Joe Lieberman emulates Chinese dictators

The Connecticut senator pressures Amazon to block Americans from viewing WikiLeaks documents

Published December 2, 2010 7:02AM (EST)

Joe Lieberman
Joe Lieberman

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

The comparison of these two passages is so telling in so many ways:

The Washington Post, today:

Revelations by the organization WikiLeaks have received blanket coverage this week on television, in newspapers and on Web sites around the globe. But in parts of the world where the leaks have some of the greatest potential to sow controversy, they have barely caused a ripple.

Authoritarian governments and tightly controlled media in China and across the Arab Middle East have suppressed virtually all mention of the documents, avoiding the public backlash that could result from such candid portrayals of their leaders' views.

In China, the WikiLeaks site has been blocked by the government's "Great Firewall," and access to other sources for the documents has been restricted.  Most Chinese are unable to read the contents of the diplomatic cables. . . .

The Guardian, yesterday:

WikiLeaks website pulled by Amazon after US political pressure

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate's committee on homeland security. . . .

While freedom of speech is a sensitive issue in the US, scope for a full-blown row is limited, given that Democrats and Republicans will largely applaud Amazon's move. . . .

The question is whether he was acting on his own or pressed to do so by the Obama administration, and how much pressure was applied to Amazon. . . .

Lieberman said: "[Amazon's] decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material. I call on any other company or organisation that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them."

The department of homeland security confirmed Amazon's move, referring journalists to Lieberman's statement.

Talking Points Memo -- in an article headlined: "How Lieberman Got Amazon To Drop Wikileaks" -- detailed that Lieberman's "staffers . . . called Amazon to ask about it, and left questions with a press secretary including, 'Are there plans to take the site down?'"  Shortly thereafter, "Amazon called them back . . . to say they had kicked Wikileaks off."  Lieberman's spokeswoman said: "Sen. Lieberman hopes that the Amazon case will send the message to other companies that might host Wikileaks that it would be irresponsible to host the site."

That Joe Lieberman is abusing his position as Homeland Security Chairman to thuggishly dictate to private companies which websites they should and should not host -- and, more important, what you can and cannot read on the Internet -- is one of the most pernicious acts by a U.S. Senator in quite some time.   Josh Marshall wrote yesterday:  "When I'd heard that Amazon had agreed to host Wikileaks I was frankly surprised given all the fish a big corporation like Amazon has to fry with the federal government."  That's true of all large corporations that own media outlets -- every one -- and that is one big reason why they're so servile to U.S. Government interests and easily manipulated by those in political power.  That's precisely the dynamic Lieberman was exploiting with his menacing little phone call to Amazon (in essence:  Hi, this is the Senate's Homeland Security Committee calling; you're going to be taking down that WikiLeaks site right away, right?).  Amazon, of course, did what they were told.

Note that Lieberman here is desperate to prevent American citizens -- not The Terrorists -- from reading the WikiLeaks documents which shed light on what the U.S. Government is doing.  His concern is domestic consumption.  By his own account, he did this to "send a message to other companies that might host WikiLeaks" not to do so.  No matter what you think of WikiLeaks, they have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime; Lieberman literally wants to dictate -- unilaterally -- what you can and cannot read on the Internet, to prevent Americans from accessing documents that much of the rest of the world is freely reading.

The Internet, of course, is rendering decrepit would-be petty tyrants like Lieberman impotent and obsolete:  WikiLeaks moved its website to a Swedish server and was accessible again within hours.  But any attempt by political officials to start blocking Americans' access to political content on the Internet ought to provoke serious uproar and unrest.  If the Tea Party movement and the Right generally were even minimally genuine in their ostensible beliefs, few things would trigger more intense objections than a political official trying to dictate to private actors which political content they should allow on the Internet (instead, you have Newt Gingrich demanding that Assange be declared an "enemy combatant" and Sarah Palin calling for his murder).  Remember, though -- as The Post told us today -- it's "authoritarian governments and tightly controlled media in China and across the Arab Middle East" which are trying to prevent citizens from learning about the WikiLeaks documents.

