The moral standards of WikiLeaks critics

Applying the principles used to condemn Julian Assange would sweep up many political and media figures

Topics: WikiLeaks,

The moral standards of WikiLeaks criticsFounder of the WikiLeaks website, Julian Assange, speaks during a press conference in London, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010. WikiLeaks revealed on Saturday previously secret files on the Iraq war, which in the biggest leak of secret information in U.S. history suggest that far more Iraqis died than previously acknowledged during the years of sectarian bloodletting and criminal violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.(AP Photo/Lennart Preiss)(Credit: Associated Press)

(updated below – Update II)

Time‘s Joe Klein writes this about the WikiLeaks disclosures:

I am tremendously concernced [sic] about the puerile eruptions of Julian Assange. . . . If a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in “freedom” stands as a human disaster. Assange is a criminal. He’s the one who should be in jail.

Do you have that principle down?  If “a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail” because of the WikiLeaks disclosure — even a “single one” — then the entire WikiLeaks enterprise is proven to be a “disaster” and “Assange is a criminal” who “should be in jail.”  That’s quite a rigorous moral standard.  So let’s apply it elsewhere:

What about the most destructive “anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’” the planet has known for at least a generation:  the “human disaster” known as the attack on Iraq, which Klein supported?  That didn’t result in the imprisonment of “a single foreign national,” but rather the deaths of more than 100,000 innocent human beings, the displacement of millions more, and the destruction of a country of 26 million people.  Are those who supported that “anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’” — or at least those responsible for its execution — also “criminals who should be in jail”?  



How about the multiple journalists and other human beings whom the U.S. Government imprisoned (and continues to imprison) for years without charges  — and tortured — including many whom the Government knew were completely innocent, while Klein assured the world that wasn’t happening?  How about those responsible for the war in Afghanistan (which Klein supports) with its checkpoint shootings of an “amazing number” of innocent Afghans and civilian slaughtering air strikes, or the use of cluster bombs in Yemen, or the civilian killing drones in Pakistan?  Are those responsible for the sky-high corpses of innocent people from these actions also “criminals who should be in jail”? 

I’m not singling out Klein here; his commentary is merely illustrative of what I’m finding truly stunning about the increasingly bloodthirsty two-minute hate session aimed at Julian Assange, also known as the new Osama bin Laden.  The ringleaders of this hate ritual are advocates of — and in some cases directly responsible for — the world’s deadliest and most lawless actions of the last decade.  And they’re demanding Assange’s imprisonment, or his blood, in service of a Government that has perpetrated all of these abuses and, more so, to preserve a Wall of Secrecy which has enabled them.  To accomplish that, they’re actually advocating — somehow with a straight face — the theory that if a single innocent person is harmed by these disclosures, then it proves that Assange and WikiLeaks are evil monsters who deserve the worst fates one can conjure, all while they devote themselves to protecting and defending a secrecy regime that spawns at least as much human suffering and disaster as any single other force in the world.  That is what the secrecy regime of the permanent National Security State has spawned.

Meanwhile, in the real world (as opposed to the world of speculation, fantasy, and fear-mongering) there is no evidence — zero — that the WikiLeaks disclosures have harmed a single person.  As McClatchy reported, they have exercised increasing levels of caution to protect innocent people.  Even Robert Gates disdained hysterical warnings about the damage caused as “significantly overwrought.”  But look at what WikiLeaks has revealed to the world: 

We viscerally saw the grotesque realities of our war in Iraq with the Apache attack video on innocent civilians and journalists in Baghdad — and their small children — as they desperately scurried for cover.  We recently learned that the U.S. government adopted a formal policy of refusing to investigate the systematic human rights abuses of our new Iraqi client state, all of which took place under our deliberately blind eye.  We learned of 15,000 additional civilian deaths caused by the war in Iraq that we didn’t know of before.  We learned — as documented by The Washington Post‘s former Baghdad Bureau Chief — how clear, deliberate and extensive were the lies of top Bush officials about that war as it was unfolding:  ”Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public,” she wrote.

In this latest WikiLeaks release — probably the least informative of them all, at least so far — we learned a great deal as well.  Juan Cole today details the 10 most important revelations about the Middle East.  Scott Horton examines the revelation that the State Department pressured and bullied Germany out of criminally investigating the CIA’s kidnapping of one of their citizens who turned out to be completely innocent.  The head of the Bank of England got caught interfering in British politics to induce harsher austerity measures in violation of his duty to remain apolitical and removed from the political process, a scandal resulting in calls for his resignation.  British officials, while pretending to conduct a sweeping investigation into the Iraq War, were privately pledging to protect Bush officials from embarrassing disclosures.  Hillary Clinton’s State Department ordered U.N. diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data in order to spy on top U.N. officials and others, likely in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961 (see Articles 27 and 30; and, believe me, I know:  it’s just “law,” nothing any Serious person believes should constrain our great leaders).

Do WikiLeaks critics believe it’d be best if all that were kept secret, if we remained ignorant of it, if the world’s most powerful factions could continue to hide things like that?  Apparently.  When Joe Klein and his media comrades calling for Assange’s head start uncovering even a fraction of secret government conduct this important, then they’ll have credibility to complain about WikiLeaks’ “excessive commitment to disclosure.”  But that will never happen. 

