The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks

The following appears in The Arabs Are Alive, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab. 

On 7 December 2010, Tunisian despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime blocked internet access to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar for publishing a US embassy cable which painted the dictator, his wife and her family in a deeply unflattering light. In the July 2009 cable, US ambassador Robert Godec had accused Ben Ali’s regime of having ‘lost touch with the Tunisian people…[tolerating] no advice or criticism whether domestic or international,’ and of increasingly relying ‘on the police for control and focus on preserving power.’ The cable mentioned the growing ‘corruption in the inner circle,’ particularly around first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family, whom it said the Tunisians ‘intensely dislike, even hate.’ It finally concluded that ‘anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.’

Ten days later in Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of the local municipality building after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Faida Hamdi, a female municipal official who had then slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Anguished friends and sympathizers soon took to the streets to protest, and Youtube, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the fire further—the long deferred anger of the Tunisians had finally erupted. On 4 January 2011, when Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds, the 5,000 mourners at his funeral were heard chanting, ‘Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.’ Ten days later, as the protests reached a crescendo, Ben Ali and his wife hoarded their loot and decamped to Saudi Arabia. Some suggested that Wikileaks had drawn first blood.

However, neither Bouazizi’s death nor Wikileaks’ revelations about the ruling clique’s rampant corruption would by themselves have triggered a revolution were it not for the vast pool of rage that was already bubbling. Dwindling opportunities for the masses juxtaposed with the ‘great wealth and excess’ of the presidential family had generated an explosive atmosphere waiting for a spark. A growing number of Tunisia’s educated youth languished in hopeless unemployment, yet the embassy cable revealed that Ben Ali’s son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi, was serving dinners ‘with ice cream and frozen yoghurt brought in by private plane from St Tropez’ and holding for a pet ‘a large tiger, named Pasha, living in a cage, which consumes four chickens a day.’ Something had to give—and along came Wikileaks and Bouazizi.

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 during 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 their 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.

Taking on the Empire

After a long search, Nick Davies finally tracked down Assange in Brussels and proposed an agreement. Wikileaks would give three of the world’s leading publications—the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel—exclusive access to the documents provided by Manning and the papers will in turn ensure that the information would be given maximum coverage. Stories based on the revelations would be splashed simultaneously on the front pages of all three publications and Wikileaks would then publish them in full on its website. The deal would also protect Assange against prosecution under the US Espionage Act.

The US, unlike Britain, has no Official Secrets Act. In 2000, Congress passed one, but in a rare principled act, Bill Clinton vetoed it. The government has therefore had to rely on the 1917 Espionage Act, which it has hitherto used only sparingly. But the Obama administration, which has made a virtue of ‘looking forward, not backward’ when responding to calls for the prosecution of former Bush administration officials, proved perfectly willing to look backwards when prosecuting public servants who had exposed government wrong-doing. In an important expose in the New Yorker, investigative journalist Jane Mayer revealed that the Obama administration has overseen the most draconian crackdown on whistle-blowers in history—more extensive than Richard Nixon’s—prosecuting more individuals under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Bradley Manning’s prospects for now looked dim. But Assange could gain some cover by broadening the responsibility for publishing the classified documents to some of the world’s leading publications.

The story of the deal and the subsequent fallout are told in a gripping account by David Leigh and Luke Harding in Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, even if the details of the deal are disputed by former Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg in his book Inside Wikileaks: My time with Julian Assange at the world’s most dangerous website. Like Leigh and Harding, Domscheit-Berg appears torn between his admiration and his loathing of Assange, but he has only unreserved contempt for the Guardian and the New York Times, whom he describes as ‘like dogs jealously guarding a bone,’ preventing Wikileaks from partnering with other media institutions like CBC and the Washington Post who were also interested in publicizing the leaks. He also asserts that the idea of the partnership originated with Wikileaks itself rather than with the Guardian and Davies. His account of Wikileaks’s modest origins and spectacular rise is more intimate and readable.

