The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks
December 10, 2011 § 5 Comments
Following are excerpts from my long essay on Wikileaks and the Palestine Papers which appears in The Arabs Are Alive, the first issue of Critical Muslim, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and PULSE’s own Robin Yassin-Kassab.
British journalist Gary Younge once quipped that the English nation only exists for 90 minutes during a game of football. As the webs of social relations that tied nations together have frayed under the neoliberal assault, societies have fragmented, existing only as imagined communities in spectacles, especially war and sport. The Wikileaks cables revealed little about Tunisia or Egypt that the individual citizen did not already know. But it was the spectacular manner of the revelations that turned a mass of atomised and jaded individuals into an angry nation clamouring for dignity. As witnesses to the spectacle of the global phenomena that was Wikileaks and the local tragedy that was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisians had coalesced into a community around the common source of their humiliation.
If Mohamed Bouazizi’s spectacular act was born of desperation, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s was born of ingenuity. By using the prestige and resources of five of the world’s leading news organizations, Assange ensured a global audience for his revelations. In his earlier experiments he had discovered that dumping a mass of data online, however sensational, generated little public interest. Information, like any commodity, is also subject to the laws of supply and demand. Truth has never been in short supply, but it needs amplification to have an impact. An obscure website might draw those actively pursuing a story, but masses who are mere passive consumers of news will have little reason to upset the bliss of their ignorance. For it to have an impact the information will have to be thrust into people’s faces.
That is what Nick Davies proposed to do. The veteran investigative journalist sought out Assange shortly after private Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst who leaked the trove of military logs and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, was arrested by the US authorities in June 2010. Manning had unwisely confided his role to a former hacker named Adrian Lamo who promptly denounced him to the military. The 22-year-old soldier was arrested and put into solitary confinement where he has remained since in conditions which can best be described as near-torture.
Manning’s epiphany had come after he was ordered to investigate a case involving 15 detainees being held by the Iraqi federal police for distributing ‘anti-Iraqi literature.’ After having the pamphlets translated, Manning discovered that they contained a benign, scholarly critique of Iraqi president Nouri al-Malaki. But when he told his superior officer about this, he was told to ‘shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs [federal police] in finding *MORE* detainees.’ At that point, wrote Manning, ‘I saw things differently…I had always questioned the way things worked, [but now] I was actively involved in something I was completely against.’
Manning’s conviction grew stronger after he watched a classified video of an incident in 2007 where a couple of US Apache gunships had mowed down a group of civilians in Baghdad and bombed a building, killing between 18 to 26 Iraqis including two Reuters journalists. One of the journalists was executed while crawling wounded on the floor. The helicopter also shot up a van after it stopped to assist the wounded journalist, killing the driver and his companion and seriously wounding the two children whom they were driving to school. But when Manning tried to look for media coverage of the incident, he found a New York Times report stating only that the attack had killed ‘nine insurgents and two civilians.’ That is when he decided to copy the video and other documents from the classified integrated military-diplomatic network and leaked them to Assange. Afterwards he told Lamo: ‘I feel, for some bizarre reason, it might actually change something.’
On 5 April 2010, Wikileaks released the video of the helicopter attacks at a press conference in Washington. The video showed the slaughter being carried out to a soundtrack of casual banter which was inhuman in its unhurried and business-like detachment. The voices were calm and blasé, betraying no sense of threat—they seemed to delight in the act of murder. There was little remorse even after the crew was informed that their victims included children. The world was horrified.
[Regarding the absence of cables related to Israel in the Wikileaks tranche:] Of course, there were always simpler explanations. There were no significant cables from Tel Aviv because the embassy there serves a largely symbolic function. Israel has never had to deal with diplomats because since its birth it has had direct access to the White House. This was impressed upon the US state department early when on 10 June 1949, future US ambassador George McGhee, who was responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem, met the Israeli ambassador in London to deliver a warning from President Harry Truman and secretary of state Dean Acheson that the US would withhold $49 million in promised loan guarantees unless Israel agreed to the return of at least half the Palestinians who had been ethnically cleansed by the Zionist forces. The Israeli ambassador calmly advised McGhee that he was wasting his time because his contacts in the White House had assured him that the decision would be overturned. Shortly afterwards, McGhee received a message from David Niles, the White House liaison to the Jewish community and a leading Zionist, informing him that the president had officially dissociated himself from the plan.
This of course is the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of these diplomats are well informed and competent, but the US policy in relation to the region is not made by diplomats who are conscious of the US national interest but by Washington politicians who are conscious only of domestic electoral concerns.
As an organization, Wikileaks is slightly over four years old, but its impact on public discourse is already palpable…Founded in 2006 by Assange and some hackers, mathematicians and activists, Wikileaks remains a work in progress, constantly in search of an effective and sustainable model. Conscious of the fact that it is venturing into uncharted territory, Wikileaks has continually revised and adapted its modus operandi. It began with the idea of posting large amounts of raw information on its website so that citizen journalists could parse and analyse the information and write articles based on it. It appeared few were willing to put in such effort. Only established media seemed to have the resources and motivation necessary for such a task—but few were willing to associate with or credit an unknown media start-up. Wikileaks next tried to serve as a publisher of last resort for information that powerful interests were trying to suppress through legal injunctions—a function it serves to date. Wikileaks has based its servers in various geographical locations and legal jurisdictions so that its operations remain un-censorable. If one is injuncted, others will continue to operate.
At one point Wikileaks even tried to auction some documents in its possession which would have given the successful bidder exclusive access to the material for a limited period of time. With the ‘Collateral Murder’ it tried to act as its own broadcaster but the impact was still limited. In its earlier days it had also partnered with individual journalists to publicize its data. With the Afghan and Iraq logs it entered the big time, forging partnership with the world’s leading publications, who were given exclusive access thereby investing them in the publication and promotion of the material. But both were single large data dumps and their impact only lasted a few days. With the embassy cables, Wikileaks hit upon a new model which would gain them maximum attention over the longest period of time. The cables would be released in a steady trickle organized around regions, issues or themes, thereby building anticipation and prolonging interest.
While the New York Times’s Bill Keller and Time magazine’s Richard Stengel have both tried to dismiss Wikileaks as nothing without Bradley Manning, the organization’s achievements were considerable even before it received anything from the disgruntled soldier. Before the cables, before even the Afghan and Iraq war logs, Abu Dhabi’s The National had reported that ‘Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years.’
After much effort, on 31 August 2007 Wikileaks’s first successful media partnership came about when the Guardian published a front page story on corruption allegations against former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi based on a Kroll (an inquiry firm) report Assange had obtained. Next Wikileaks published a report on death squad killings in Kenya which also brought home the risks involved in such activism in a disturbing way when four of the individuals associated with the investigation, including the human rights activists Oscar Kingara and John Paul Oulu, were themselves subsequently murdered. The story was publicized by John Swain of the Sunday Times, and it won Wikileaks the Amnesty International annual journalism award. Later in November, Wikileaks published a March 2003 copy of the standard operating procedures for the Guantanamo Bay detention camp which revealed that contrary to its claims, the US military had kept some prisoners off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In February 2008, Wikileaks published evidence of tax-dodging by the clients of the Swiss bank Julius Baer based on documents leaked by former executive Rudolf Elmer. The bank got a California court to issue an injunction against Wikileaks’s domain name host Dynadot which took the website down. But in rehearsal of a tactic it would have to apply many times more in the future, Wikileaks activated several mirror sites in various countries. Several advocates of free speech, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a journalist alliance including the Associated Press, Gannett News Services and the Los Angeles Times, rallied behind Wikileaks. It was a PR disaster for the bank, which soon withdrew its legal threats. Wikileaks picked up another award, this time from Index on Censorship.
Meanwhile, Wikileaks continued to serve as a publisher of last resort. When Barclay’s Bank tried to bring an injunction against the Guardian from publishing its tax avoidance strategies, Wikileaks immediately hosted them in full on its website, rendering the gag superfluous. Likewise, when the oil trader Trafigura tried to suppress a damning report about its dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast causing great health hazards, Wikileaks, Greenpeace Netherlands and the Norwegian National TV all posted the report on their websites undermining the gag.
In August 2009, Wikileaks became a sensation in Iceland when the Kaupthing Bank brought the country’s first and only injunction against state TV to stop it from broadcasting a damning expose minutes before it went on air. The bank, according to a leaked document, had given its partners and associates credit on extremely favourable terms shortly before it filed for insolvency. The producers of the show were outraged and they decided to bypass the gag by pointing viewers to the Wikileaks website where the bank’s loan book was posted in full. The injunction collapsed, and Assange and his lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg became minor celebrities. They used their fame to help pass the Modern Media Initiative in collaboration with Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir. The law, according to Jónsdóttir, replicates the Swiss banking model for information, enshrining source protection, free speech and freedom of information. It turned Iceland into a ‘Switzerland of bytes [which takes the] tax haven model and transforms it into the transparency haven model.’
In March 2010, WikiLeaks obtained a secret 32-pageUS Department of Defense Counterintelligence Analysis Report with strategies for deterring Wikileaks and hunting down its sources. The report was produced in March 2008 showing that long before the Apache video, the war logs, or the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks had already been in the Pentagon’s crosshairs.
These are only the highlights of Wikileaks’s achievements. It has also released the secret manuals of Scientology; 6,780 Congressional Research Service reports; 570,000 intercepts of pager messages sent on 9/11; it leaked the US military’s Human Terrain System handbook, a manual developed by embedded anthropologists to assist the military in pacifying occupied lands; and lists of forbidden or illegal web addresses for Australia, Denmark and Thailand which showed that parental guidance filters were being used to block political content. The effect of all the revelations has been explosive, and every news organization worthy of its name is now playing catch-up. To stay relevant, several media organizations have announced their own drop-boxes for whistle-blowers. The results are mostly abysmal: New York Times’s drop box has yet to materialize months after the announcement; Wall Street Journal’s was soon revealed to be insecure, compromising the anonymity of the whistle-blowers. But there have also been some successes. Most notable among them is the Transparency Unit established by Al Jazeera.
In 2010 Time magazine defied the judgment of its readers to select Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg over Julian Assange as its person of the year. In a readers’ poll Assange had secured 382,000 votes to Zuckerberg’s 18,000. It had been some years since Facebook made a splash and most considered it yesterday’s news. This led comedian John Hodgman to Tweet, ‘Time just named its Person of the Year 2007.’ Forced to defend his choice, Time managing editor Richard Stengel confidently declared that ‘Assange might not even be on anybody’s radar six months from now…I think Assange will be a footnote five years from now.’ This was a day before Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. It was also before Tahrir Square. It’s over six months since Stengel’s daring prediction yet Assange still remains on the radar and his list of media partners has grown to 63. Wikileaks still has at least two major leaks—on the financial sector and on the massacre of civilians in a NATO raid—scheduled for this year. It is safe to say that Wikileaks will be with us for some time to come. Given the present state of publishing, it is likelier that Time will be a footnote five years from now.