WikiLeaks: Government’s Latest Struggle with Democracy, Journalism’s Latest Struggle for Legitimacy
Currently the US enjoys some of the best, arguably the best free speech protection in the world. Those that know our history understand it hasn’t always been that way and those closely following current events fear it may not be for long.
A dirty little secret in American history: In 1917 a four time presidential candidate is sentenced to twenty years in Prison for violating the newly passed Espionage Act. The man was Eugene Debs. And his crime? Making a public speech denouncing the draft. That same year, a federal court ruled that a film on the American Revolution, The Spirit of ’76, inspired anti-British sentiments (Great Britain was our WWI ally at the time) and sentenced the director to ten years in prison. In St. Louis a woman’s letter to a newspaper stating "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers” got her a ten year sentence. People were even charged for such “espionage” as asserting that war was contrary to the teachings of Christ and advocating higher taxation over issuing bonds. There are literally hundreds of these cases.
This legacy is important as it provides some sense of our First Amendment’s historic mutability and how difficult it is to preserve in periods of conflict. The Bill of Rights guarantees nothing; its meaning is an ever evolving process and subject to change with just one bill, one court ruling, or one new precedent. Regrettably, poor journalism, like poor history, lulls popular consciousness and restricts awareness Americans need to prevent the chipping away of our hard won liberties. At this very moment, the Obama administration and other political figures are waging a new war against the First Amendment and as if straight from the Espionage Act era playbook, their rhetoric furthers and exploits public apathy, confusion, and lack of information.
While there are others, the WikiLeaks controversy is one of the most significant issues in which the viability of our press and its relationship with government and financial institutions has emerged. Here a stateless, internet based, non-profit organization whose goal is to provide an anonymous medium for sources to leak information that might otherwise be censored or suppressed has brought into collision issues of government secrecy, foreign policy, and protections of news organizations in a shifting geopolitical terrain of information based networks. In short, democracy is not keeping pace with changing environments
This issue has been rife with misinformation so let’s begin with a few basic facts. WikiLeaks received documents leaked by a US soldier, allegedly a private named Bradley Manning. The documents included war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as diplomatic cables ranging from unclassified to secret. None were top secret as has been misreported; in fact, over 3 million people had clearance to view them. Also contrary to reports, the documents were not indiscriminately published at once, but leaked through four major news organizations and onto the WikiLeaks website in stages.
One of the major news outlets, The New York Times, worked with U.S. officials to avoid publishing anything likely to cause real personal harm or damage national security (WikiLeaks request to work directly with Pentagon was refused). Bill Keller, New York Times executive editor, observed in those meetings that government criticisms revolved around three basic themes: The leaks present a danger to lives and US foreign policy, they do not reveal anything profoundly new, and that WikiLeaks is not a legitimate news source. These are also the forms largely framing public criticism and therefore deserve some exploration.
In public discussion the salience of the first criticism is unavoidable. There is the fearful pitch of new terror in the air: we are besieged by “internet anarchists,” “terrorists bloggers,” one congressman calls it “worse than a military attack” and there is a false sense of its unprecedented nature. We are told this is not like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, nevermind that Ellsberg himself thinks otherwise. While ignoring America’s most famous whistleblower is one thing, dismissing our highest appointed military official would seem another.
At his November 30th press conference, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was unequivocal: “Every government in the world knows that the US government leaks like a sieve and it has for a long time… 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. Many—some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, but most because they need us.” He went on to describe the consequences of the leaks for US policy as “fairly modest” though “embarrassing [and] awkward.”
Contrast this with the condemnation a week later by Democratic Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, asserting “the release of these documents damages our national interests and puts innocent lives at risk. [Assange] should be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.” She then goes on to extol the Espionage Act as if she had no awareness of its dubious history and diminished powers within our courts. What she was actually banking on was her reader’s lack of awareness, evidenced further by her assertion that it also extended to “unclassified material.” Does she really think American citizens support a law in which simply publishing unclassified material on a website constitutes espionage? Would we surrender our freedom of the press so uncritically? This is ridiculous at face value, yet this is the kind of unsupported vitriol opinion and policy makers are furthering to avoid substantive debate.
Our reactions to the leaks are far more embarrassing (and telling) than any of the leaks themselves. Fox contributor Bob Beckle: “a dead man can’t leak stuff…he’s treasonous and he’s broken every law of the United States…illegally shoot the son of a bitch.” Several others have demanded similar action—precisely the kind of speech that is not protected under the First Amendment. If we are serious about incitements to clear and present danger, where is the outcry in prosecuting these explicit calls to violence? In light of the recent tragedy in Arizona, one would think this type of disgraceful rhetoric would not be tolerated.
Evoking war time urgency has been the primary justification for denying speech freedoms for the past century and in an era in which we are always in some form of war, this hackneyed rouse should raise suspicion. While Gates and Biden have admitted the leaks will have few consequences for the US internationally, this bi-partisan frenzy for imprisonment, censorship, and new laws lead one to believe there are major consequences for us domestically. The real threats in this scenario are the legal precedents and new legislation proposed by leaders so intent on “protecting us” from someone whose only harm seems to be on the reputations of a few politicians and corporate executives.
The popular charge that the leaks do not reveal anything new or profound enough to justify publishing is peculiarly self defeating. Aside from the obvious fact that profundity is not a prerequisite for newsworthiness, clearly much of the information is new and the rest provides valuable context for analysis. But more important is how this criticism erodes the very foundation of the legal and ethical argument against WikiLeaks—that seeming taxonomic trump card “Classification”. If thousands of classified documents yield very little new information, is that not an admission that most of what is classified need not be? In fact, this issue is the issue as it reveals the nature of our government’s steadily increasing policies of secrecy that are a means of keeping information out of public discussion.
In all governments there exists the tendency to extend powers without public knowledge or debate. When press does its job well they pose a threat to this asymmetric power relationship by providing information and inspiring debate. Most of those we like to call “founding fathers” knew this well and it was by no happenstance that the very first limitation of power set in our Bill of Rights includes that congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or press. They emphasized that democracy could not exists without a free marketplace of ideas in which citizens and their representatives can weigh the policies to be carried out in their name. Jefferson went so far as to assert that if he had to choose between a government and no press or a press and no government, he would choose the latter.
Jefferson was no anarchist and neither is Assange; it is simply that they come from the same tradition, a tradition that recognizes functioning democracy only exists where broad, informed discussion is allowed to flourish. The values expressed in our tradition are clear: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both." The tragedy here is that by insidious manipulation of public discourse we can now be lead to believe that the people’s interest are best served by subservience to state power and by some bizarre logic, revealing the secrets kept from us by it is tantamount to treason. Our values seem inverted: we are now a People by the Government, For the Government, thoroughly alienated, and up for the highest bidder. Well beyond prologue, our cable news programs repeat the farce in twenty-four hour loops.
The current method and scope of news media is reflected in the criticism that WikiLeaks is not legitimate journalism. The inability to decide just what it is reveals a shallow view of the press and a fundamental misunderstanding of its historical role, its challenges, and the rapidly changing media environment. Surprisingly, even as legal threats against WikiLeaks threaten all journalists, very few in the U.S. have come to its defense. In fact, some mainstream media figures have been the most critical voices in the discussion.
Some have dismissed the leaks as just a proliferation of raw data expressing no policy objective. The tacit assumption here is real journalism is the business of interpretation and spin rather than bringing its audiences primary information. What should be touted as one of its greatest strengths is being used as a criticism. Assange is characteristically principled in his rebuttal, “Truth does not need a policy objective,” advocating what he calls “scientific journalism.” WikiLeaks provides a mechanism by which citizens can check the validity of news reports and editorials just as in any discipline of truth. In a time in when cheap news and sensationalist punditry has nearly cut out investigative journalism in favor of opinion over information and context, this may seem strange. But it is a move toward responsibility and accountability from world leaders and journalists to the people they represent. One can’t even turn in a high school paper without providing sources, why would we expect less of our news organizations?
As many journalists point out that WikiLeaks style organizations are not adequate replacements for the traditional press, some fail to recognize how much it improves their reporting. While data alone is limited, more information should lead to better discussion. This depends, of course, on capable journalists committing to analysis rather than resorting to press room stenography and repetition of authorized talking points.
A common habit of poor journalism, talking about the controversy surrounding an issue rather than the issue, has plagued much of the WikiLeaks coverage. One such example was the leaks regarding Iran. Diplomatic cables reporting talks between Saudi and U.S. officials revealed the Arab leaders’ hostility toward Iran and even went so far as to plead for an American military attack. Secretary of State Clinton’s minor address of the information was that “the cables confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors” and alleging the threat is “well founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with likeminded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Unmentioned, was the fact that the views held by the royal family are in direct contrast to the Arab people. A vast majority believe Israel and the U.S. are bigger threats to security and a most even believes the region would be more stable if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, as confirmed in extensive polls by the Brookings Institute. But to discuss this it becomes necessary to mention the nuclear stockpiles of Israel and Pakistan and how they affect regional tensions or how our policy is based on installing and supporting authoritarian regimes rather than democratic governments. The latter being a point of insight into recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, as well as the ongoing misery in Haiti.
Much has been made of Wikileaks indiscriminate publishing of data with no regard for the safety of persons or governments. To understand this excoriation it is useful to reference the 2008 Army Counterintelligence report which noted websites such as WikiLeaks “use trust as a center of gravity” and suggested that to deter government and business insiders from leaking information, public trust in the organization should be destroyed. Along with legal intimidations of whistleblowers and journalists, casting the organization as reckless, dangerous and an adversary of state security continues to be the central strategy.
Assange has stated repeatedly what he is advocating and providing is not absolute transparency, but a mechanism for those members within institutions to inform the public when an abuse of power occurs. Wikileaks provides a medium for responsible insiders. This concept of the press as a means for checks to governmental power through public debate was expressly favored by writers of the constitution and should be welcomed rather than deplored.
Some justified criticism was aimed at WikiLeaks for publishing the first collection of war logs without redacting names of Afghan civilians that assisted U.S. Forces. Fortunately there has been no evidence that this has caused anyone harm, though politicians continue to repeat this hypothetical charge. Unfortunately the potential harms have not been given the perspective of actual harms like the 415 Afghan civilians who died last year from direct US/NATO fire or our previous administration’s releasing the names of CIA operatives.
What this criticism of Wikileaks methods did yield was a much more thorough process of redactions in subsequent releases of Iraqi war logs and diplomatic cables while the overall process exemplified a move toward a new partnership between traditional news organizations and internet based outlets. WikiLeaks’ ability to increase exposure and rely on the expertise of organizations like the New York Times or the Guardian allow the leaks stronger impact on public discussion and policy. In turn, WikiLeaks provides these organizations with important news sources with less threat from our government’s favored new tactics of stifling good journalism by issuing gag orders, bullying reporters with subpoenas to name sources, or threatening imprisonment for “material support.”
Some of these practices, particularly the material support ban, reflect some of the most draconian measures against speech in a century. Recent court decisions have upheld such a broad interpretation of “material” that even an interview with someone affiliated with a designated terrorist organization could land you in prison. And in the case of Lynne Stewart this can be true even if you’re their lawyer.
What these new legal standards and the ones being proposed against WikiLeaks reflect is the eroding dominance of Nation States in the marketplace of ideas. As global media and the democratic capabilities of the internet move to undermine the opaque nature of State discourse, lawmakers are frantically grasping at legal means to thwart this shift. As we see people in North Africa struggle for legitimate government and despotic regimes race to shut down these networks, we must take a sharper view of our own government as it looks to take more control over the internet and, therefore, political discussion as a whole.
Issues of whistleblowing and the specific media protections involving WikiLeaks are important in themselves, yet they are just one component of the overall phenomenon of encroachment by State and corporate interests over the ability for people to express and actualize political values. Again, for the first amendment to fulfill its role it must adapt to the changes in media and legal codes and this requires that we take a fundamental reassessment of our perspective. As Ron Deibert points out, there is a “geopolitics of cyber space” and a “competition over this domain, from the idea level all the way down to the physical infrastructure.”
With this in mind it becomes easier to understand the duplicity in which many of those in power frame issues of transparency as danger rather than a social benefit. Amidst unparalleled complexity we find that most information is superfluous and what is important is increasingly unavailable. The internet is no longer just a recreation tool on the West Coast, but a democratic medium on the West Bank. With most media following a for-profit model, it may very well be democracy’s last stronghold; its importance must be recognized and its viability protected.
One thing is clear, they have conditioned us well and after years of inculcated political correctness, scandal, and sensationalist soap opera rubbish, they know quite well what to do to capture the imagination, to divert, to keep us titillated with the most asinine of sideshows, lest we break into substantive political discussion: Julian Assange may have committed a sex crime! Rather than take up this ad hominem irrelevance, understand this: Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks, Assange is not internet journalism, nor is he transparency, whistleblowing, or governmental accountability. Yet he is being used as a propitious means to achieve new controls that will afflict us far beyond this soon to be forgotten witch hunt.
Whether one likes Assange or not is really immaterial; he represents a new age of political debate. And it would seem his harshest critics haven’t spent much time reading or listening to him. The characterizations ranging from anarchist to terrorist just doesn’t fit the guy speaking knowledgeably on foreign policy, nostalgically evoking James Madison, and urging the necessity of truthful dialogue so that countless lives are not put in harms way through dishonest policy and the methods of secrecy that render history a form of state propaganda and democracy a sham.
A little known historical triumph: After some of the most unjust and heinous acts committed on our soil during the Salem witchcraft trials, something happened. Something noble that has gone forgotten. Members of the community banned together in moral redress. Juries of the trials signed a petition of remorse, Church fathers asked for forgiveness, days of fasting were held, and financial reparations were given to the survivors of victims, in short, they came to their senses and had the courage to stand up for justice and acknowledge their mistake. I hope for the sake of the future we are not below such recognition, for our republic is treading down a dangerous path. And if we are victorious in this witch hunt, the real victim will not be Julian Assange, but our integrity and the means to live by our democratic ideals.