Then we have this equally revealing passage from the Post article:

In many Arab countries, the mainstream media have largely avoided reporting on the sensitive contents of the cables, including accounts of Arab leaders drinking alcohol and siding with Israel in advocating a U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

I genuinely laughed aloud when I read that.  Does anyone think that "the mainstream media" in the U.S. has reported much "on the sensitive contents of the cables" specifically or the WikiLeaks war documents generally?  I don't mean salacious gossip or David-Sanger/Michael-Gordan-type Government-serving fear-mongering about America's "enemies"  (Iran is operating in Iraq!!; Iran is being armed by North Korea!!; Arab dictators want Iran attacked!!).  I mean documents that reflect badly on what the U.S. Government is doing in the world.

Overwhelmingly, the reaction of establishment media figures has been to scorn these disclosures as somehow being both a Grave Threat and Nothing New.  Watch this short segment I did yesterday on MSNBC with Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post Editorial Page and former GOP Congresswoman Susan Molinari.  Technical difficulties impeded my participation, but what's important is not really what I said, but what they said.  Two notes about it:  (1) Capehart, who calls himself a "journalist," could not be more contemptuous of WikiLeaks as it shines a light on the U.S. government, and (2) the snickering and disdain toward Assange from Capehart and Molinari are indistinguishable -- totally interchangeable -- because there is no distinction between how most American "journalists" and how standard politicians think about those who are actually providing adversarial checks on U.S. political power; media and political figures are in the same undifferentiated class:

If there's Nothing New in these documents, can Jonathan Capehart (or any other "journalist" claiming this) please point to where The Washington Post previously reported on these facts, all revealed by the WikiLeaks disclosures:  

(1) the U.S. military formally adopted a policy of turning a blind eye to systematic, pervasive torture and other abuses by Iraqi forces;

(2) the State Department threatened Germany not to criminally investigate the CIA's kidnapping of one of its citizens who turned out to be completely innocent;

(3) the State Department under Bush and Obama applied continuous pressure on the Spanish Government to suppress investigations of the CIA's torture of its citizens and the 2003 killing of a Spanish photojournalist when the U.S. military fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad (see The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch today about this: "The day Barack Obama Lied to me"); 

(4) the British Government privately promised to shield Bush officials from embarrassment as part of its Iraq War "investigation"; 

(5) there were at least 15,000 people killed in Iraq that were previously uncounted;

(6) "American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world" about the Iraq war as it was prosecuted, a conclusion the Post's own former Baghdad Bureau Chief wrote was proven by the WikiLeaks documents;

(7) the U.S.'s own Ambassador concluded that the July, 2009 removal of the Honduran President was illegal -- a coup -- but the State Department did not want to conclude that and thus ignored it until it was too late to matter;

(8) U.S. and British officials colluded to allow the U.S. to keep cluster bombs on British soil even though Britain had signed the treaty banning such weapons, and,

(9) Hillary Clinton's State Department ordered diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data on U.N. and other foreign officials, almost certainly in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961. 

That's just a sampling.

This is what Joe Lieberman and his comrades are desperately trying to suppress -- literally prevent it from being accessible on the Internet.  And "journalists" like Capehart play along by continuing to insist there's "nothing new" being revealed by WikiLeaks despite their never having reported any of this.  And since the disclosures, does anyone believe that any of these revelations have received anything close to meaningful attention by the American establishment media?  But remember -- as Capehart's newspaper taught us today -- "revelations by the organization WikiLeaks have received blanket coverage this week on television, in newspapers" in Free America -- showing what a Vibrant, Adversarial Press we are blessed with -- but "in many Arab countries, the mainstream media have largely avoided reporting on the sensitive contents of the cables."

* * * * *

If anyone is aware of some sort of campaign to boycott Amazon's web services over its capitulation to Joe Lieberman -- and there should be one -- please alert me to it so I can promote it.  Of course, everyone is able on their own to cease using those services even without some formally organized campaign.

On a different note:  the excellent website 3 Quarks Daily is hosting its 2nd annual prize for the best blog writing in politics, to be judged by long-time Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham, and it includes a cash prize of $1,000.  As I won last year, I'm ineligible, but they are now accepting nominations, which entail submitting the URL for a specific post along with, if desired, a "brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win."  Everyone is encouraged to submit nominations of those they think are worthy winners.


