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<nettime> Fwd: More on Wikileaks

Arianna Huffington
Posted: December 15, 2010 09:19 PM

The Media Gets It Wrong on WikiLeaks: It's About Broken Trust, Not
Broken Condoms

I attend a lot of conferences on media and technology -- indeed,
they might actually be the biggest growth sector of the media -- but
the one I attended this past weekend was one of the most fascinating
I've been to in quite a while. Entitled "A Symposium on WikiLeaks and
Internet Freedom," the one-day event was sponsored by the Personal
Democracy Forum and was moderated by the group's Micah Sifry and
Andrew Rasiej.

The WikiLeaks story is an ever-shifting one -- witness the latest
twists of the Air Force blocking its personnel from accessing more
than 25 news sites that have posted material released by WikiLeaks,
and the shocking treatment of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private
accused of being the source of the leaks.

One of the problems with the WikiLeaks story is that there has been
way too much conflating going on, as Katrin Verclas pointed out at the
symposium. So some serious unconflating (disconflating?) is in order.

I see four main aspects to the story. The first important aspect of
the revelations is... the revelations.

Too much of the coverage has been meta -- focusing on questions about
whether the leaks were justified, while too little has dealt with the
details of what has actually been revealed and what those revelations
say about the wisdom of our ongoing effort in Afghanistan. There's a
reason why the administration is so upset about these leaks.

True, there hasn't been one smoking-gun, bombshell revelation -- but
that's certainly not to say the cables haven't been revealing. What
there has been instead is more of the consistent drip, drip, drip of
damning details we keep getting about the war. Details that belie the
upbeat talk the administration wants us to believe. The effect is
cumulative -- not unlike mercury poisoning.

It's notable that the latest leaks came out the same week President
Obama went to Afghanistan for his surprise visit to the troops -- and
made a speech about how we are "succeeding" and "making important
progress" and bound to "prevail."

The WikiLeaks cables present quite a different picture. What emerges
is one reality (the real one) colliding with another (the official
one). We see smart, good-faith diplomats and foreign service personnel
trying to make the truth on the ground match up to the one the
administration has proclaimed to the public. The cables show the
widening disconnect. It's like a foreign policy Ponzi scheme -- this
one fueled not by the public's money, but the public's acquiescence.

The cables show that the administration has been cooking the books.
And what's scandalous is not the actions of the diplomats doing their
best to minimize the damage from our policies, but the policies
themselves. Of course, we've known about them, but the cables provide
another opportunity to see the truth behind the spin -- so it's no
wonder the administration has reacted so hysterically to them.

The second aspect of the story -- the one that was the focus of
the symposium -- is the changing relationship to government that
technology has made possible.

Back in the year 2007, B.W. (Before WikiLeaks), Barack Obama waxed
lyrical about government and the internet: "We have to use technology
to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most
secretive administrations in our history has favored special interest
and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight."

At that moment he was, of course, busy building an internet framework
that would play an important part in his becoming the head of the
next administration. Not long after the election, in announcing his
"Transparency and Open Government" policy, the president proclaimed:
"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for
citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained
by the Federal Government is a national asset."

Cut to a few years later. Now that he's defending a reality that
doesn't match up to, well, reality, he's suddenly not so keen on the
people having a chance to access this "national asset."

Even more wikironic are the statements by his Secretary of State who,
less than a year ago, was lecturing other nations about the value
of an unfettered and free internet. Given her description of the
WikiLeaks as "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" that
have put in danger "innocent people," her comments take on a whole
different light. Some highlights:

In authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people
discover new facts and making governments more accountable...
technologies with the potential to open up access to government and
promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush
dissent and deny human rights... As in the dictatorships of the past,
governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.

Now "making government accountable" is, as White House spokesman
Robert Gibbs put it, a "reckless and dangerous action."

And the government isn't stopping at shameless demagoguery, hypocrisy,
and fear-mongering -- it's putting its words into action. According to
The Hill, this week the House Judiciary Committee will open hearings
into whether WikiLeaks has somehow violated the Espionage Act of 1917.

What's more, ABC News reports that Assange's lawyers are hearing
that U.S. indictments could be forthcoming: "The American people
themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe,
arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful in any way," said
Attorney General Eric Holder. "We have a very serious, active, ongoing
investigation that is criminal in nature. I authorized just last week
a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the
bottom of this and hold people accountable... as they should be."

For the Obama administration, it appears that accountability is a
one-way street. When he had the chance to bring the principle of
accountability to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and investigate
how we got into them, the president passed. As John Perry Barlow
tweeted, "We have reached a point in our history where lies are
protected speech and the truth is criminal."

Any process of real accountability, would, of course, also include the
key role the press played in bringing us the war in Iraq. Jay Rosen,
one of the participants in the symposium, wrote a brilliant essay
entitled "From Judith Miller to Julian Assange." He writes:

For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate
and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself
a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can,
I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday,
September 8, 2002.

