Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Wikileaks Brouhaha: A Misinformed Debate

by Gaurav Singh
Lately, it seems, there has been a woeful lack of reasoned debate concerning Wikileaks across the American media spectrum.  For the most part, Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been demonized.  This is a very curious and a somewhat puzzling phenomenon, since on key issues concerning this scandal there is and should be broad agreement in defense of Wikileaks across the American political landscape.
Broadly, the issues being discussed concern Mr. Assange, allegations (as yet unsubstantiated) against his character and motives; the leaks have been termed treason, and espionage has been mentioned; at least one highly visible individual has called for the hanging of Mr. Assange; and, generally, the concern has been over the harm caused by Wikileaks and Mr. Assange by leaking US diplomatic communiqués.
The key points that have been notably absent (and would be present if there were a reasoned debate):
1.     Free speech and mistrust of government,
2.     Role of media and critical need for free press,
3.     Visa, Mastercard and Paypal’s attack on Americans’ free speech,
4.     Misunderstood culpability related to disclosures, and
5.     Assault on free speech and overuse of governmental secrecy.
When I mentioned to my friends that I found the reaction and attacks on Wikileaks disturbing, a friend and purported supporter of free speech opined, “By releasing classified information about weaknesses in my country's infrastructure and economy, WeakiLeaks is putting my country at risk. Therefore, my freedom of speech is at risk.”
This capitulation, and reflexive disavowal of a sacred liberty (freedom of speech) by an otherwise intelligent and reasonable individual compelled me to write.  Also, I have distaste for hegemonic narratives and for a tyrannical majority willing to shove their unconsidered views down our collective throats.
So, what does it mean to support free speech and to have a healthy mistrust of government?  These two are considered sacrosanct American values.  Yet, there is clearly a blind spot when it comes to making the connection between these values and the hypocritical stand taken by most vis-à-vis Wikileaks.
Everyone seems to be for free speech, unless it comes to speech they find offensive.  But free speech has become a major challenge for the U.S., especially since we have bandied about the virtues and necessity of a free internet and free availability of information.  The rest of the world is weighing in and calling us on our purported values.  Do we stand for our values or are these standards by which we merely seek to judge others?
Then, there is the famous healthy American mistrust of our government.  Or so I had heard. 
At a time when confidence in our government is at historic lows and there is widespread disaffection with Congressional dysfunction, people have come together in a hurry to defend government secrecy!  Yes, that is right.  People have joined the chorus against Wikileaks, in defense of government secrecy and essentially against free speech and free press, the antidotes to governmental abuse.
Let us call a spade a spade – Wikileaks has released the truth.  No one, not even our governmental agencies are questioning the authenticity of what has been released by Wikileaks.  So, at question is whether people have the right to know the truth. How much should we (the people) be allowed to know!
It is likely that our focus should be on the extent and appropriateness of governmental secrecy.  What should be made “secret”?  The erring on the side of caution should always tip the scales towards the freedom of (the public to know) information, so that the American voters can make informed decisions.  That is how our republic is meant to function.  Uninformed or poorly informed voters do not make good decisions.  The erratic voting patterns of late validate my assertion, as do the eight painful years under George W. Bush.  I contend that freedom should generally trump secrecy, which purports to ensure security.
The other disturbing development central to this controversy is: Corporations are now dictating what our economic choices can or cannot be (not should or should not be).  This infringes upon Americans’ free speech!
Visa, Mastercard and Paypal restricting my choices and yours – they did not seek to inform us of the harm in supporting Wikileaks, rather they simply prevented us from being able to give money to Wikileaks.  Therefore, these corporations have dared to regulate our economic choices.
Last time I checked, any of us could still use Visa and Mastercard to give to the Ku Klux Klan and any number of racists, fascist or other hate groups.  But Visa and Mastercard deign to prevent our giving to Wikileaks!
Supreme Court has recently allowed corporations to give freely, as citizens, to political candidates and causes in the name of free speech.  And the corporations are now preventing the exercise the citizens’ rights of free speech.
So what about this issue of espionage and treason?
Non-disclosure agreements – the government making a case of harm being done as a result of the leaks is one that pertains to the individual employee specificially, and others who sign non-disclosure agreements and then violate them.  This is generally true for governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as for corporations working for profit motives.
The issue here is of a federal employee, who is accused of violating his oath to secrecy and that is an issue that has to be taken up in a judicial court.  There certainly may be a case of a criminal violation here.
However, it is interesting to consider what type of a violation and oath the individual took.  Was his oath to uphold the rules of the military?  Or was his oath fundamentally to uphold the sanctity of, and to serve the Constitution of the United States (which, presumably, is what the military and other governmental employees serve)?  If so, then the real question is not one of a violation of secrecy, but broadly about one’s accord with the Constitutional duties. 
Secondly, Julian Assange is not a U.S. citizen, and does not owe allegiance to the United States.  He has not levied war against the U.S. or adhered to its enemies, and so on.  Therefore, he is not and cannot be guilty of treason (18 USC CHAPTER 115).
Whether Julian Assange engaged in espionage is a question that remains to be answered.  However, it would raise a broader question – how does the United States deal with journalists (who are protected under Free Speech) and sensitive information?  For instance, Robert Novak outed an undercover CIA operative and he did not have to cool his heels in prison.
The most distasteful part of this and related episodes is that all this is occurring under the Obama administration.  The President had committed to having the most transparent government.  Here is the exact language of President Obama’s pledge, made the day after he took office:
The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that. For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.
To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.
I will also hold myself as President to a new standard of openness. Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.
Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency. (bold and italics added)
What wonderful words, and a clear promise.  The cynic in me told me otherwise even then, but I held out hope for the Obama administration.
The fog has cleared and to those uninfected by the two-party divide it is apparent that the actions of the Obama administration are not consonant with his rhetoric.  His administration has continued the trend of labeling whole swaths of documents Secret.  They have done so liberally (no pun intended) and in the name of national security.  In this, and not merely this alone, the Obama administration has continued the flawed policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush (certainly, no liberal).  As happy as I was to hear President Obama's promise, I am equally disappointed to see him abandon it.  Especially, since, he had boldly stated that he was not afraid to be a one-term president.
The Council on Foreign Relations had an interview on How Wikileaks Affects Journalism, which is a good read. The value Wikileaks brings to journalism, and how that can serve to inform and aid democracy is not hard to understand.  The bigger issues concern the assault on free speech and the continued frivolous use of secrecy by our government.  And that is a debate in which we should be engaged.  Wikileaks and Julian Assange have transformed from an information dump to a judicious outlet of clearly vetted info, in concert with well-respected newspapers.  Wikileaks and Julian Assange are leading a new form of journalism and should be accorded the same protections.

For those who have read thus far, enjoy this video of Amy Goodman's interview of Daniel Ellsburg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers and helped end the Vietnam War).  This is followed by a creative (and funny) look at the recent happenings.  The allusion to Gadaffi was in the diplomatic communiques recently leaked by Wikileaks.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gaurav,

    Thanks for inviting me to read. I found your points persuasive, logical and thought-provoking (and, perhaps, action-provoking as well).

    I have a question about your point #3, regarding V, MC and PayPal. Your comparison of giving money to Assange vs. the KKK feels solid on moral/ethical grounds (and raises my ire). However, because I have other ways to send money (e.g. checks, AMEX, TT, money order), I'm not sure that these companies' actions really restrict my economic choices or free speech. What am I missing in your point?

    Jeff Oremland