The crux of the WikiLeaks debate

A contentious debate today on WNYC with Brian Lehrer

Published December 8, 2010 6:09PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV [Thurs.] - Update V [Thurs.] - Update VI [Thurs.] - Update VII [Thurs.])

WNYC's Brian Lehrer has spent the last week hosting one WikiLeaks critic after the next on his program, and it seems rather clear that he, too, is a fairly emphatic critic of the group and its founder, Julian Assange.  I appeared on Lehrer's show this afternoon for what was a rather contentious 25-minute interview that involved obviously adversarial (and perfectly appropriate) questions from him and from a few callers.  I've been doing countless radio and TV interviews and debates over the last few days, making it difficult to write as much as I'd like, but this segment, in my view, really highlights the core disputes -- and many of the misconceptions and falsehoods -- at the heart of this controversy, one that I think will be seen as easily one of the most important political developments of the last several years:

This afternoon, at 2:30 pm or so, I'll also be on Warren Olney's To the Point program, along with former State Department spokesman James Rubin, who recently denounced WikiLeaks in The New Republic.  That can be heard live here.  

Speaking of The New Republic, it's now been more than 24 hours since Todd Gitlin vowed to "think about" the factual inaccuracies in his article which I brought to his attention and TNR's Editor-in-Chief Franklin Foer's attention, and they have still done nothing to correct them.


UPDATE:  The To the Point segment I just did included not only James Rubin, but also The New York Times' John Burns, who quite obviously has not even come close to getting over his seething anger about the criticisms I voiced about his Assange article several weeks ago.  Now this was a contentious debate -- one that made the WNYC one I did earlier today look like a lovefest by comparison.  Rubin -- as is true for so many WikiLeaks critics -- made statements when denouncing them that were simply false, and as soon as the audio of this segment is available, I'm going to post it along with the evidence proving that, just as I said I would.  Both the dispute itself -- and the way in which this media figure (Burns) and former government official  (Rubin) were (as always) on the exact same page -- were quite illuminating.


UPDATE II:  Below is the audio from the To the Point segment.  Just trust me and listen to it.  The first 20 minutes or so is just John Burns reporting on the Assange court hearing, which is unnecessary to listen to.  Then, at roughly 23:45, Rubin is brought in, and he repeats his denunciations of WikiLeaks that he published in The New Republic; he also claims that the diplomatic cables show no deceit or wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the U.S. Government.  Rubin's segment goes on for about 10 minutes, and while listening to it will give important context for what follows, it's not completely necessary.

I was finally brought in at the 32:15 mark and that's when things became quite contentious and illuminating.  I've written about this before, but what's most remarkable is how -- as always -- leading media figures and government officials are completely indistinguishable in what they think, say and do with regard to these controversies; that's why Burns and Rubin clung together so closely throughout the segment, because there is no real distinction between most of these establishment reporters and the government; the former serve the latter.  Below is the clip itself; I'm posting the specific evidence showing that Rubin's general claim (that these cables contain no deceit or wrongdoing) as well as his specific claims about Yemen were absolutely false:


Regarding Rubin's claims about Yemen:  here is the cable reflecting a meeting between Gen. David Petraeus and the Yemeni President in January, 2010, proving that it was the U.S., not Yemen, which perpetrated the December, 2009 air strike.  Moreover, it records this:

President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG [Republic of Yemen government] ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh.  . . . Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

As Salon's Justin Elliott noted, this cable "confirms that the Obama Administration has secretly launched missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Yemen, strikes that have reportedly killed dozens of civilians."  Despite that, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had the following exchange on December, 15, 2009, with reporters:

QUESTION: On the conflict in Yemen, Houthis say that U.S. warplanes have launched airstrikes in northern Yemen.  Is the U.S. involved in any military operations in Yemen?



MR. CROWLEY: But we -- those kinds of reports keep cropping up. We do not have a military role in this conflict.

In response to having been caught spouting these falsehoods in the wake of the WikiLeaks release, Crowley claimed that he confined his denial to only one attack in which the U.S. was not involved (the one on the Yemeni Houthis), but the clear words from the Press Conference prove that his denial applied to "any military operations in Yemen" (Q: "Is the U.S. involved in any military operations in Yemen?  MR. CROWLEY: No").  The WikiLeaks cables reveal that is false; the airstrike launched by the U.S. occurred a mere two days later, on December 17; obviously, there was collaboration and involvement by the U.S. by December 15.

