaking the law? How would the judges have ruled then? It is unclear.

What is clear is this. In the unlikely event that the government succeeds in convicting Assange under the Espionage Act, it will set a tremendous precedent. It will mean that the Court will for the first time have ruled that when applied to the press, secrecy and national defence interests protected by the Espionage Act trump the First Amendment when the two are in clash. Previously only actual spies and leakers were under the ambit of this Act. Now everyone, in particular all journalists, bloggers and  whistleblowers, will be. Since there is no limit to what governments can classify, it will have a breathtaking effect on the future of investigative and political journalism. As I have already made clear, there is no intellectually coherent way to distinguish between Wikileaks and traditional newspapers. They will all be at risk from future prosecution. During the Bush administration, there were in fact several explicit threats to prosecute members of the press for reporting things the government wanted kept secret. The Bush administration never went ahead and did so because they thought such a prosecution could not succeed. If the Obama administration succeeds in this case, nothing will stop them, or future governments,  from using their new found power to censor free speech whenever they want to. Without the First Amendment as an effective bulwark against government overreach, it will be easy for the government, especially in times of war or fear thereof, to haul up dissenters and silence journalists. In fact the Espionage Act, as written, does not even require that information need be classified for its disclosure to be actionable.

Even the newspapers, previously detached or pro-prosecution, have started realising the grave danger. The Washington Times‘ reporter Eli Lake wrote:  “I oppose the application of the espionage statute to Assange because the same kind of prosecution would make me a criminal too.” The New York Times‘ Eric Lichtblau and The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest warned that prosecuting WikiLeaks would endanger investigative journalism generally. The Washington Post Editorial Page came out in opposition to prosecuting WikiLeaks on Sunday, recognizing that “the government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets” and that “doing so would criminalize the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media organizations.”

***

But I have not yet really explained why I am so bothered by all this. I am not an American citizen; nothing binds me to that land. And if one takes the universal moral standpoint — why, yes it is immoral and rights-violating to persecute Wikileaks for its exercise of free speech — but there are far worse violations of rights happening around the world on most days. It may seem almost silly that I find the Wikileaks episode so disturbing and am less affected by the various attacks on individual liberty by the government of my home country, India.

Now, I despise collectivism. I am an Indian citizen who has lived in the US, but I owe allegiance to no country, and never will. But here’s the thing; as a principled libertarian, I don’t get to see our cherished principles in action very much. Even the US is not really particularly libertarian, it is better than most, but worse than many, especially on social  issues. And the US foreign policy over the last sixty years has been as unlibertarian and violative of rights as one can possibly get.

But on the single issue of freedom of the press, the US has for the most part, been outstanding. And there is really one reason for that. It is the First Amendment.

Laws  — and the rights granted therein — are the engines that sustain modern liberal democracies. And of all laws, there is none as special as the First Amendment. Of the innumerable fundamental rights enshrined in the constitutions of various countries, the First Amendment is the most amazing, the most successful, the most astonishing. It is, to me, the jewel of the entire legal compendium.

The greatness of the First Amendment lies in its absoluteness. Other countries that had incorporated weaker versions of free speech protection, — i.e. with caveats — were ultimately left with no real free speech at all. As I have often pointed out, it is only speech that offends that requires government protection. Recent events in Canada and Europe have amply displayed the chilling effects of hate-crimes legislation.

In the US one can insult entire groups and not be charged with hate speech. One can write books on how to commit suicide or pamphlets about how to be an effective anarchist and generally have no fear that the government will ban them. One can criticize the government or make parodies of well-known figures without fear of legal trouble. One can burn the American Flag if one chooses, even though most people think it should be illegal to do so, and not worry about ending up in jail.

Yes the First Amendment, or rather the version as currently applied after numerous interpretations by the courts — is not perfect. For instance, courts have ruled that obscene material — usually extreme pornography — that have no other social value do not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be banned. I think that is a huge blemish on the First Amendment. The First also, sadly, does not fully protect certain sorts of commercial speech. But we do not live in a libertopia, and these are some of the few rare blemishes. Overall, the free speech rights in the US exceed that of any country I know of and comes pretty close to being perfect. There are some other restrictions on free speech that the First Amendment does not protect, such as libel, or words that lead to imminent lawless action, but I think those restrictions are more or less justified.

Ah, free speech. It’s such a radical concept, if you think about it historically. And the fact that the founders of the US put in this clause in the constitution, without caveats or modifiers, over 200 years ago, is nothing short of astounding. There have been many proposed US laws that have been — rightly — ruled unconstitutional because they violated the First. It is almost a miracle to see a  sentence make so much difference, often working against heavy popular opinion.

As a NY Times commenter once put it, the point of freedom of speech isn’t to protect the content that everyone agrees is acceptable or even desirable–there’d be no purpose to an amendment that protected what everyone agreed was worth protecting. The point of freedom is speech is to protect the content that exists at the margins of society; the things that many people find to be objectionable or even reprehensible. Without such protections, core values of our civil society are at risk.

It is the rigorous application of the First Amendment that has, more than anything else, preserved these core values in America. And of all the forms of speech, none is as valuable as political speech, and by extension political reporting. It is this form of speech that governments and tyrants will seek to clamp upon, often in the guise of the national interest. It is important to be extremely vigilant against any attempt at doing so. Ben Franklin once wrote “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.” If the First gets distorted beyond recognition, as a successful Wikileaks prosecution will undoubtedly do, that country will not be the US.

Read Full Post »

Here are some recent articles on Wikileaks that are worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald:

The WikiLeaks disclosure has revealed not only numerous government secrets, but also the driving mentality of major factions in our political and media class.  Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S.  Indeed, I don’t quite recall any entity producing as much bipartisan contempt across the American political spectrum as WikiLeaks has:  as usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon.

[…]

Before setting forth why these WikiLeaks disclosures produce vastly more good than harm, I’ll state several caveats as clearly as I can.  Unlike the prior leaks of war documents, there are reasonable concerns about this latest leak (most particularly that impeding diplomacy makes war more likely).  Like all organizations, WikiLeaks has made mistakes in the past, including its failure to exercise enough care in redacting the names of Afghan informers.  Moreover, some documents are legitimately classified, probably including some among the documents that were just disclosed.

Nonetheless, our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.  And few organizations besides WikiLeaks are doing anything to subvert that regime of secrecy, and none is close to its efficacy.  It’s staggering to watch anyone walk around acting as though the real threat is from excessive disclosures when the impenetrable, always-growing Wall of Secrecy is what has enabled virtually every abuse and transgression of the U.S. government over the last two decades at least.

Democracy in America:

I think we all understand that the work of even the most decent governments is made more difficult when they cannot be sure their communications will be read by those for whom they were not intended. That said, there is no reason to assume that the United States government is always up to good. To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.

If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.

Jack Shafer:

International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week’s WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are. Why is that? Is it because when scandal rips up the turf, revealing the vile creepy-crawlies thrashing and scurrying about, we’re glad when authority intervenes to quickly tamp the grass back down and re-establish our pastoral innocence with bland assurances that the grubby malfeasants are mere outliers and one-offs who will be punished? Is it because our schooling has left us hopelessly naïve about how the world works? Or do we just fail to pay attention?

Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he’s a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he’s a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I’d like you to meet.

The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom.
Attorney General Eric Holder says his Justice Department is going after WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. At first glance, it seems like a straightforward case. Almost half of the 250,000 internal State Department cables Assange has published are classified, either at the confidential or the secret level (no top-secret documents are included), and rarely does the target of a criminal investigation commit his alleged crime so publicly. Holder knows it will not be easy, however. He realizes that as much as we may condemn Assange’s actions, they were not obviously criminal.
[…] The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted a media entity for a leak. It is typically much easier to bring such cases against the government officials who do the leaking, because they sign nondisclosure agreements surrendering many of the legal protections they otherwise would enjoy.

[…] What law did Assange violate? It will surprise many that there is no statute making it illegal to reveal classified information. There are statutes that criminalize the disclosure of very specific types of classified information, such as the identity of a covert operative (think Valerie Plame) or “codes, ciphers or cryptographic systems.” But there is no catch-all law that simply says, “Thou shalt not disclose classified information.”

Indeed, when Congress tried to enact such a statute, President Bill Clinton sensibly vetoed it. His reason: The government suffers from such an overclassification problem – some intelligence agencies classify even newspaper articles – that a law of this sort would end up criminalizing the disclosure of innocuous information. And even that vetoed statute would have applied only to government officials, not to private individuals or journalists.

[…] The fact that classified information is involved does not preclude First Amendment safeguards. In the AIPAC case, Judge Ellis rejected the prosecutors’ categorical – and dangerous – argument that when classified information is at issue, the First Amendment affords no protection. Of course, the First Amendment is no license to disclose the recipe for the plutonium bomb to Osama bin Laden. But the Justice Department would have to prove that Assange’s disclosures were so dangerous to national security as to override the First Amendment. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” That is a heavy burden to meet.
[…]In 1971, Solicitor General Erwin Griswold asked the Supreme Court to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers because it would cause a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Twenty-eight years later, he reversed his position in an op-ed piece in this paper. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers, Griswold wrote. Moreover, he expressed the view that “there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past.” 

What took 28 years to happen with the Pentagon Papers is already happening with the WikiLeaks cables. Although the State Department is of the opinion that Assange’s leaks have done serious damage to our national security – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called them “an attack on America” responsible for “endangering innocent people” and “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations” – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a savvy Washington veteran, has expressed a different view.

“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 last week. “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. . . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

If Assange is ultimately charged with disclosing information that is potentially damaging to national security, Eric Holder now knows who Assange will call as his first witness: the secretary of defense.

****

I do not have much to add beyond the articles quoted above. Suffice it to say that I believe that Wikileaks is playing an invaluable role in improving the world. Anything that acts as a counter-force against State secrecy is a good thing.

There are not many heroes in our era. Julian Assange is one of those rare few.

If you think similarly, or feel strongly about issues like censorship and free speech and government openness, I think it is imperative that you support Wikileaks by donating to them. Here’s the link.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.