Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and a man who a year ago was relatively unknown, is now the victim of a vicious, international attack. This attack is simultaneously occurring on the political, legal, and economic fronts. Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, claims that Assange ought to be "hunted down" and Tim Flanagan, a former aide to the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, claimed that he ought to be assassinated, perhaps by "a drone or something." Republican Mike Huckabee, often regarded as one of the main 2012 presidential candidates, recently stated that the leaker of U.S. classified documents, Bradley Manning, ought to be executed for treason. There is no telling what he would do, if it were up to him, to Julian Assange, the main transparency and democracy protagonist in this case.
Right-wing fantasies aside, Interpol, the international police agency, has just sent out an provisional arrest warrant for Assange who is currently in Britain. The charges rest tentatively on the grounds that, essentially, Assange did not use a condom during sexual intercourse with two women in Sweden. Obviously, international searches for such heinous criminals are warranted!
Perhaps we ought to be a little more than skeptical about the timing of such legal charges, especially considering they had previously been dropped, only to be picked back up again once Assange released more documents about U.S. foreign and diplomatic policy. There are, however, for more serious legal challenges ahead for Assange. Attorney General Eric Holder has recently claimed that U.S. officials are looking into prosecuting Assange under the Espionage act. These threats, if followed through on, could prove far more serious for Assange.
Furthermore, the government has, essentially, forced servers to simply drop WikiLeaks from their realms. Amazon.com and EveryDNS has removed WikiLeaks, caving to government pressure. As I am writing this I have tried to access WikiLeaks online, to no avail. As one commentator stated, “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books." Maybe they are right.
So, what exactly does the organization claim to do? Well, according their website:
WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.
Why is all this being done? After all, so many within the government, and the pundits outside of it, claim that what WikiLeaks is doing is relatively unimportant. They argue it has no real effect, that the information presented was already known and nothing substantial has come from these reports. Aside from the right-wing rhetoric of treason and espionage, the main discourse has revolved around the idea that the work Assange, and those working with him, are carrying out is, simply, not that significant. This was the official government line after the first major leak of Iraq war documents, and has been echoed ever since then. Glenn Greenwald, legal writer for Salon.com, briefly summarized why this is an outright lie:
If there's Nothing New in these documents, can Jonathan Capehart (or any other "journalist" claiming this) please point to whereThe Washington Post previously reported on these facts, all revealed by the WikiLeaks disclosures:
(1) the U.S. military formally adopted a policy of turning a blind eyeto systematic, pervasive torture and other abuses by Iraqi forces;(2) the State Department threatened Germany not to criminally investigate the CIA's kidnapping of one of its citizens who turned out to be completely innocent;(3) the State Department under Bush and Obama applied continuous pressure on the Spanish Government to suppress investigations of the CIA's torture of its citizens and the 2003 killing of a Spanish photojournalist when the U.S. military fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad (see The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch today about this: "The day Barack Obama Lied to me");(4) the British Government privately promised to shield Bush officials from embarrassment as part of its Iraq War "investigation";(6) "American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world" about the Iraq war as it was prosecuted, a conclusion the Post's own former Baghdad Bureau Chief wrote was proven by the WikiLeaks documents;(7) the U.S.'s own Ambassador concluded that the July, 2009 removal of the Honduran President was illegal -- a coup -- but the State Department did not want to conclude that and thus ignored it until it was too late to matter;(8) U.S. and British officials colluded to allow the U.S. to keep cluster bombs on British soil even though Britain had signed the treaty banning such weapons, and,(9) Hillary Clinton's State Department ordered diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data on U.N. and other foreign officials, almost certainly in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961.
That's just a sampling.
Obviously, the WikiLeaks has done nothing argument simply does not hold up to the evidence. Similarly, we can reject, out of hand, the right-wing notions of treason and espionage articulated by the most hyper-reactionary elements in our society. It should be noted that I include the Obama administration among that group, especially in relation to this particular issue. This vitriolic and super-patriotic rhetoric, as Noam Chomsky recently stated, displays little more than a "profound hatred for democracy" on behalf of our political leaders.
