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<nettime> James Love: In Defense Of WikiLeaks
nettime's avid reader on Tue, 6 Sep 2011 11:54:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> James Love: In Defense Of WikiLeaks

In Defense Of WikiLeaks: Looking At Cables On Pharmaceutical Drugs And 
Trade Pressures
Posted: 9/4/11 02:43 PM ET


James Love
Director, Knowledge Ecology International

Like many others, I have spent the past several days combing through 
countless US Department of State cables. I am primarily looking at the 
cables that describe our government's efforts to drive up the price of 
medicine in developing countries. This is an act of state-sponsored 
violence that is rarely reported by the New York Times, the Guardian or 
other newspapers that had received early copies of the cables.

I am also looking at the news of and the reaction to WikiLeaks' failure to 
withhold access to cables that include the names of sources of 
intelligence, putting at risk the lives of the persons so named.

While I join those who are greatly saddened by this lapse in security, and 
aware of the consequences, I am also shocked at the bitter attacks on 
WikiLeaks, which seem unbalanced, under the circumstances. I think that 
Glenn Greenwald got things right in Salon, when he wrote yesterday that "a 
series of unintentional though negligent acts by multiple parties -- 
WikiLeaks, The Guardian's investigative reporter David Leigh, and Open 
Leaks' Daniel Domscheit-Berg" led to the release of all documents in 
unredacted form. Domscheit-Berg, who sought to share in the glory of the 
WikiLeaks operation, essentially stole a copy of the encrypted files from 
WikiLeaks, which led, unintentionally, to the circulation of the encrypted 
version of the unredacted cables. But this by itself would not have created 
the problem, except for the fact that David Leigh of the Guardian chose to 
publish the password to the file in a book, last year.

This is the passage from David Leigh's book:

    Assange wrote down on a scrap of paper:

    ACollectionOfHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#. "That's the 
password," he said. "But you have to add one extra word when you type it 
in. You have to put in the Word "Diplomatic' before the word 'History." Can 
you remember that?"

Nigel Parry, in his excellent account of the disclosure, notes that David 
Leigh remains unrepentant about having published the "secret" password, 
claiming he did not realize that a password to the encrypted file would be 
permanent, rather than temporary. And, given the reporting in his own book, 
it seems obvious that Leigh did not know much about computers. But at that 
point, as Greenwald and others have noted, after a series of mistakes by 
lots of people, "virtually every government's intelligence agencies would 
have had access to these documents as a result of these events, but the 
rest of the world -- including journalists, whistle-blowers and activists 
identified in the documents -- did not." So, WikiLeaks finally released 
everything, and I think this was the right thing to do.

Is there blame to go around? Yes, plenty. The US Department of State 
allowed someone to leak its cables to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks allowed someone 
to leak those same cables in encrypted form, and a reporter from the 
Guardian thought it would be good literature to publish the password to the 
encrypted files.

What else was happening during this period? US political figures were 
calling for Assange to be assassinated, or thrown in jail. Every major 
financial institution was blocking financial transitions to WikiLeaks. 
Domscheit-Berg and others were carrying out what increasingly looked like a 
personal vendetta to smear WikiLeaks. The Swedish government put out an 
Interpol red alert charging Assange with rape. And, probably lots of other 
things were going on to destabilize the WikiLeaks operation. This was, I am 
certain, more pressure than most of us have experienced.

In the end, what have the WikiLeaks cables given the public? For those who 
care about such things, we now have a much clearer and documented view of 
the actual policies carried out by the US government, and also by many 
other governments, whose actions were described in the cables.

The Arab Spring may be the most visible and important consequence of the 
WikiLeaks cables. WikiLeaks did not by itself cause this social movement, 
but WikiLeaks did a great deal to stimulate action and to lend creditably 
to critics of the regimes, and for this, WikiLeaks certainly deserves 

My own areas of expertise includes trade policy, as it relates to 
intellectual property rights. Here the cables provide an unprecedented 
wealth of information about the Bush and Obama Administration policies over 
roughly a nine year period, ending in February 2010.