On 25 July 2010, Wikileaks and its media partners published the Afghan war logs—91,731 documents that covered the period from January 2004 to December 2009. They told a tale of extrajudicial murder, torture, indiscriminate violence, civilian deaths, and escalating insurgent attacks in clipped, sterile militarese. Many of these incidents were well known but where in the past it was possible for apologists to take refuge in ISAF’s bland denials, now the horrors became irrefutable. The ‘good war’ turned out not to be so good after all. However, the logs were treated very differently in Europe and the US, highlighting the gulf between their respective journalistic traditions. Where the Guardian and Der Spiegel laboured to produce a meticulous picture of the everyday atrocities visited on the Afghans, the deferential US press confined itself to investigating the causes of US- NATO’s failure. All attention focused on the evidence of Pakistan’s alleged perfidy in repeatedly subverting US plans, the evidence for which was mostly derived from claims made by the Afghan intelligence service, hardly a disinterested party. Nevertheless, the leaks proved that despite their different political cultures, the US and Pakistan aren’t that different after all: both aggressively pursue their respective interests with little regard for the interests of the Afghans.

The New York Times had been included in the cartel so it could publish minutes ahead of the others, thereby providing First Amendment cover to its foreign partners. The aim was also to protect Manning, who risked being tried for espionage if he was seen as having passed US national security secrets to non-citizens. But the paper balked and insisted that Wikileaks publish first. It also refused to link to the Wikileaks website. A disillusioned Assange then decided to expand Wikileaks’s list of partners bringing in France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais, Britain’s Channel 4, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. The original three were furious, and would soon retaliate.

On 22 October 2010, the Iraq war logs were released—391,832 in total. They documented incidents between 2004 and 2009. Torture, rape and murder of detainees; cover-up of civilian deaths; execution of surrendering insurgents; murder of civilians by mercenaries; murder of civilians by soldiers—Iraq, as some put it, was a ‘hell disaster.’ Operation Iraqi Freedom had taken a repressive and murderous authoritarian state and replaced it with a repressive and murderous authoritarian state, albeit under a more representative sectarian set-up. The US occupying forces it transpired had also adopted a formal policy to ignore torture and other forms of abuse by the Iraqi forces. Contrary to American warlord Tommy Franks’s assurances, it also turned out the US military did do body counts—and the logs yielded 15,000 more dead civilians than previously recorded. (The actual figure of course is much higher—somewhere between three quarters of a million to over 1.2 million—according to extensive studies carried out by the John Hopkins University and ORB. There have been no new studies since 2007).

On 28 November 2010, Wikileaks and its media partners started simultaneously publishing confidential diplomatic cables from 274 embassies worldwide, dated from 28 December 1966 to 28 February 2010. The 251,287 cables, which were to be released in trickles, were the biggest publishing sensation in history. They provided front page splashes for months, with candid diplomatic chatter providing plenty of sensational headlines. The colourful references to various world leaders and the frank assessment of their performance intrigued many. Some were gossipy, some of near anthropological precision. Most involved the kind of information collection that falls within diplomats’ responsibilities. These were given prominence by the US media. But it was the frequent blurring of the diplomatic and clandestine functions that worried the rest of the world, some of which verged on criminality. Though Hillary Clinton was quick to denounce Wikileaks’s actions as an ‘attack on the international community,’ it turned out the US secretary of state had herself been leading a more sinister assault on international diplomacy. In breach of the Vienna Treaty which regulates international diplomacy, a cable bearing Clinton’s signature revealed the secretary of state ordering diplomats to spy on foreign delegates at the UN, collect their encryption details, credit card transactions, frequent flyer numbers, and even biometric data. Diplomats were also ordered to spy on UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon.

There was a lot more to shock—and it wasn’t just the US that came out looking bad. The cables reveal that China was allegedly making profits by reselling oil bought from Venezuela at the special rate of $5 a barrel, upsetting its benefactor Hugo Chavez. China was also described as less enamoured of its North Korean ally than it lets on in public, signalling its readiness to accept a unified Korea. The US attitude towards Britain comes across as condescending; the ‘special relationship’ treated as little more than a means to advance American interests. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is described by the US diplomats as a ‘virtual mafia state,’ in which oligarchs, public officials and organized crime were blurred into one. Gulf Arab leaders are revealed as even more venal, duplicitous and insecure than generally assumed. Many appeared busy scheming with US and Israeli officials against Iran. Some, such as Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, were assisting US attacks against their own citizens, providing corridors for drone and cruise missile attacks, and then assuming responsibility for the attacks as their own. Equally treasonous were the Lebanese defence minister Elias Murr’s comments in a meeting with US diplomats encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon and hit Hizbullah so as to strengthen the position of his March 14 Alliance. One cable likened Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligences to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, declaring it a threat to US interests.