At the very least, Crowley's statement clearly contributed to media reports suggesting that these attacks were launched by Yemen, not the U.S.  Here, for instance, is a December 24, 2009 New York Times article headlined "Yemen Says It Attacked a Meeting of Al Qaeda. It begins this way:

Yemeni fighter jets, acting on intelligence provided in part by the United States, struck what the Yemeni government said was a meeting of operatives from Al Qaeda early Thursday morning, and officials suggested that a radical cleric linked to the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings might have been among the 30 people killed. . . . The statement said the radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, was “presumed to be at the site.”

That, as we now know from the WikiLeaks cable, is totally false; it was the U.S. who did the striking, not Yemen.  So what we have -- at best -- is the Yemeni Government not only misleading its own people, but the American people as well, by leading the New York Times to publish an article falsely stating that the attack was one launched by Yemen, not the U.S.   

At the very least, these WikiLeaks documents reveal to the American public that these air strikes were launched by the U.S. -- in other words, that the U.S. Government is involved in a secret war in Yemen which it has never disclosed to the American citizenry, let alone subjected it to any form of real debate, and about which the State Department spokesman gave extremely misleading answers.  Making matters much worse, at least one of those air strikes was directed at killing an American citizen (moreover, read Items 1-9 at the bottom of this post detailing many similar revelations of State Department wrongdoing from the WikiLeaks disclosures). 

What kind of person would look at all these facts and claim -- as Rubin did -- that the WikiLeaks documents show no deceit on the part of the American Government and show no wrongdoing of any kind?  Or worse, who would possibly say that these facts -- including targeted air strikes in a brand new country with the intent to kill, among others, an American citizen -- should be kept from the American people?


UPDATE III:  Just for a sense of how pervasive these lies about WikiLeaks have become, consider this Pew poll from today, which purports to find that 60% of Americans believe the latest WikiLeaks disclosure harms the public interest, while only 31% believe it helps it (apparently, a majority of Americans demand:  keep us ignorant about what our Government is doing in the world!!).  But the whole poll is grounded in an absolute falsehood:  the Pew release refers to "the WikiLeaks website's release of a huge trove of classified document"; describes "the release of thousands of secret State Department communications"; and praises the public for "make[ing] a distinction between WikiLeaks itself and the press' handling of the document release"

But all of that is totally false (added: though this commenter persuasively argues that it's Pew's press release, not its poll, that is affected by the false claims).  It's all based on the absolute falsehood -- spread by people like Jamie Rubin, Todd Gitlin and so many others -- that WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumped all 250,000 cables onto the Internet, in contrast to the media outlets which have only selectively released them.  It just gets repeated enough times by enough people and then becomes "fact" -- as much as Saddam's WMDs and so many other things.


UPDATE IV:  Two of my statements on Lehrer's program were inaccurate.  When asked about a document released by WikiLeaks identifying various U.S. vulnerabilities (WikiLeaks' justification for its release is contained in this article), I said that the designation "secret" with which that document was classified was the lowest level of secrecy used by the U.S. Government.  It isn't:  "confidential" is lower.  I also said that WikiLeaks has released roughly only 3% of the cables it possesses; actually, the percentage is less than .5%.


UPDATE V:  Time Magazine this morning has a new article by Michael Lindenberger  -- lamenting the oh-so-inconvenient fact that WikiLeaks likely hasn't actually broken any laws -- that repeatedly affirms the central lie being propagated to demonize WikiLeaks.  First we have this:

[W]hat would it take for the U.S. government to prosecute him for publishing -- and disseminating to newspapers around the world -- thousands of classified State Department cables? . . . .several members of Congress and the Obama Administration suggested that Assange should indeed face criminal prosecution for posting and disseminating to the media thousands of secret diplomatic cables . . .

Just as a mathematical matter, the claim that WikiLeaks has "posted" or "published" "thousands of secret diplomatic cables" is absolutely false.  All one has to do to know this is go to their website where the diplomatic cables have been posted.  There is a large, prominent box which keeps a running daily total of how many cables have actually been posted.  This is what it reads right this minute:

They have not released "thousands" of cables; they've released 1,193 -- less than 1/2 of 1% of the total they possess.

Worse, the Time article then refers to "a distinction between WikiLeaks' indiscriminate posting of the cables -- which [Nicholas] Burns called 'nihilistic' -- and the more careful vetting evidenced by The New York Times."  This is a "distinction" that exists only in the minds of establishment-serving, falsehood-spewing "journalists."  

Obviously, releasing 1/2 of 1% of the documents one possesses is not "indiscriminate" under any recognized meaning of that word.  More to the point, the overwhelming majority of cables posted thus far by WikiLeaks were first published by one of its partner newspapers, and contains the redactions applied by those papers.  This AP article details exactly those facts:

Unlike earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government military records, the group is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material.  "They are releasing the documents we selected," Le Monde's managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said. . . . "The cables we have release[d] correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said . . . 

It's possible that this might change in the future.  WikiLeaks has every right to exercise editorial judgment independent of those newspapers -- such as The New York Times -- which have repeatedly proven themselves excessively servile to government dictates.  If WikiLeaks does end up releasing vastly more cables than The New York Times does, that won't be incriminating in the slightest; to the contrary, it will be vindicating.

But as of now, that they have been largely following the lead of newspapers in publishing these cables is called "reality" and "truth."  That WikiLeaks just indiscriminately dumped "thousands of secret cables" is the primary U.S. Government claim being made to distinguish it from media outlets and to depict them as criminally irresponsible.  Except, at least as of now, that claim is an absolute, demonstrable lie.  And, as usual, it's being repeated most loudly and effectively by our government-subservient "watchdog" media.  Lindenberger and Time's Editors should be deluged with emails and calls demanding a correction; I'll post their contact information when I have it.


UPDATE VI:  Regarding James Rubin's emphatic denial that "the United States was conducting some secret policy different than the one it was putting forward publicly":  Salon's Justin Elliott expertly documents today that the U.S. State Department -- through its spokesman Philip Crowley -- clearly misled the country about the role the U.S. played in the air attacks on Yemen, even beyond what I've documented here.

Speaking of Crowley, look at what he managed to write today on his Twitter feed, presumably with a straight face:

That "WPFD" after his message refers to "World Press Freedom Day," which the U.S. is hosting in 2011 and whose theme could not possibly be any more contrary to the U.S.'s behavior these past two weeks.  The only possible competitor for the Unintentional Self-Satire of the Month Award is the fact that Joe Lieberman is a member of the "Global Internet Freedom Caucus" and even sponsored a bill to support "Internet censorship victims" in Iran -- the very same Joe Lieberman who thuggishy threatened companies this week not to associate themselves with WikiLeaks in light of the documents they published on the Internet.  

Relatedly:  Eric Holder today proudly announced that the DOJ is "looking into" cyber attacks directed at companies which cut off WikiLeaks' services (such as MasterCard and, coming soon, Paypal).  I wonder why Holder's DOJ isn't also "looking into" the far more serious cyber attacks directed at WikiLeaks and which removed them from the Internet.  Given how "no country believes in press freedom more than the United States," one would think they'd want to get to the bottom of who the culprits are who did that.

Finally, Michael Lindenberger -- the author of the Time article referenced in the prior Update -- emailed me to advise that he will "review or share with editors" the errors I pointed out.


UPDATE VII:  At The New Republic, Todd Gitlin has now posted what he calls "A response to Glenn Greenwald."  I'll leave it to everyone to decide on their own if what he wrote even remotely constitutes a sufficient or responsible acknowledgment of error, except I'll just note that his principal excuse -- that he wasn't aware when he filed his piece of the AP article negating his whole premise -- doesn't change the fact that (a) the central premise of his denunciation of WikiLeaks was factually false and (b) all he had to do -- and should have done -- to know that what he wrote was inaccurate was look at WikiLeaks' release of cables, which happened to be the topic of his article.  That would have immediately revealed that they were not indiscriminately dumping thousands of cables.  By slothfully condemning WikiLeaks for its release of cables that he obviously never even bothered to look at -- but instead just repeated what he heard elsewhere -- he wrote a whole column grounded in a pure falsehood and now lacks the integrity to acknowledge that clearly.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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