Even before the most recent dump of documents, were were able to locate 240 
cables detailing U.S. government efforts to expand controversial 
intellectual property rights in the evidence that new medicines are safe 
and effective -- an IPR rights that works interdependently from patents 
granted on inventions. This is a topic that is obscure to most non-experts, 
and completely unreported by the mainstream press, but is extremely 
important in the eyes of public health groups. To see what our government 
does, why it is important, and how aggressive is U.S. advocacy in shaping 
another country's laws, take a look at these cables on Jordan or Guatemala, 
for just a few data points.

The U.S. government also constantly pressured developing countries on drug 
pricing. Even when US government officials knew, and wrote, that high drug 
prices would undermine access, they conspired to undertake all sorts of 
pressure to get policies favorable to the drug companies. Read some of 
these cables and then ask yourself: what this would feel like if you were 
reading about a foreign government telling us what to do?

Not counting the latest disclosures, from May 2001 to February 2010, the 
Department of State published 23 cables per week mentioning 
pharmaceuticals. A typical but shocking example of this was the U.S. 
campaign to undermine legislation and reforms to make medicines more 
affordable in the Philippines. In one striking quote from a September 2009 
cable setting out opposition to price controls, Kristie Kenney, then the 
United States Ambassador to the Philippines (currently Ambassador to 
Thailand), acknowledges there is a strong rationale for the Philippines to 
cut drug prices:

    "Prescription medication prices in the Philippines are the second 
highest in Asia (next to Japan), in a country where about a third of the 
population subsists below the official poverty line. In this instance, some 
multinational companies failed to recognize that cheaper medicine for the 
masses is an emotional and political issue."

Then there is this May 14, 2007 cable from Ralph Boyce, then the Ambassador 
to Thailand, where he seems elated that Abbott Laboratories was withdrawing 
drug registrations for seven products, including among others, a version of 
a US government funded AIDS drugs that could be used without refrigeration 
-- a feature quite important for AIDS patients living in rural areas.


    ¶1. Abbott Labs, the recent target of a compulsory license on their 
patented antiretroviral Kaletra, confirmed to Embassy that the company had 
withdrawn applications for registration of seven new pharmaceutical 
products in Thailand, and had no plans to introduce new products until its 
intellectual property was properly respected. The seven drugs include 
Aluvia, a new heat-stable version of Kaletra. Although the two drugs are 
identical in effect, the new version is considered ideal for tropical 
environments such as Thailand. Other drug applications pulled include 
treatments for hypertension, kidney disease, auto-immune disease and 
congestive heart failure. The applications had been on file with the Thai 
FDA for up to ten months awaiting approval.

    ¶4. Comment: Abbott's actions will certainly be controversial. However, 
the action may strengthen the hand of Abbott and the rest of industry in 
future dealings with the RTG. Abbott's move puts the RTG on notice that 
there are visible consequences for its actions, rather than solely a vague 
weakening of the investment environment. Whether this focuses the minds of 
RTG officials at upcoming negotiations remains to be seen. End Comment. 

You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to find this truly appalling.

In a number of cases, the US government pressures developing countries to 
put pharmaceutical company lobbyists on key government committees dealing 
with drug regulation, IPR policy or drug pricing.

The disclosures go on and on. I am so angry at many of the cables that I 
can hardly explain how screwed up the U.S. policies are. Some of the 
disclosures have been blogged here.


After reading these cables, it is difficult to stomach the defenses of US 
secrecy. Forcing developing countries to raise the price of drugs has 
predictable and well known consequences -- it kills people, and increases 
suffering. Many people could care less -- including reporters and editors 
of newspapers. How much of this ends up in the Washington Post, the New 
York Times or the Guardian these days? But others who do care now have more 
access to information, and more credibility in their criticisms of 
government policy, because of the disclosures of the cables.

Many of the cables are in theory available under our Freedom of Information 
Act (FOIA). In practice, the Obama Administration has made it more 
difficult to obtain information about trade practices under FOIA, and in 
many respects is even more aggressive about secrecy in IPR negotiations 
than was the Bush Administration. For these reasons, the WikiLeaks 
disclosures are even more valuable. One hopes the substance of the cables 
become more widely known in the United States, and that U.S. citizens begin 
to question our government's close collaboration with big pharmaceutical 
companies in our dealings with low income countries. 

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