Aug 202012

Art by Thierry Ehrmann via Creative Commons

A lot has been made of the uncharacteristic actions of the Swedish, British and US governments in relation to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Right now, UK military and police are laying siege to the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange has been granted diplomatic asylum. Both the UK and US have declared that they don’t recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum…even though they’ve offered it to others in the past.

Clearly, they want this guy. A lot. And they’re willing to dispense with a considerable amount of well-established international nicety to get him.

I have no idea if the charges against Assange are true. If they are, he should be punished for them. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the siege in London and ongoing effort to bang up Julian Assange don’t have anything at all to do with them.

True or false, is is obvious that they are a pretext. Three governments do not go to the lengths of violating international diplomatic protocols and surrounding an embassy with an armed encampment to incarcerate a rape suspect if that suspect is an ordinary person. So something odd and unique is going on here, evidently rooted in who Assange is, the threat WikiLeaks presents to state secrets, and the nature of information Assange may have in his possession.

Opinions on this controversy—at least, as expressed on that paragon of diverse opinion, the Intertubes—seem to fall mostly to extreme ideological poles: either Assange (and Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked a substantial body of classified military and State Department material to Assange) should be summarily executed as a traitor and a national security threat, respectively, or they are Whistle Blowing Heroes of a Free Information Age Being Oppressed By The Man, and should be set free with the thanks of a grateful world and a showering of marijuana buds.Yesterday, Assange spoke publicly for the first time in more than two months, calling for the US to call off what he described as a “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks, and characterizing Manning, if he did as he is alleged to have done, as a “hero” and an “example to us all”.

This is a complex situation, and both sides of the debate have some valid points. It’s one of those moments when ideals collide with practicalities, and there are never simple answers at such times. So here goes: my take on the whole WikiLeaks/Assange/Manning mishegas.

The undisputed facts are these: Bradley Manning or someone else provided Assange with 250,000 United States diplomatic cables (of which more than 53% are unclassified, 40% “Confidential” and 6% “Secret”), plus 500,000 army reports that came to be known as the Iraq and Afghan War logs and other classified materials. Much of this has now been released—some of it redacted to try to keep the really incendiary parts out, but let’s face it, it’s hard to know what is dangerous information when you’re not a member of the institution that created it.

I will not discuss Manning’s guilt or innocence here, or his treatment while in custody. That is irrelevant to what I am writing about here. Prisoners should be treated humanely, period. But that has nothing to do with the fundamental question of whether or not what Manning is accused of is wrong.

Some of the revelations emerging from WikiLeaks’ data dump of the leaked material have seriously embarrassed and hampered American diplomatic relations. Thousands of the military documents contained specifics about Afghans who had cooperated with US troops, giving names, locations, and ideological affiliations. It is certain that this has led at the least to intimidation of these Afghans and their families, and probably to violent reprisals. The Taliban has publicly said as much.

Release of at least some of this material also falls under a legitimate definition of whistle blowing. The so-called “Collateral Murder” helicopter video, for example, documents what is either a war crime or a tragic mistake. There isn’t any legitimate basis for classifying something like that; it was done, obviously, because it’s just easier to pretend the event didn’t happen. That’s not a valid rationale for classifying something. The American people have a right to know when those working on their behalf do something wrong.

So on the side of the Free Informationists, I grant this: abuse of secrecy happens. It is inevitable that entities which have the power to put information under wraps will use that power to avoid embarrassment, even if doing so is only for their own convenience, rather than in the genuine interests of security. That’s just the nature of power, and it is something that will always seesaw as public accountability and governmental fiat come into conflict over time.

But in the case of the Manning/whoever data dump to WikiLeaks, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of secret communications between military leaders and embassies and their command chains in Washington.

Is there stuff in there that doesn’t need to be secret? Sure. But the more pertinent question is whether there is material in the leaked documents that is deservedly classified and should remain secret, and the answer to this, clearly, is also yes.

Living here in Fortress America, and having experienced only two significant attacks in living memory—both of which lasted but a single day, and involved thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths—it is easy for many Americans to make the mistake of thinking this whole national security thing is just a paranoid scam to feed defense contractors and put the rest of the world under the American boot to as great a degree as possible. As with most conspiracy theories, there are kernels of truth to this belief.

Broadly speaking, however, it is wrong.

It is a dangerous world out there, and there are those who mean us harm. I don’t dispute that some of them have legitimate grievances, but I think it’s fair to say that while we might prefer that they pursue nonviolent resolution of those grievances, they don’t always agree. Who can blame them? The perceived threat of violence is sometimes the only leverage the powerless can muster, and the world is awash with military-grade weapons.

Security of the citizenry is the first and most fundamental charge of a national government. Check your Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: if you’re dead, you can’t very well worry about your self-actualization. And while I’m the first to grant that we devote grossly excessive amounts of our national treasure to defense, that does not mean that there is no need for defense at all.

The need for security is real. Not the pretend security theater of taking your shoes off at the airport—that’s a joke, a psy-ops charade to make people feel safer—but real security. Intelligence gathering. Understanding the nuances of the changing conditions in volatile areas where we have citizens and interests, and tracking to as great a degree as possible those who either explicitly mean us harm, like Al Queda and the Taliban, or who intend to undermine and usurp American positioning and replace it with their own, like China and Russia. Those aren’t empty exercises, and the threats they seek to defuse aren’t myths. They exist. It is a necessary function of our government to make sure those activities take place.

Sadly, homo sapiens doesn’t give peace a chance. S/he competes vigorously for land, resources, energy, and positioning. It’s always been true, and it always will be. It is how we are made.

In order to reduce the resultant bloodshed as ever-climbing populations struggle over ever-dwindling resources, over the centuries humans have developed protocols and rituals of international diplomacy and cooperation. It’s a system that works—not all of the time, but more often than not. So long as they are connected in this way, nations may express their displeasure with one another through all manner of symbolic gestures that don’t get anyone killed before considering military action. By expressing mutual respect and opting for talking about our differences as a first option, we avoid a great deal of potential armed conflict.

This shouldn’t be an alien concept for liberals who are upset about the arrests of Manning and Assange; indeed, many of them are the very same people who reacted with outrage when George W. Bush threw out the tradition of diplomacy first and asserted pre-emptive war as a first option.

The system of protocols and relationships that constitute international relations depend on the ability of the diplomatic corps to maintain a polite and respectful face towards nations to which they are deployed, while simultaneously doing the necessary work of reporting truthfully on conditions in these nations to decision makers in their own countries. Think of it as the “mother in law” strategy: the best way to meet the interests of all concerned is to keep smiling and be civil.

If they knew that their communications were subject to public exposure, diplomats would have to keep up those pretenses when reporting back to decision makers at home. But decision makers need the unvarnished truth, not pleasantries. If all information were subject to airing at any time, diplomats would have to play make-believe constantly to keep from embarrassing their host countries and undermining our interests. Meanwhile, our strategic decisions would be made on the basis of Disneyfied versions of what was going on in these countries, instead of the truth.

Oh, and thousands of our soldiers would die, too, because we’d be broadcasting our military plans to anyone who wanted to hear them.

It would be nuts.

Enter WikiLeaks, the radical theory of which is that “information ‘wants’ to be free”, and there should be no secrecy, period. So any information you can get your hands on from a government or corporation is fair game to pop up on the Internet for all the world to see.

It is an explosively dangerous idea. And I do not mean that in a good way.

Think about it for a minute. Think about what the world would look like if that vision were true. Do you want your boss to know your sexual proclivities? You want your neighbors to have access to every detail of your private life? Would you wear a t-shirt that read, “my credit card number is…”?

Of course not. There is information that does harm when it becomes public. And this is even more true for a nation-state, with its constellation of thousands of relationships and agreements, than it is for an individual.

I should mention, BTW, that I find it rather bizarre that many of the organizations and activists most upset about governments’ hostility to WikiLeaks are also those adamant about rights of privacy. At root, they are exactly the same principle: an entity, be it a person or a nation state, will have information it necessarily needs to keep to itself. And it needs to have the right and power to do that.

Sunshine and shadow must necessarily be balanced. You need the former to have an accountable democracy. But you need the latter to survive in the world, and it behooves us not to forget it.

WikiLeaks by its very nature violates that balance. By going overboard on the whole “no secrecy” thing and making no distinction between revelations of criminality and revelations of private or diplomatically or militarily sensitive information, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are squarely in the wrong.

Whistle blowing relates to crime. It doesn’t mean you can just air anything you can get your hands on. It cannot possibly be considered acceptable to do what Bradley Manning has been accused of doing. It’s wrong, and it’s dangerous.

So I’m afraid I don’t buy either Assange’s self-aggrandizing characterization of himself as an innocent victim or his facile framing of the wanton theft and distribution of state secrets as heroic. Whoever stole those cables and war logs is a criminal…and so is Assange, for releasing them.

By doing so, Assange may have looked really punk-rock to those who are enthused about poking Power in the eye, but make no mistake: he endangered lives, and may well have ended some of them. It’s nearly certain that in those cables is information which can be sifted and distilled to identify American information sources and agents who are undercover in other countries. No nation state can be expected to indulge the willful publication of this sort of information: it constitutes a survival threat for its citizens and its infrastructure of international information-gathering: the infrastructure that helps us to avoid going to war.

This brings us back to the Siege of London. It is quite clear that the UK and US view Julian Assange as a dangerous man. They can’t be going to all this trouble about WikiLeaks per se, or just to make an example of Assange, because other such sites have already sprung up on the Internet. That genie is out of the bottle for good. Yet they’re still on the verge of literally invading the territory of another country in order to get him, willing to flout those diplomatic niceties—granted, in relation to Ecuador, which doesn’t have much power to push back—in order to do so.

The only way these actions make any sense is if Assange still has in his possession unreleased information which these governments believe will be profoundly harmful if revealed.

And here is where things get sticky, because at this point, principles—like, say, due process, equal treatment under the law, &c—run up against practicalities, like we have to get control of this guy and make sure that information doesn’t get out, by any means necessary.

What they say about principles is that they are the things you choose to uphold even when they are inconvenient…otherwise, they’re not principles. I agree with that.

On the other hand, in most cases that apply to you and me, we carve out convenient loopholes in our principles from the outset. We’re not supposed to kill one another, for example, but oh, in self defense that’s not the same thing at all. See? Special dispensation.

And we expect our government to operate in this incomprehensibly complex, shifting and fractal world as if there are bright-line differentiations between right and wrong, all the time? When not too infrequently, it is forced to choose between actions which are all pretty lousy?

A bit naive, perhaps.

Our government did not choose this situation. It was placed in this predicament through the commission of a crime which would have resulted in its perpetrator being summarily executed at pretty much any time in history prior to this one, and the irresponsible ideology of a zealot. Now it has to choose from a crummy menu: take the damage from revelation of the information Assange is keeping as his hole card, or flout some rules, step on some toes, and try to grab the mad bomber before he can press the detonator.

Unsurprisingly, it has chosen the latter. It is not going to allow its personnel, resources and strategic positioning to be seriously wounded without trying to stave off that result.

Personally, gotta say I don’t have a big problem with that.

Imagine, for instance, that among the hundreds of thousands of documents stolen and given to WikiLeaks is a list of undercover agents operating on behalf of the United States in China. Hundreds, say, of names and contact protocols.

Releasing that list wouldn’t just kill a bunch of people (though it would certainly do that). It would devastate our capacity to gather intelligence in the nation which unquestionably poses our greatest economic, military and international relations challenge for the foreseeable future.

If that is the kind of thing that is at stake, ignoring a few international social niceties to keep that from happening and take down the guy who has proudly admitted that he deliberately gouged our national security in the name of his wacky philosophy doesn’t seem like that terrible a thing to do, if you ask me.

In the era of the mobile phone video camera, WiFi and Twitter, you can’t just black-bag someone famous and make them disappear. That’s good: I’m glad that is true. I’m glad we have access to a great deal more information, and that we can use technology to make witnesses of us all, to seek to crowdsource that the powerful shall be accountable. And I’m a complete believer in the nobility and sanctity of the whistle blower in revealing criminality, corruption or dealings that undermine the public interest for private gain.

But that isn’t what’s going on here.

When someone behaves like a toddler waving a gun around, with thousands or even tens of thousands of lives potentially at stake, you do what is necessary to get that situation under control.

I’m not saying this is easy, pat, or comfortable. The issue is complicated, and there are no simple answers.

But in my view, putting the black hat on the UK and US governments is inappropriate. They wouldn’t be in this situation if they weren’t confronted with a fanatic bearing a powerful weapon to which he should never have had access. Ideal, meet real.

At publication, the Dragon was DEADLY SERIOUS