The US government’s response was predictably heavy-handed. The state department banned all its employees from reading or sharing the cables. Diplomats were not allowed to visit the website, even at home, or to search for their own names in the cables database. The cables could of course always be read in the New York Times thereby making the ban superfluous. Employees of USAID were also told to stay away from the website. However, more dramatically, on 30 November 2010, Columbia University’s Office of Career Services warned students at the School of International and Public Affairs, a premiere trainer of future diplomats, to avoid linking to or posting comments about the diplomatic cables because they were ‘still considered classified.’ The email warned that talking about the cables ‘would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information.’

After weathering intense denial-of-service attacks (an attempt to disable a website by digitally clogging up its servers), Wikileaks was struck the first blow when under pressure from Senator Joe Lieberman—a long-time proponent of limiting internet freedom— and the state department, Amazon removed the website from its servers. Next Wikileaks’s hosting company EveryDNS revoked its contract. Mastercard, Visa and Paypal were also induced to withhold their services from Wikileaks. Bank of America also closed its accounts. American Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum was detained and interrogated. Assange rightly denounced it as the ‘privatization of state censorship.’

The reaction from the liberal intelligentsia was no less vicious. Wikileaks had given a lie to their self-congratulatory adversarial pretensions by showing the inadequacy of the methods through which they have channelled their dissent. The New York Times commissioned John Burns—one of that rare species of journalist who in 2003 actually saw Iraqis ‘greeting Americans as liberators’—to write a sub-tabloid, sleazy profile on Assange which dredged up every rumour, unsubstantiated claim and allegation. Editor Bill Killer did him one better by writing an 8,000 word piece extraordinary for its ad hominem malice. Nick Davies of the Guardian published an article in which he reproduced in prurient detail allegations from an on-going investigation into Assange’s ‘sexual impropriety.’

The left fared only slightly better. Unaccustomed to success, some Western leftists looked at Wikileaks’s meteoric rise with suspicion. Some took exception to its partnering with mainstream media institutions like the New York Times, others questioned its decision to selectively release cables rather posting them in a single dump. A few wondered why the cables had so little on Israel.

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.

Journalism 2.0

As an organization, Wikileaks is slightly over four years old, but its impact on public discourse is already palpable. However, Michah L. Sifry notes in Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency that Wikileaks ‘is just one piece of a much larger continuum of changes in how the people and the powerful relate to each other in this new time—changes that are fundamentally healthy for the growth and strength of an open society. Secrecy and the hoarding of information are ending; openness and the sharing of information are coming.’ But where Sifry’s method is to work within the system, Assange’s begins by questioning the very premises of its authority. As a veteran of the NGO world, Sifry’s criticisms predictably hinge on process rather than outcomes. Though the successes of the movement he represents are impressive, none are as significant or world-changing as Wikileaks’s.

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 by big time, entering into 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.

The Palestine Papers

Al Jazeera’s first scoop was not long in coming. On January 2011, Al Jazeera partnered with The Guardian to release the Palestine Papers, more than 1,600 internal documents from over a decade of negotiations between the Palestinian authority, Israel and the US. These included records, minutes, notes and transcripts of meetings drawn up by members of the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit (NSU), an outfit responsible for technical and legal backup head by Saeb Erakat, which is mainly funded by the British government and. Some documents also originated with the Palestinian Authority’s US/UK-sponsored security apparatus. They revealed large gaps between the public and private positions of the Palestinian authority and a degree of cooperation with the Israelis which verged on collaboration. They were ‘as damning as the Balfour Declaration,’ wrote veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

