Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stopping to Think About WikiLeaks--Really Think

Having just gotten back from a long and fascinating trip to New Zealand and China, and having traveled almost non-stop for the last 4 months to Germany, Austria (twice), Italy, Denmark, Finland, and Canada, I'm feeling pretty patriotic these days.
When you leave the U.S. for any length of time, and then come back home, you can see things with clearer eyes than when you stay inside Bubble America and only view things through the lens of domestic reporting. The Scandinavians have a name for too much time spent inside the bubble: home blindness.
Which is what has me scratching my head over the recent and on-going WikiLeaks controversy.
To some people, Julian Assange is a terrorist.
Members of the Congress have called for his arrest and trial as a person every bit as dangerous as dangerous as bin Laden. WikiLeaks, as an organization, has been compared to Al-Qaeda.
The argument has been made that the release of hundreds of thousands of pages of diplomatic cables "threatens American lives."
The atmosphere is breathless, filled with outrage. Republicans accuse President Obama of somehow failing to do something he should have to have prevented the leaks in the first place. After an inquiry from Senator Joe Lieberman, Amazon stops hosting WikiLeaks. Interpol has made Assange one of its top arrest targets, pulling out all stops to bring him to justice in Sweden for two alleged rapes.
All of this makes me want to stop--really stop--for just a minute and reflect.
What do we actually know at this point about Assange, about the reports leaked through WikiLeaks, about the government?
A few things, actually, most of which fly in the face of all the huffing and puffing that's going on.
Thanks to a deeply insightful profile on Assange in The New Yorker a few months ago, we know quite a bit about the founder of WikiLeaks. We know that he's lead a chaotic personal life from childhood. Always on the move, often on the run, he's practically a character out of The Terminator--a fictional character with a deeply anti-authority bent, verging on a desire to martyr himself for a cause that gives his life meaning. We know that he's technically brilliant, socially inept, impossible to get close to, and driven by his own belief that the powers that be (not just the United States) need to be exposed for the hypocrisy and double-dealing that is the ordinary business-as-usual way for rich and powerful nations and individuals to conduct themselves.
In this respect, he has more in common with the driven muckrakers and investigative reporters who have always felt it their mission to rip the veil of secrecy from the face of governments, corporate titans, and others in positions of power.
We know that he's accused of rape in Sweden. Two women, friends who know each other, both tell similar stories about Assange's encounters with them.
My friends in Stockholm, who know Assange, while not excusing the charges, have a reasonable explanation for a situation that ultimately can only be judged in court. Assange is an Australian and, as noted previously, a socially inept person. Sweden is a country where there is probably more sexual and gender equality than any place on earth. Men and women conduct themselves as equals in all matters. It is possible, my friends tell me, that Assange, as a newcomer to Sweden, had a harder than usual time decoding the rules of sexual situations--that he mistaken misjudged what was going on in his relations with these women. Or it may be that he actually did commit rape. That we don't know.
Back to what we do know.
We do know that his rape charge has been handled in a way that is completely different from other, similar charges that come to the attention of the police and prosecution in Sweden. For example, before any charge had even been confirmed by investigators, his name was released in conjunction with the accusation, a step that is never taken in the Swedish criminal justice system, according to my friends in Stockholm.
It would not be far-fetched to imagine that pressure has been brought to bear (through diplomatic cables?) by the U.S. government, to do whatever can be done to make Assange's life more difficult.
We also know, from the wise words of America's greatest investigative reporter, I.F. Stone, that governments lie. It's what they do. They lie routinely. They lie about what they do and what they don't do. They lie about their reasons for what they do and don't do. Then they lie about lying.
And we know that nothing makes a government more angry than having its lies revealed.
I know from personal experience. When I worked in the Carter Administration, I was outraged at the coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. I was convinced that anti-American journalists were intentionally making things harder for the government to pursue our nation's interests in Iran by the way they belittled the administration's attempts to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East. When you're on the inside, everybody on the outside is out to get you. So we know that the response from highly partisan, politicized government officials will be outrage, anger, and hyperbole.
What else do we know?
We know that, according to today's New York Times, finding a charge to levy against Assange would be difficult at best. The Times quotes Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has written about the Espionage Act, as saying, "There is a haze of uncertainty over all of this. The government has never brought an Espionage Act prosecution that would look remotely like this one." In fact, the one attempt to prosecute recipients of leaked documents under the Espionage Act happened in 2005 and ended in utter embarrassment for the government, the Times reports.
What don't we know?
We don't know more than we do know.
We don't know exactly what crime Assange and WikiLeaks have committed.
We don't know exactly how American lives have been put in danger.
We don't know exactly what, in these leaked documents, is so remarkable. (This is not, it turns out, The Pentagon Papers.)
Other than enraging Mr. Putin, who apparently doesn't like being compared to Batman, we don't know what awful national interests have been compromised by the release of these cables.
One thing I don't know: why more of the serious journalistic community hasn't explained that uncovering important stories and tearing the veil of secrecy off of government is what journalists are supposed to do. And the government is supposed to howl.
This is what I.F. Stone did his whole life. It cost him an easy and comfortable life. It made him an outcast among certain parts of the American landscape. Until he got old enough to be made a hero for doing what the Constitution says is the right of every American: to ask uncomfortable questions, to challenge authority, to raise issues that need to be raised, and even to raise hell when things are going wrong and need to be fought over.
You would think the press would be outraged at any thing that smacks of a return to the days of government repression of the freedom of speech. You would think people would still remember the 1950s when responsible journalists were intimidated by the threat of government censorship. While WikiLeaks isn't The Pentagon Papers, you'd think journalists would remember the days of the Nixon White House, the enemies list, and attempts to prevent that leak from being read by the American people.
But the response of the press to this episode reminds me of the earlier response from much of the press to the Rolling Stone article that lead to General McChrystal's resignation after he and his team talked too much and too freely in Europe in the presence of a reporter: the press chastised the reporter for doing the story--he was at fault for having committed real journalism!
The current WikiLeaks debate reminds us of two things we do know or at least should know.
There are no secrets.
I first learned it after Chernobyl. The Russians denied anything had gone wrong at their nuclear power plant. The U.S. had satellite evidence. And that was before the advent of the Web.
There are no secrets. So what your mom told you as a kid is true today for all of us as adults--including ambassadors and government officials: don't do it if you aren't prepared to read about it in the morning paper.
And the second thing is, there's nothing new.
I'm with Defense Secretary Gates on the whole WikiLeaks uproar.
As reported in the New York Times, Gates, who has an untarnished career at the Defense Department working for both Bush and Obama, said, "Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who's been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: 'How can a government go on, publishing all their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.'
"Now, I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy as described as a melt-down, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with United States because it's in their interests, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments--some governments--deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.
"So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us.We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.
"Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
In this instance, I think Defense Secretary Gates knows best.
I'd say that's something else we know. Or at least should.

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