Sunday, January 23, 2011

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Aussie?

For months, the WikiLeaks saga has been unfolding. The major contenders:

Julian Assange, the rogue, Australian backpacking activist hacker

Two Swedish women who suspiciously have accused him of sexual misconduct

A number of caterwauling U.S Government employees, conservative pundits and laypeople with their panties in a bunch over national security concerns

The people who are cheering on Assange and praising the work that he and fellow WikiLeaks volunteers have done.

In the interest of transparency, since we’ll be talking about so-called “secrets” here, I should mention that I fall unabashedly into the latter category. The Nobel Peace Prize has been made kind of a joke at this point (Al Gore got one for predicting the scope of the floods that will kill us all, and Obama, well, I guess continuing a war and refusing to shut down Gitmo as promised is…peaceful?), but in the interest of posterity, I think Assange should receive one.

So, why is this man getting lambasted with bogus claims and espionage accusations? I could be crude and say his attackers are trying to save face (Uncle Sam’s face) and perhaps are jealous of his virility, but instead, I’ll be diving into several key issues on Assange and WikiLeaks more at length. Hold on to your swivel chairs.

Character Assassination

In December, Assange was arrested for incidents of sexual indiscretion that had allegedly occurred in Sweden, in August. First off, the charges against Assange were not for rape, as the media and Google searches would have you believe, but rather for “sex by surprise.” The main accuser, Anna Ardin, has ties to U.S financed anti-Castro groups, including the Ladies in White group, out of Cuba. She alleged that the condom broke during sex, which somehow takes it from consensual to non-consensual, under Swedish law. In a December 21 Democracy Now debate, Naomi Wolf, social critic and feminist recalled that in the 23 years she had been working with rape victims, this is the first case she had seen which was based on “multiple instances of consent.” Wolf explained that Ardin allowed Assange to sleep in her bed and stay in her home for 4 days after the alleged incident. She also noted that the charges launched against Assange are atypical, since Amnesty International has criticized Sweden for its disregarding of rape accusations. She seemed to insinuate that this was a politically-charged episode, to of course, discredit Assange, but maybe (my interpretation here) even to set an example of him, for the women of Sweden who are outraged because of their government’s lack of compassion toward rape concerns.

Ardin once posted a blog entitled, ‘7 Steps to Legal Revenge’, which talked about seeking vengeance against cheating boyfriends. According to a Swedish source, she is an “expert” on sexual harassment, apparently to the point of once reporting it against a male student who looked down at his notes instead of at her during a university lecture. Sofia Wilen, the second accuser, is allegedly friends with Ardin. Both women also apparently bragged about their conquests, and Ardin even threw a party in Assange’s honor days after the supposed sexual indiscretion and tweeted that she was “with the world’s coolest, smartest people, its amazing!” That tweet disappeared once she went to the cops, I wonder why.

A Few Good Leaks

These came from

WikiLeaks exposed Scientology, a religion that scams its followers into a delusional set of beliefs in exchange for their money.

WikiLeaks has released the most comprehensive and detailed account of any war ever to have entered the public record.

WikiLeaks clarified the terms of operation at Guantanamo Bay, one of the most controversial detention centers in the world.

WikiLeaks revealed covert Australian Internet censorship.

WikiLeaks exposed hidden logs of the Afghanistan war showing high rates of civilian casualties and other facts previously denied by the US.

WikiLeaks has demonstrated how Australia, Finland and Denmark are using child pornography as an excuse to censor legitimate websites.

WikiLeaks has revealed the National Socialist Movement's neo-nazi internal workings.

WikiLeaks released a video showing a U.S. army helicopter slaughtering Reuters journalists and Iraqi children in cold blood.

The latter “Collateral Murder” leak is almost certainly the most well-known. Regarding the way the footage makes U.S soldiers appear, Assange said, “The people in Baghdad, they don’t need to see the video, they see it everyday. It will change the perception and opinion of the people who are paying for it all.”

Espionage, the Media and Threats

There has been talk of the U.S government planning to extradite Assange and charge him, possibly under the Espionage Act of 1917, originally intended to squelch opposition to the war. Probably the strongest voice he’s got on his side is Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. Ellsberg was a military analyst with the RAND Corporation who ended up opposing the Vietnam War after seeing casualties first hand. He and a colleague, the late Anthony Russo, stole and copied highly classified government documents which revealed all the lies the Johnson administration had orchestrated about the war effort. They were tried under the Act, and acquitted. Elllsberg has recently come out in public support of Assange, saying that practically all of the same attacks being slung at Assange were slung at him 40 years ago.

On Tuesday, January 18, Reuters published an article readling,in part, “Internal U.S government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary” and "We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging.” Oh, and the clincher: “The administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers."

On a December 10 WNYC interview, Ellsberg had said the following regarding the situation:

“The Pentagon has revealed that they have no evidence of any individual having been harmed by that release. Meanwhile, the silence that led to these wars has not just risked, it's actually killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis. The risks are not at all only on the side of telling secrets. The much bigger risks are on the side of keeping secrets about wrongful wars and hopeless wars.”

Questioning Journalism

The interrogation of whether Assange is a journalist and WikiLeaks a media organization is a red herring slightly more annoying than the fake “rape” charges. The charges are insidious, to be sure, but at least they are against something that could somewhat be proven or thrown out by a jury. The question of his journalistic integrity is an unanswerable judgment call. Is a journalist only someone who A. Went to journalism school? B. Works for a major news outlet? C. Uses information and seemingly objective text to advance public understanding of news?

Leaving arbitrary definitions aside, isn’t a whistle blower who reports unethical behavior more useful than a gossip columnist describing how awful a celebrity looked at an awards show? Why is the latter considered accepted journalism and the former not? Why does a “journalist” have to be working within the confines of a socially and legally accepted institution to gain respect or even admiration? This is bogus, and everyone knows it.

Just because WikiLeaks doesn’t publish leaks with cliche’d sentences attached, “A recent report shows...Sources say...” doesn’t mean it’s not journalism. As a journalist, I’ve been cooking up sentences like these for almost half a decade, I consider one important leak to be much more useful to the public than five feature stories on a fun event going down at the local mall.

Assange isn’t careless, he doesn’t publish the names of sources, something that only journalists with the strongest integrity do. Something that New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, who promised to protect Ellsberg (a non-journalist himself), did not do.

According to Dan Kennedy, writing for The Guardian: “The Obama-Holder wrinkle is to attempt to draw distinctions between WikiLeaks and the traditional media. It can't be done.The US state department cables, after all, were not top secret, and WikiLeaks says it has taken pains to withhold potentially dangerous information. In that respect, attempts to separate the Times and the Guardian, on the one hand, and WikiLeaks, on the other, should be seen as entirely political.”

Lucy Dalgish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said, “It is not journalism. It’s data dissemination, and that worries me.”

How does journalism not fall into the category of “data dissemination?” It’s data, with who/what/when/where/why/how sentences and quotes. Not exactly a binary opposition.

Assange’s own response to the data dissemination quip is to explain that raw source materials must be made available so they can be checked against the story, just as the results of scientific experiments must be made available so they can be checked against scientific reports. And in an interview with TIME, Assange explains the aims of WikiLeaks:

"This organization practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction...We have now in our four-year history, and over 100 legal attacks of various kinds, been victorious in all of those matters...It's very important to remember the law is not what, not simply what, powerful people would want others to believe it is. The law is not what a general says it is. The law is not what Hillary Clinton says it is."

Chamber of Secrets

The U.S has many secrets- the exact recipe for Big Mac special sauce, for example. But, what constitutes a secret? If you ask the conservative pundits you would think that anything embarrassing could constitute a secret. But, embarrassing for whom? They don’t care so much about embarrassing individuals (see the 2003 Valerie Plame scandal), but they do get teary-eyed over outing foot-in-mouth bureaucrats and what they have to say about the leaders of “lesser” nations around the world.

In actuality, one has to strongly consider the possibility that these loudmouths don’t care about national security. If it could be shown that it was in the national interest to expose the diplomatic cables, they wouldn’t even bat an eye. The issue is appearance - how to keep people trusting in “their” government, and believing that “their” leaders have only their best interests at heart. If someone threatens their livelihood, especially a handsome foreigner with a knack for cracking computer codes, a sense of social justice, and the ability to put together coherent sentences, it hits the fan. It has to, or they might be out of a job. At this point, why hasn’t the U.S fired all foreign policy advisers and replaced them with image consultants? Or did I just repeat myself?

Gustav Landauer, a German anarchist theorist, once wrote,"The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, it is a condition of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently".

Freedom of information is a necessary and important first step, and WikiLeaks is only the beginning. The means for WikiLeaks is transparency, the end is justice. For now, let’s give Assange the recognition he deserves. Let’s welcome in the new normal.


  1. Amazing and informative article.

    Very nice.

  2. Very well-dissected.

    And "The means for WikiLeaks is transparency, the end is justice." Well said!

  3. Thanks! I really appreciate it. :D

    Found this related article, it's pretty good: