WikiLeaks reveals more than just government secrets
(updated below – Update II)
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.
First we have the group demanding that Julian Assange be murdered without any charges, trial or due process. There was Sarah Palin on on Twitter illiterately accusing WikiLeaks — a stateless group run by an Australian citizen — of “treason”; she thereafter took to her Facebook page to object that Julian Assange was “not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders” (she also lied by stating that he has “blood on his hands”: a claim which even the Pentagon admits is untrue). Townhall’s John Hawkins has a column this morning entitled “5 Reasons The CIA Should Have Already Killed Julian Assange.” That Assange should be treated as a “traitor” and murdered with no due process has been strongly suggested if not outright urged by the likes of Marc Thiessen, Seth Lipsky (with Jeffrey Goldberg posting Lipsky’s column and also illiterately accusing Assange of “treason”), Jonah Goldberg, Rep. Pete King, and, today, The Wall Street Journal.
The way in which so many political commentators so routinely and casually call for the eradication of human beings without a shred of due process is nothing short of demented. Recall Palin/McCain adviser Michael Goldfarb’s recent complaint that the CIA failed to kill Ahmed Ghailani when he was in custody, or Glenn Reynolds’ morning demand — in between sips of coffee — that North Korea be destroyed with nuclear weapons (“I say nuke ‘em. And not with just a few bombs”). Without exception, all of these people cheered on the attack on Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 innocent human beings, yet their thirst for slaughter is literally insatiable. After a decade’s worth of American invasions, bombings, occupations, checkpoint shootings, drone attacks, assassinations and civilian slaughter, the notion that the U.S. Government can and should murder whomever it wants is more frequent and unrestrained than ever.
Those who demand that the U.S. Government take people’s lives with no oversight or due process as though they’re advocating changes in tax policy or mid-level personnel moves — eradicate him!, they bellow from their seats in the Colosseum — are just morally deranged barbarians. There’s just no other accurate way to put it. These are usually the same people, of course, who brand themselves “pro-life” and Crusaders for the Sanctity of Human Life and/or who deride Islamic extremists for their disregard for human life. And the fact that this mindset is so widespread and mainstream is quite a reflection of how degraded America’s political culture is. When WikiLeaks critics devote a fraction of their rage to this form of mainstream American thinking — which, unlike anything WikiLeaks has done, has actually resulted in piles upon piles of corpses — then their anti-WikiLeaks protestations should be taken more seriously, but not until then.
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Then, with some exceptions, we have the group which — so very revealingly — is the angriest and most offended about the WikiLeaks disclosures: the American media, Our Watchdogs over the Powerful and Crusaders for Transparency. On CNN last night, Wolf Blitzer was beside himself with rage over the fact that the U.S. Government had failed to keep all these things secret from him:
Are they doing anything at all to make sure if some 23-year-old guy, allegedly, starts downloading hundreds of thousands of cables, hundreds of thousands of copies of sensitive information, that no one pays attention to that, no one in the security system of the United States government bothers to see someone is downloading all these millions –
literally millions of documents? . . . at this point, you know, it — it’s amazing to me that the U.S. government security system is so lax that someone could allegedly do this kind of damage just by simply pretending to be listening to a Lady Gaga C.D. and at the same time downloading all these kinds of documents.
Then — like the Good Journalist he is — Blitzer demanded assurances that the Government has taken the necessary steps to prevent him, the media generally and the citizenry from finding out any more secrets: “Do we know yet if they’ve [done] that fix? In other words, somebody right now who has top secret or secret security clearance can no longer download information onto a C.D. or a thumb drive? Has that been fixed already?” The central concern of Blitzer — one of our nation’s most honored “journalists” – is making sure that nobody learns what the U.S. Government is up to.
Then there’s the somewhat controversial claim that our major media stars are nothing more than Government spokespeople and major news outlets little more than glorified state-run media. Blitzer’s CNN reporting provided the best illustration I’ve seen in awhile demonstrating how true that is. Shortly before bringing on David Gergen to rail against WikiLeaks’ “contemptible behavior” (while, needless to say, not giving voice to any defenders of WikiLeaks), this is what was heard in the first several minutes of the CNN broadcast:
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.
Happening now, a criminal investigation into the leak of U.S. diplomatic secrets. . . . The White House says it would be an understatement to say that President Obama is not pleased about these leaks. The Justice Department says a criminal investigation is ongoing and the State Department is leading attempts at international damage control right now.
Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is over at the State Department working the story for us.
And there’s enormous potential damage for the United States in these — in these leaks, Jill. I assume that’s what officials there are telling you.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. They’re pretty overt about it. It could be very, very damaging. . . . The Secretary slammed the release of the cables, calling it an attack.
CLINTON: This is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community. . . .
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Let me be very clear, this is not saber rattling.
DOUGHERTY: The U.S. attorney general is not ruling out going after the WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, even though he is not an American citizen.
HOLDER: To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law and who has put at risk the assets and the people that I have described, they will be held responsible.
That’s CNN’s journalism: uncritically passing on one government claim after the next — without any contradiction,
challenge, or scrutiny. Other than Blitzer’s anger over the Government’s failure to more effectively keep secrets from everyone, what would an overtly state-run media do differently? Absolutely nothing. It’s just so revealing that the sole criticism of the Government allowed to be heard is that they haven’t done enough to keep us all in the dark.
Then we have The New York Times, which was denied access to the documents by WikiLeaks this time but received them from The Guardian. That paper’s Executive Editor, Bill Keller, appeared in a rather amazing BBC segment yesterday with Carne Ross, former British Ambassador to the U.N., who mocked and derided Keller for being guided by the U.S. Government’s directions on what should and should not be published (video below):
KELLER: The charge the administration has made is directed at WikiLeaks: they’ve very carefully refrained from criticizing the press for the way we’ve handled this material . . . . We’ve redacted them to remove the names of confidential informants . . . and remove other material at the recommendation of the U.S. Government we were convinced could harm National Security . . .
HOST (incredulously): Just to be clear, Bill Keller, are you saying that you sort of go to the Government in advance and say: “What about this, that and the other, is it all right to do this and all right to do that,” and you get clearance, then?
KELLER: We are serially taking all of the cables we intend to post on our website to the administration, asking for their advice. We haven’t agreed with everything they suggested to us, but some of their recommendations we have agreed to: they convinced us that redacting certain information would be wise.
ROSS: One thing that Bill Keller just said makes me think that one shouldn’t go to The New York Times for these telegrams — one should go straight to the WikiLeaks site. It’s extraordinary that the New York Times is clearing what it says about this with the U.S. Government, but that says a lot about the politics here, where Left and Right have lined up to attack WikiLeaks – some have called it a “terrorist organization.”
It’s one thing for the Government to shield its conduct from public disclosure, but it’s another thing entirely for the U.S. media to be active participants in that concealment effort. As The Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins put it in a superb column that I can’t recommend highly enough: “The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. . . . Clearly, it is for governments, not journalists, to protect public secrets.” But that’s just it: the media does exactly what Jenkins says is not their job, which — along with envy over WikiLeaks’ superior access to confidential information — is what accounts for so much media hostility toward that group. As the headline of John Kampfner’s column in The Independent put it: “Wikileaks shows up our media for their docility at the feet of authority.”
Most political journalists rely on their relationships with government officials and come to like them and both identify and empathize with them. By contrast, WikiLeaks is truly adversarial to those powerful factions in exactly the way that these media figures are not: hence, the widespread media hatred and contempt for what WikiLeaks does. Just look at
how important it was for Bill Keller to emphasize that the Government is criticizing WikiLeaks but not The New York Times; having the Government pleased with his behavior is his metric for assessing how good his “journalism” is. If the Government is patting him on the head, then it’s proof that he acted “responsibly.” That servile-to-power mentality is what gets exposed by the contrast Wikileaks provides.
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Then we have the Good Citizens who are furious that WikiLeaks has shown them what their Government is doing and, conversely, prevented the Government from keeping things from them. Joshua Foust — who says “he’s spent the vast majority of his adult life doing defense and intelligence consulting for the U.S. government” — has a private Twitter feed for various intelligence officials and reporters, behind which he’s been bravely railing against WikiLeaks defenders (including me) and hysterically blaming WikiLeaks disclosures for everything from Chinese cyber warfare to the next terrorist attack. Plenty of other people are reciting anti-WikiLeaks condemnations from the same script.
It’s hardly surprising that people like Foust who work for the Government and depend upon staying in its good graces are screeching all sorts of fear-mongering claims (he’s apparently a DIA analyst under contract for Northrop Grumman, though he doesn’t disclose that to his readers). That’s what the Government, its enablers and royal court hangers-on do: you wind them up and they insist that any restraints on, or exposure of, the U.S. Government will help the Terrorists get us, and subject us to other scary dangers. But what’s extraordinary is that these strident claims continue even after the U.S. Government’s prior “blood-on-their-hands” warnings have been exposed as wildly exaggerated. As the pro-Obama, pro-National Security State New York Times Editorial Page put it today with great understatement: “The claim by  Clinton that the leaks threaten national security seems exaggerated.”
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.
In sum, I seriously question the judgment of anyone who — in the face of the orgies of secrecy the U.S. Government enjoys and, more so, the abuses they have accomplished by operating behind it — decides that the real threat is WikiLeaks for subverting that ability. That’s why I said yesterday: one’s reaction to WikiLeaks is largely shaped by whether or not one, on balance, supports what the U.S. has been covertly doing in the world by virtue of operating in the dark. I concur wholeheartedly with Digby’s superb commentary on this point yesterday:
My personal feeling is that any allegedly democratic government that is so hubristic that it will lie blatantly to the entire world in order to invade a country it has long wanted to invade probably needs a self-correcting mechanism. There are times when it’s necessary that the powerful be shown that there are checks on its behavior, particularly when the systems normally designed to do that are breaking down. Now is one of those times. . . . .As for the substance of the revelations, I don’t know what the results will be. But in the world of diplomacy, embarrassment is meaningful and I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing for all these people to be embarrassed right now. Puncturing a certain kind of self-importance — especially national self-importance — may be the most worthwhile thing they do. A little humility is long overdue.
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.
As Scott Shane, the New York Times‘ national security reporter, puts it: “American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations”. Mr Shane goes on to suggest that “Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
I’d say providing that information certainly would have been a socially worthy activity, even if it came as part of a more-or-less indiscriminate dump of illegally obtained documents. I’m glad to see that the quality of discussion over possible US efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions has already become more sophisticated and, well, better-informed
due to the information provided by WikiLeaks.
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.
The central goal of WikiLeaks is to prevent the world’s most powerful factions — including the sprawling, imperial U.S. Government — from continuing to operate in the dark and without restraints. Most of the institutions which are supposed to perform that function — beginning with the U.S. Congress and the American media — not only fail to do so, but are active participants in maintaining the veil of secrecy. WikiLeaks, whatever its flaws, is one of the very few entities shining a vitally needed light on all of this. It’s hardly surprising, then, that those factions — and their hordes of spokespeople, followers and enablers — see WikiLeaks as a force for evil. That’s evidence of how much good they are doing.
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Two related items: FAIR documents how severely and blatantly the New York Times reporting distorted some of these documents in order (as always) to demonize Iran and the “threat” it poses. And Assange, in an interview with Forbes, says that the next leak will target a major U.S. bank.
And here is the above-referenced BBC segment with Bill Keller:
UPDATE: Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked today about the WikiLeaks disclosures and he said this:
“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. . . .
“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’’
To recap: warnings about the dangers from WikiLeaks are “significantly overwrought” and the impact on foreign policy: “fairly modest.” So it appears that the political class and its eager enablers in the media world and foreign policy community have — as usual — severely exaggerated national security threats in order to manipulate the public and its emotional reactions. Shocking, I know.
UPDATE II: I was on Canada’s CBC earlier tonight talking about these issues; it can be seen here. I’ll also be on MSNBC tomorrow, at roughly 10:00 a.m., on the same topic.
- More: Glenn Greenwald