That was when the New York Times published Judith Miller and Michael
Gordon's breathless, spoon-fed -- and ultimately inaccurate -- account
of Iraqi attempts to buy aluminum tubes to produce fuel for a nuclear

Miller's after-the-facts-proved-wrong response, as quoted in a Michael
Massing piece in the New York Review of Books, was: "My job isn't to
assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence
analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what
the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

In other words, her job is to tell citizens what their government is
saying, not, as Obama called for in his transparency initiative, what
their government is doing. As Jay Rosen put it:

Today it is recognized at the Times and in the journalism world that
Judy Miller was a bad actor who did a lot of damage and had to go. But
it has never been recognized that secrecy was itself a bad actor in
the events that led to the collapse, that it did a lot of damage, and
parts of it might have to go. Our press has never come to terms with
the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the
national security state swelled in size after September 11th.

And in the WikiLeaks case, much of media has again found itself on the
wrong side of secrecy -- and so much of the reporting about WikiLeaks
has served to obscure, to conflate, to mislead.

For instance, how many stories have you heard or read about all
the cables being "dumped" in "indiscriminate" ways with no attempt
to "vet" and "redact" the stories first. In truth, only just over
1,200 of the 250,000 cables have been released, and WikiLeaks is
now publishing only those cables vetted and redacted by their media
partners, which includes the New York Times here and the Guardian in

The establishment media may be part of the media, but they're also
part of the establishment. And they're circling the wagons. One method
they're using, as Andrew Rasiej put it after the symposium, is to
conflate the secrecy that governments use to operate and the secrecy
that is used to hide the truth and allow governments to mislead us.

Nobody, including WikiLeaks, is promoting the idea that government
should exist in total transparency, or that, for instance, all
government meetings should be live-streamed and cameras placed around
the White House like a DC-based spin-off of Big Brother.

Assange himself would not disagree. "Secrecy is important for many
things," he told Time's Richard Stengel. "We keep secret the identity
of our sources, as an example, take great pains to do it." At the same
time, however, secrecy "shouldn't be used to cover up abuses."

But the government's legitimate need for secrecy is very different
from the government's desire to get away with hiding the truth.
Conflating the two is dangerously unhealthy for a democracy. And this
is why it's especially important to look at what WikiLeaks is actually
doing, as distinct from what its critics claim it's doing.

And this is why it's also important to look at the fact that even
though the cables are being published in mainstream outlets like the
Times, the information first went to WikiLeaks. "You've heard of
voting with your feet?" Rosen said during the symposium. "The sources
are voting with their leaks. If they trusted the newspapers more, they
would be going to the newspapers."

Our democracy's need for accountability transcends left and right
divisions. Over at American Conservative magazine, Jack Hunter penned
"The Conservative Case for WikiLeaks," writing:

Decentralizing government power, limiting it, and challenging it was
the Founders' intent and these have always been core conservative
principles. Conservatives should prefer an explosion of whistleblower
groups like WikiLeaks to a federal government powerful enough to take
them down. Government officials who now attack WikiLeaks don't fear
national endangerment, they fear personal embarrassment. And while
scores of conservatives have long promised to undermine or challenge
the current monstrosity in Washington, D.C., it is now an organization
not recognizably conservative that best undermines the political
establishment and challenges its very foundations.

It is not, as Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian, the job of the
media to protect the powerful from embarrassment. As I said at the
symposium, its job is to play the role of the little boy in The
Emperor's New Clothes -- brave enough to point out what nobody else is
willing to say.

When the press trades truth for access, it is WikiLeaks that acts like
the little boy. "Power," wrote Jenkins, "loathes truth revealed. When
the public interest is undermined by the lies and paranoia of power,
it is disclosure that takes sanity by the scruff of its neck and sets
it back on its feet."

A final aspect of the story is Julian Assange himself. Is he a
visionary? Is he an anarchist? Is he a jerk? This is fun speculation,
but why does it have an impact on the value of the WikiLeaks

Of course, it's not terribly surprising that those who are made
uncomfortable by the discrepancy between what the leaked cables show
and what our government claims would rather make this all about the
psychological makeup of Assange. But doing so is a virtual admission
that they have nothing tangible with which to counter the reality
exposed by WikiLeaks.

Maybe Assange "often acts without completely thinking through every
repercussion of his actions," writes Slate's Jack Shafer. "But if you
want to dismiss him just because he's a seething jerk, there are about
2,000 journalists I'd like you to meet."

Whether Assange is a world-class jerk or not, this is bigger than
Assange -- and will continue whether or not he continues to be a
central player in it. In fact, there is already an offshoot site soon
to be launched, called Openleaks, which will be run by veterans of

And I doubt this will be the only offshoot. So as interesting as
the Assange saga is, and I'm sure there will be books and movies
recounting Assange's personal tale, this is not about one man. Nor is
it about one site, though the precedent of allowing the government to
shut it down is very important.

It is about our future. For our democracy to survive, citizens have to
be able to know what our government is really doing. We can't change
course if we don't have accurate information about where we really
are. Whether this comes from a website or a newspaper or both doesn't

But if our government is successful in its efforts to shut down this
new avenue of accountability, it will have done our country far more
damage than what it claims is being done by WikiLeaks.

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