The Palestinian Authority, it emerged, had been ready to give up the ‘right of return’ of seven million refugees enshrined and protected by the UN General Assembly resolution 194. It had been willing to concede almost all of the illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem—giving Israel ‘the biggest Yerushalayim in history,’ according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Most shocking perhaps is the Fatah-led PA’s willingness to cooperate with Israel to kill its own people. In a 2005 meeting the PA interior minister Nasser Youssef assented to Israeli defence minister Shaul Mofaz’s suggestion to kill Hassan al-Madhoun, a leader of Fata’s militant wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. Four months later al-Madhoun was killed by an Israeli Apache gunship, and the next day Mofaz pledged concessions and a resumption of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. On another occasion the PA’s Ahmed Qurei encouraged Israelis to reoccupy parts of Gaza to weaken the rival Hamas. The PA also appeared to have foreknowledge of the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, a fact also confirmed by a June 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. Most shameful by far was the PA’s decision to join Israel and the US in sabotaging the Goldstone Report at the UN Human Rights Council, thereby eliminating any possibility of Israelis being prosecuted for war crimes committed in Gaza.

Albion’s perfidies and Israel’s sway over Western foreign policy were also in evidence. The most extraordinary perhaps was the British MI-6’s secret proposal to kidnap and detain Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members on behalf of Israel with the European Union footing the bill. The documents also reveal Britain’s equipping and funding of the Palestinian Authority’s notorious Preventive Security force and the General Intelligence Service. Tony Blair, it emerged, receives no more respect from Israel than he does from the rest of the world; even the Palestinian Authority considers him an ineffectual nuisance.

The practice of extensive record-keeping had started after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000. Though Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami would later confess that were he a Palestinian he would never accept what Arafat was offered at the summit, Clinton, the Israelis and ever-pliant Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan would all accuse Yasser Arafat of spurning a ‘generous offer.’ Indeed, Clinton went so far as to personally call cabinet members of the incoming Bush administration berating the Palestinians, and in the words of investigative journalist Patrick Tyler, deliberately ‘poisoning the well.’ One specific accusation against Arafat was his supposed lack of technical preparation and Palestinian leaders had therefore gone to some lengths to ensure that supporting documents would be drawn up in all future talks and the fullest records maintained. One member of the NSU entrusted with drawing up the records, the French-Palestinian lawyer Ziyad Clot, would later be revealed as one of the sources for the leak.

The composition of the NSU itself bears some attention here. Funded mainly by the British government’s Department for International Development, the project is managed by Adam Smith International, a for-profit consultancy established in 1992 by the right wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute. The consultancy’s British staff receive exorbitant salaries, a cause for much resentment among the Palestinians. But more serious has been the attempt to change the composition of the NSU staff in accordance with the wishes of foreign donors so as not to risk funding. The best interests of the Palestinians are, in other words, subordinated to the profit motive. Fearful of the Israel lobby’s influence, the NSU leadership emasculated its highly able media and communications unit, which had remained vulnerable to direct donor interference. It came under particularly intense assault for its work on the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling on Israel’s annexation wall. The NSU’s Palestinian cohort had much to resent.

Ziyad Clot would later explain his decision to blow the whistle as stemming from his disillusionment with the ‘inequitable and destructive political process which had been based on the assumption that the Palestinians could in effect negotiate their rights and achieve self-determination while enduring the hardship of the Israeli occupation.’ The ‘peace process’ was a ‘a deceptive farce whereby biased terms were unilaterally imposed by Israel and systematically endorsed by the US and EU.’ The Oslo process, he added, ‘deepened Israeli segregationist policies and justified the tightening of the security control imposed on the Palestinian population, as well as its geographical fragmentation…it has tolerated the intensification of the colonisation of the Palestinian territory… [it] was instrumental in creating and aggravating divisions among Palestinians.’ Clot expressed outrage at the particular costs of the process for the Gazans, and the exclusion from it of the seven million refugees. He concluded that given its structure, the PLO ‘was not in a position to represent all Palestinian rights and interests.’ That is when he decided to blow the whistle.

The papers paint a damning picture. The Fatah leaders appeared more concerned with preserving their authority over the pockets of territory under Palestinian sovereignty than with liberating their people. Indeed, the papers reveal a leadership perfectly willing to sacrifice its people in order to retain sole control. The Palestinian Authority’s first response was to set loose its thugs on Al Jazeera’s offices and harass its journalists. But to its great relief, the scandal was soon overtaken by events in Egypt. In the end it decided discretion was the best part of valour: after its patron in Egypt Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolution, Fatah agreed to reconcile with Hamas to form a unity government.