UPDATE: Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has a characteristically insightful and thought-provoking analysis of WikiLeaks, expressed through a 14-minute video.  Regarding why many valuable sources prefer to give their documents and other leaks to WikiLeaks rather than traditional press outlets, he says:

In the American case, one of the reasons is that the legitimacy of the press itself is in doubt in the minds of the leakers.  And there's good reason for that.  Because while we have what purports to be a "watchdog press," we also have -- laid out in front of us -- the clear record of the watchdog press'  failure to do what it says it can do, which is provide a check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose.  

So I think it's a mistake to try to reckon with WikiLeaks and what it's about without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years - but especially recently.  And so without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust an upstart like Julian Assange and a shadowly organization like WikiLeaks . . .  

These kinds of huge, cataclysmic events [the Iraq War] within the legitimacy regime lie in the background of the WikiLeaks case, because if it wasn't for those things, WikiLeaks wouldn't have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn't collaborate the way they do, and the moral force behind exposing what this Government is doing just wouldn't be there. . . . The watchdog press died, and what we have is WikiLeaks instead.

Most American journalists -- represented by Jonathan Capehart in the video above and the Post's self-praising contrast between the Free, Robust American Press and the anemic, controlled "Arab media" -- are so far away from even beginning to process those facts, indeed are constitutionally incapable of understanding or facing them, that they are just in a different universe than reality.  And that -- combined with the fact that they are rooted in and dependent upon the very political system they are supposed to check and which these disclosures threaten -- are the reasons why most of them react to WikiLeaks with an equal dose of confoundedness and contempt.

UPDATE II: Charles Davis at has one petition and an Amazon boycott plan here.  I realize there is a variety of sentiments about boycotts, with some people arguing that Amazon is merely the "victim" here, but that strikes me as quite unrealistic.  It's true that any company would take note if the Homeland Security Committeee called to complain about its aiding and abetting an organization that has been accused by leading political and media figures of being everything from a "terrorist organization" to an "enemy combatant"; that's what makes Lieberman's behavior so thuggish and wrong.   But Amazon is quite a powerful corporation that did not need to capitulate to the likes of Joe Lieberman, and it would not have done so had it been the slightest bit inclined to resist.

On a related note:  yesterday, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a post explaining his cogent opposition to Obama's assassination program, and today he criticized Joe Lieberman rather emphatically for his conduct here regarding Amazon.  I don't even know what to make of that development, so I'll just acknowledge it.  I will note that my opposition to Obama's assassination program -- contrary to Goldberg's suggestion -- has nothing to do with my "understanding of Islamism or America's role in the world," but is rather grounded in my belief, which Goldberg says he shares, that "an American president (any American president) should [not] be allowed to order the assassination" of his own citizens absent the target's efforts imminently to kill -- "not merely argue for the killing, but kill" -- innocent people.


UPDATE III:  As noted, both The Guardian and TPM reported yesterday that Amazon terminated its provision of hosting services to WikiLeaks in response to the call on behalf of Lieberman.  Last night, Amazon denied that it did so in response to government pressure, claiming instead that WikiLeaks violated its terms of service by posting materials to which -- in Amazon's eyes -- it did not own the rights and which could harm others:

when companies or people go about securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs, and publishing this data without ensuring it won't injure others, it's a violation of our terms of service, and folks need to go operate elsewhere.

Amazon went on to repeat standard (though inaccurate) claims from WikiLeaks critics about the disclosures:

it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy.

Everyone can decide for themselves whether to believe Amazon's denial:   it's not particularly surprising that a corporation that provides such services would want to quash any notions that they succumb that easily to government pressure, and it seems rather coincidental that it did this after receiving a call from the Homeland Security Committee.  But Amazon's claim is false, as WikiLeaks has not published "250,000 classified documents."  They've only published 612, and the only documents from the leak of diplomatic cables published on the WikiLeaks site thus far have all been ones published by its newspaper partners such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, etc., including with the same redactions.   

But, either way, Amazon's denial -- whether you believe it or not -- has no effect whatsoever on the perniciousness of Lieberman's conduct.  His efforts to pressure and intimidate companies into suppressing political content are every bit as odious whether, in Amazon's case, it succeeded or not (particularly given that his bullying efforts clearly did succeed in at least one other case).

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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