One could respond that it’s good that we know these specific things, but not other things WikiLeaks has released.  That’s all well and good; as I’ve said several times, there are reasonable concerns about some specific disclosures here.  But in the real world, this ideal, perfectly calibrated subversion of the secrecy regime doesn’t exist.  WikiLeaks is it.  We have occasional investigative probes of isolated government secrets coming from establishment media outlets (the illegal NSA program, the CIA black sites, the Pentagon propaganda program), along with transparency groups such as the ACLU, CCR, EPIC and EFF valiantly battling through protracted litigation to uncover secrets.  But nothing comes close to the blows WikiLeaks has struck in undermining that regime. 

The real-world alternative to the current iteration of WikiLeaks is not The Perfect Wikileaks that makes perfect judgments about what should and should not be disclosed, but rather, the ongoing, essentially unchallenged hegemony of the permanent National Security State, for which secrecy is the first article of faith and prime weapon.  I want again to really encourage everyone to read this great analysis by The Economist‘s Democracy in America, which includes this:

I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.

The last decade, by itself, leaves no doubt about the truth of that last sentence.  And Matt Yglesias is right that while diplomacy can be hindered without secrecy, one must also consider “how the ability to keep secrets can hinder diplomacy“ (incidentally:  one of the more Orwellian aspects of this week’s discussion has been the constant use of the word “diplomacy” to impugn what WikiLeaks did, creating some Wizard of Oz fantasy whereby the Pentagon is the Bad Witch of the U.S. Government [thus justifying leaks about war] while the State Department is the Good Witch [thus rendering these leaks awful]:  that’s absurd, as they are merely arms of the same entity, both devoted to the same ends, ones which are often nefarious, and State Department officials are just as susceptible as Pentagon officials to abusive conduct when operating in the dark).

But Matt’s other point merits even more attention.  He’s certainly right when he says that “for a third time in a row, a WikiLeaks document dump has conclusively demonstrated that an awful lot of US government confidentiality is basically about nothing,” but I’d quibble with his next observation:   

There’s no scandal here and there’s no legitimate state secret. It’s just routine for the work done by public servants and public expense in the name of the public to be kept semi-hidden from the public for decades.

It is a “scandal” when the Government conceals things it is doing without any legitimate basis for that secrecy.  Each and every document that is revealed by WikiLeaks which has been improperly classified — whether because it’s innocuous or because it is designed to hide wrongdoing — is itself an improper act, a serious abuse of government secrecy powers.  Because we’re supposed to have an open government — a democracy –  everything the Government does is presumptively public, and can be legitimately concealed only with compelling justifications.   That’s not just some lofty, abstract theory; it’s central to having anything resembling ”consent of the governed.”

But we have completely abandoned that principle; we’ve reversed it.  Now, everything the Government does is presumptively secret; only the most ceremonial and empty gestures are made public.  That abuse of secrecy powers is vast, deliberate, pervasive, dangerous and destructive.  That’s the abuse that WikiLeaks is devoted to destroying, and which its harshest critics — whether intended or not — are helping to preserve.  There are people who eagerly want that secrecy regime to continue:  namely, (a) Washington politicians, Permanent State functionaries, and media figures whose status, power and sense of self-importance are established by their access and devotion to that world of secrecy, and (b) those who actually believe that — despite (or because of) all the above acts — the U.S. Government somehow uses this extreme secrecy for the Good.  Having surveyed the vast suffering and violence they have wreaked behind that wall, those are exactly the people whom WikiLeaks is devoted to undermining.

* * * * *

On the issue of the Interpol arrest warrant issued yesterday for Assange’s arrest:  I think it’s deeply irresponsible either to assume his guilt or to assume his innocence until the case plays out.   I genuinely have no opinion of the validity of those allegations, but what I do know — as John Cole notes — is this:  as soon as Scott Ritter began telling the truth about Iraqi WMDs, he was publicly smeared with allegations of sexual improprieties.  As soon as Eliot Spitzer began posing a real threat to Wall Street criminals, a massive and strange federal investigation was launched over nothing more than routine acts of consensual adult prostitution, ending his career (and the threat he posed to oligarchs).  And now, the day after Julian Assange is responsible for one of the largest leaks in history, an arrest warrant issues that sharply curtails his movement and makes his detention highly likely.  It’s unreasonable to view that pattern as evidence that the allegations are part of some conspiracy — I genuinely do not believe or disbelieve that — but, particularly in light of that pattern, it’s most definitely unreasonable to assume that he’s guilty of anything without having those allegations tested and then proven in court.

Finally, as I noted last night:  I was on Canada’s CBC last tonight talking about these issues; it can be seen here.  I’ll also be on MSNBC this morning, at roughly 10:00 a.m., on the same topic.

 

UPDATE:  The notion that one crime doesn’t excuse another has absolutely nothing to do with anything I wrote; it’s a complete nonsequitur, merely the standard claim of those who want to propound moral standards for others that they not only refuse to apply to themselves, but violate with far greater frequency and severity than those they’re condemning.

 

UPDATE II:  This cartoonist (and Professor of History) summarized several of the key points perfectly:



Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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