Democracy 2.0

As Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) highlights, Wikileaks has already made a major contribution to the promotion and protection of investigative journalism. Excessive secrecy was one of the reasons why the lack of oversight over Iceland’s banking sector became known only after the economy had collapsed. Leaks have also shown that in several states, including putatively democratic ones, internet filters have been used to quash political dissent. Many people were struck by the banality of much of the material classified as ‘secret,’ revealing how pervasively secrecy has been used by governments to limit accountability and oversight. A July 2010 investigation by William Arkin and Dana Priest of the Washington Post revealed that the culture of secrecy spurred by the events of September 11 has spawned a virtually unaccountable fourth branch of government which includes 850,000 contractors with ‘top secret’ clearance. Bradley Manning was cleared for the same access level as two million people, who all had access to the SIPRNet network. As Max Frankel, the New York Times editor who oversaw the publication of the Pentagon Papers, noted, any information shared that widely can’t be considered ‘secrets.’ The function of such classification is simply to place some actions beyond the purview of democratic accountability.

The late Chalmers Johnson, author of the magisterial Blowback trilogy, recalled being asked by his wife while he was serving as consultant for the CIA, why so much of the agency’s material was classified. Johnson replied that it would kill the CIA’s mystique otherwise, if people found out just how banal most of its assessment actually is. This was brought home starkly when it was revealed that one of the sources the CIA had used in its highly classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to support the claim that Iraq had links to Al Qaeda was an article by David Rose in Vanity Fair magazine. The article was itself based on the testimony of a single Iraqi defector furnished by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC).

But not all government reports are as useless as CIA estimates. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has competent researchers with access to vast resources who produce meticulous reports at taxpayers’ expense to inform congressional debates. Yet, for a variety of reasons, congresspersons’ usually have them classified to keep them out of public view. Nearly seven thousands of them—worth billions of dollars in taxpayer money—were released by Wikileaks in 2009. This challenge to superfluous secrecy was a public service. As things stand, governments are able to classify any information as secret without having to offer a justification. This can only have a deleterious effect on democracy. Governments must only be allowed to keep the secrets that they can justify. The norm must be transparency—and in lieu of enforcing institutions, outfits like Wikileaks are necessary to ensure that governments compliance.

However, transparency cannot in itself be the end—and here Wikileaks has been legitimately faulted for some of its actions. As Wikileaks is itself now discovering, some degree of secrecy is necessary to the functioning of governments and institutions. Transparency must always have a public interest. True, the public interest can always be defined in a manner that justifies excessive secrecy (which is why some turn toward absolutist positions on transparency). But if one were to accept transparency as an absolute, even organizations like Wikileaks wouldn’t be able to function. Surely it would be inconsistent then for Wikileaks to keep the identity of its sources and funders secret. But that of course would invite reprisals and prosecution, especially in an environment where Wikileaks itself risks being charged for espionage. The answer to excessive secrecy therefore can’t be absolute transparency. One must instead strive to democratize the defining of public interest so that it can be used as a touchstone for legitimate disclosure.

By this standard, much of what Wikileaks has done is legitimate and admirable. Wikileaks exists because public institutions have failed and leaders constantly lie. Most recognize the necessity of some degree of secrecy in diplomatic interactions but the cables are news only because citizens have long perceived a gap between the rhetoric and reality of American power politics. The cables were a confirmation. Leaking in itself is not a new phenomenon. Governments do it all the time when it suits their purpose. One merely has to read Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s 2006 investigation of the Bush administration’s strategic use of leaking to manipulate public opinion to know how pervasive this practice is. Journalist Bob Woodward has likewise written successive hagiographies of American presidents based on selectively leaked documents and official secrets. Wikileaks has overturned this control over the flow of information and undermined the cosy relationship between officials and the press. The leaks are no longer selective and few of them are flattering. Media gatekeepers are having a hard time spinning them and they consequently resent their diminished influence.

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.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

5 thoughts on “The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: