Patrice Riemens on Thu, 30 Dec 2010 07:12:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Philippe Riviere: Wikileaks: journalism or espionage? Shoot the messenger

>From Le Monde Diplomatique, English edition

original at:

Wikileaks: journalism or espionage?
Shoot the messenger

In setting up WikiLeaks, Julian Assange wanted to bring to light secret
agreements between countries. That he succeeded is clear from the number
of companies and governments who have tried to shut him down

by Philippe Rivière

    If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be
led, like sheep to the slaughter.
    ? George Washington

On 21 January 2010, in an important speech that would not have shamed the
founding father of the United States, Hillary Clinton gave her views on
the freedom of the internet. She criticised countries that ?have erected
electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of
the world?s networks [and] expunged words, names, and phrases from search
engine results?, and took up President Obama?s credo: ?The more freely
information flows, the stronger societies become.? In the name of that
?faith? in freedom of expression and information networks that ?[help]
people discover new facts and [make] governments more accountable?, the
administration launched a programme to support ?the development of new
tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by
circumventing politically motivated censorship? and warned against
governments that, like ?the dictatorships of the past... are targeting
independent thinkers who use these tools?.

Stirring stuff. But rather like someone whose mobile is stolen in the
street and then wants to bring back hanging, Clinton found herself the
victim of piracy and on 30 November 2010 announced her intention to take
?aggressive steps? in order to prosecute Julian Assange?s website,
WikiLeaks. His alleged crime was that in revealing, among other things,
that Clinton had asked her diplomats at the UN to spy on UN staff and
collect as much biometric data and as many passwords and credit card
numbers as possible, WikiLeaks was putting the ?international community?
in danger.

Outrage soon took hold among commentators on all sides, who flocked to the
television studios to demand they ?illegally shoot the son of a bitch?
(journalist Bob Beckel on Fox News), charge him with ?terrorism? (Peter
King, House Homeland Security Committee), or consider him an ?enemy
combatant?, like the prisoners in Guantanamo (Newt Gingrich on Fox News).
There was more than a whiff of McCarthyism according to one peace activist
? a lynch mob fever of the sort that grips the US periodically.

In setting up WikiLeaks, Julian Assange intended to bring to light real
?plots? and secret agreements between powers, which were carefully hidden
from the public. The proof of his success came with the number of
companies and governments who tried to shut his website down. In the days
following the publication of the diplomatic memos, China blocked access to
WikiLeaks. The US government recommended students not talk about the site
on their blogs, and the US Air Force forbade looking at The New York
Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian websites, which had republished the

The three main online banking services, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal ?
which still allow you to make donations to the Ku Klux Klan ? refused to
handle payments to his organisation. They thereby revealed themselves to
be ?instruments of US foreign policy?, according to the WikiLeaks
frontman. PostFinance, a subsidiary of the Swiss post office, also closed
the Australian hacker?s account. Tableau Software, a data visualisation
software company, censored not the data itself but a simple summary of the
?leaks? on the unconvincing grounds that WikiLeaks didn?t have ?the right
to make [the data] available?. Amazon, as a site host that was protected
from legal liability for content which was not its own, closed WikiLeaks?
account on its own initiative. When WikiLeaks then hired servers from OVH,
a French hosting company based in Roubaix, France?s minister for the
digital economy, Eric Besson ? entrusted a few months earlier with the
defence of the national identity of the land of Voltaire ? asked the CGIET
technology agency to tell him ?as quickly as possible how to end the
hosting of this site in France?. The judge in chambers to whom OVH
referred the case rejected it on the grounds that there had not been a
full adversarial hearing.

EveryDNS, a domain name system &#8232;management service whose function is
to enable users to find sites on the net, simply dropped
from its entries. All the weaknesses of the net (its centralisation, its
dependence on the US) and all the methods of coercion that web
libertarians have been warning against for years (sometimes crying wolf)
came into play. The demonisation of WikiLeaks? spokesman went a stage
further with an accusation of sexual misconduct and rape, charges that
Assange rejects as ?politically motivated?. A bizarre chase then ensued in
order to get the Australian ? by now in the south of England ? to testify.
If the UK extradited him to Sweden over the sex charges, would Sweden send
him on to the US over the publication of State Department documents? The
diplomatic and legal soap opera became frontpage news, catapulting
WikiLeaks to the top of the list of the world?s best-known websites and
Assange onto Time magazine?s list of personalities of the year, just
behind Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook (see Facebook: the magic

Now that the powers-that-be had identified the WikiLeaks organisation as
simply one man, they just had to convince us that he was not worthy of
exercising his freedoms. Which leads to the crucial question: in
publishing the cables passed on by a US soldier (probably the analyst
Bradley Manning, who has been locked up for 23 hours a day since May 2010
at Quantico base in Virginia, and who faces a 52-year prison sentence if
found guilty), was WikiLeaks engaging in journalism or espionage? ?To
convict [him] under the espionage Act, a trial must prove bad faith on the
part of the accused. With WikiLeaks, that?s easy,? claimed an article in
The Wall Street Journal on 9 December by Gabriel Schoenfeldt, the author
of a book on secrets, national security and journalism. The great care
with which the State Department representative Philip J Crowley asserted
that WikiLeaks ?isn?t a media organisation? then prepared the legal ground
for bringing him to book. For if WikiLeaks is just a receiver of stolen
goods, a spy, indeed a terrorist organisation, its condemnation would not
be a violation of the First Amendment, which grants freedom of expression
under the US constitution. ?Assange obviously has a particular political
objective behind his activities,? Crowley added, ?and I think that, among
other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist.?This
strange concept of apolitical journalism was tested in the past in the
Pentagon Papers trial. In 1971, the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg
revealed to The New York Times and 17 other papers 7,000 pages of a secret
study that he had photocopied and smuggled out of the Pentagon, which
showed that ?the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only
to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent
national interest and significance? ? the Vietnam war. The government?s
attempts to prevent publication went all the way to the Supreme Court,
which in the end found in favour of freedom of the press.

Since then the lies have resumed. False premises were the basis for the US
invasion of Iraq. According to The Washington Post, the number of
documents classified as secret in the US has rocketed since 1996 (5.6m),
reaching 54.6m by 2009.

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