Arguments from more rational observers and left critics of WikiLeaks, however, are slightly more interesting to inspect. Arguments of this type against the organization revolve, fundamentally, around three primary ideas. First, WikiLeaks has made grave mistakes, threatens personal privacy, and has fallen to libel. Second, WikiLeaks endangers transparency activism by "taking it too far" and exciting a government backlash. Third, the actions taken by the organization have not fundamentally changed the way U.S. foreign policy functions.
The first charge is profoundly absurd. While it is true that within the four year existence of the organization they have made mistakes, it is also clear to anyone who cares at all for exposing human rights violations, war crimes, and the imperialist nature of U.S. foreign policy, the vast majority of the work WikiLeaks has done has provided the raw material we need to construct and supplement our arguments challenging U.S. hegemony around the world. While minor mistakes may have been made here or there in the organization's existence, such a prodigious amount of work has been done that is good in terms of exposing U.S. government policies and crimes, that it far outweighs any relatively small mistakes that some "transparency activists" have harped on.
Second, the idea that WikiLeaks endangers transparency activism by "taking it to far," a position articulated by Steven Aftergood on the DemocracyNow debate with Glenn Greenwald, is fundamentally incorrect and, worse, highly enervating for our movement. In fact, the same arguments were used by conservatives and moderates in every movement for social change and every struggle in our history. Whether it was civil rights, in which conservative leaders preached patience and legal means to achieve their ends, fearing a "white backlash," or Women's rights issues where activists were told to just wait for fear of "male backlash." Following this course of action, workers could have simply waited for bosses to increase their wages or decrease the work day. I have the strange feeling that, had our ancestors followed Aftergood's advice, we would still be working 12 hours a day for non-living wages.
The driving notion behind this critique is that activists and citizens are not the drivers of change, but the people at the top who currently hold political and economic power. Aftergood, someone who does do decent work within the confines of the system, has allowed himself to be consumed by the system. Simply trying to change the system from inside will corrupt you. Instead of relying on concrete activism and illegal, subversive activities to supplement the legal work going on, we ought to simply confine ourselves to the dominant institutions in society, the same institutions which perpetuate the oppression we are fighting against. This sort of logic is, at best, extremely naive and, at worst, purposefully misleading and debilitating.
Lastly, the idea that WikiLeaks, in and of itself, has not single-handily changed U.S. foreign policy or stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an absurdly high standard to hold any organization, especially a media organization, to. Greenwald himself responded well to this critique, explaining that the critics of WikiLeaks, who advocate actions within the system, have obviously not stopped the wars, not won prosecution of officials for war crimes, not won the transparency we need to understand and analyze our government's actions, things required for a democratic society to function. Furthermore, it is not the responsibility, nor the intended aim, of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks stated goal is to bring disclosed information to the public, to promote the transparency needed for a democratic society to function properly. We cannot, therefore, blame WikiLeaks for not building the organizational infrastructure needed to sustain a large-scale anti-war movement. We cannot blame WikiLeaks for the failures of our anti-war movement. WikiLeaks has provided the raw materials for us to use in order to build our case, to supplement our movement, but it is NOT the movement itself. It is our duty, our job, our responsibility, to take action against unjust, illegal, immoral, and imperialistic policies perpetuated by our own government.
To paraphrase Julian Assange, transparency tends to produce just government. To the extent that this is true, WikiLeaks is doing their job. It should be our job to defend them, and defend Assange, against these attacks. For those you who cherish democracy, who think that we ought to be able to criticize our government, and have the information to do so, you should sign the petition below. We ought to do whatever we can to defend organizations and people fighting for us.
We here undersigned express our support for the work and integrity of Julian Assange. We express concern that the charges against the WikiLeaks founder appear too convenient both in terms of timing and the novelty of their nature.
We call for this modern media innovator, and fighter for human rights extraordinaire, to be afforded the same rights to defend himself before Swedish justice that all others similarly charged might expect, and that his liberty not be compromised as a courtesy to those governments whose truths he has revealed have embarrassed.