Thursday 9 December 2010

Leaks and Wikileaks

There is something really strange and very disturbing about all the furore that has emerged in response to the recent revelations that have come from Wikileaks.  Their founder, Julian Assange, has been threatened with extra judicial murder, and is currently in a British jail.  Despite having no previous convictions, and the fact that he voluntarily turned himself in, he has been denied bail.  Even though his passport has been confiscated.  Somewhat excessive methinks.  All of a piece though with the intemperate, overblown and downright lies that have characterized the response of government officials and leading politicians, especially in the USA.  Just what is going on here?
You would think that this is the first time that USA government documents have been leaked to the press.  When it is in fact pretty much the norm for so-called secrets to get leaked and published.  Wikileaks has already done this on previous occasions.  Not to mention all the many US citizens who have in the past leaked government documents to the press.  Furthermore, it is not as if the information released is particularly damaging to the USA, despite some of the over the top claims by politicians and commentators.  US Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the consequences of these revelations as fairly modest.
It is also worth emphasizing that Wikileaks has not indiscriminately published the hundreds of thousands of documents in its possession.  Less than 1% has been published.  Get that, less than 1% has been published.  Also none of this small amount has been published by Wikileaks.  The revelations have all been published by reputable international newspaper in various countries around the world, including the Guardian in the UK, El Pais in Spain, not to mention the New York Times in the USA.  The Wikileaks site has only put up what has already been first of all published by these newspaper.  It is also worth pointing out that it is these newspapers that have selected which documents to publish and that it is these newspapers which have redacted the documents to ensure that there is no risk to individuals.
Yet despite all this it is Wikeleaks and Julian Assange who is bearing all the criticism and all the threats of legal and illegal action.  Why?  I can think of three plausible reasons for this.  The first and simplest reason is that it is easier to go after Wikileaks.  A single individual, a foreigner to boot, who can be demonized with little or no regard to the truth.  With the support of a pliant media this has been the standard practice in the USA for decades now.  Where was the investigative media in the run up to the Iraq war?  How many lies were exposed by the USA media then or now?  While the New York Times may be subject to pressure it would be much more difficult if not impossible to bring any kind of prosecution against the other newspapers.  Much easier to throw mud at Julian Assange.
Secondly by focussing on Wikileaks and Assange, all governments and in particular the USA, can try and stop people from asking some serious questions about just what should be kept secret from citizens.  We have the rank hypocrisy of Hilary Clinton lecturing the Chinese authorities about the need for a free press and the benefits of free access to information, while at the same time her government is presiding over one of greatest amounts of secret information in the whole world.  And prepared to threaten anyone who exposes this secrecy.  Access to information is the basic underpinning of democracy.  Yet all governments seek to keep us citizens in the dark about almost everything.  In this sense, Wikileaks is an essential adjunct to a functioning democracy.
Thirdly, I cannot help feeling that the outrageous, excessive and warlike reactions of many Americans is a symptom of the decline of American power.  For so long the world’s dominant power the USA is now in a steep and irreversible decline.  Though still the world’s sole military superpower, even there the USA can boast of little in the way of success.  Iraq and Afghanistan have more than anything demonstrated with brutal reality the limits of American military power.  Sure they can still destroy lots of towns and buildings and they can kill barrowloads of people, usually civilians.  But when it comes to actually achieving anything remotely positive then forget it. 
So it must come as an immense surprise to discover that a tiny organization such as Wikileaks can cause the USA such embarrassment.  And the USA can do little about it.  No wonder so many politicians and leading commentators are so bitter.  It is also instructive that their first reaction is to threaten violence.  I guess so many Americans are too used to getting their own way that any reverse is pretty much unimaginable to them.
However the world it is a’changing.  It is a great paradox that it is the over reaction of the USA government that is causing more damage to the USA than the actual revelations themselves.  This is a great shame and of great concern.  The new world order that is emerging will be dominated by some countries with no record of protecting free speech or respecting the rule of law.  It is thus doubly worrying that the USA of all countries, the land of the free, should be seen to be operating at the same base level.   The immediate future does not look good.

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