Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks in perspective

The Obama administration and U.S. congress are discovering a real talent for distortion, amnesia and hyperbole in their reactions to the release of classified documents by Wikileaks. Hillary Clinton has called the release an “attack on the international community”, the White House characterised it as “reckless and dangerous”, and the State Department noted that “[the documents] were provided in violation of U.S. law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action”.

Clinton’s remark is frankly idiotic. The release of classified documents is in no way an attack on the international community. What it might be (and this is not by any means a bad thing) is an attack on the near-monopoly that states and governments have on directing international relations, or on their ability to hide the often dishonest and immoral character of their relations to one another and to other global political and economic institutions.

Joe Lieberman deserves to have his response quoted more fully. He claimed that Wikileaks’ release of the documents constituted “nothing less than an attack on the national security of the United States, as well as that of dozens of other countries. By disseminating these materials, Wikileaks is putting at risk the lives and the freedom of countless Americans and non-Americans around the world. It is an outrageous, reckless, and despicable action that will undermine the ability of our government and our partners to keep our people safe and to work together to defend our vital interests. Let there be no doubt: the individuals responsible are going to have blood on their hands”.

This is laughably hypocritical coming from a politician who has been amongst the most eager in our country to eat up questionable intelligence without exercising his critical faculties, and use that intelligence to justify sending thousands of Americans to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieberman, with nearly all of his Republican colleagues and far too many Democrats (Clinton included), backed a war against Iraq that has not only claimed the lives of upwards of a hundred thousand Iraqis, but has also undermined our relations with long-standing allies around the world, and fostered an almost unprecedented level of mistrust if not hatred in the U.S. government and its motives.

People like Lieberman have far more blood on their hands than the likes of Julian Assange could soak up in a thousand lifetimes, and have done more to undermine our security and to create a gap between governments and the people they are meant to serve than the release of any number of documents.

The likes of George W Bush and Sarah Palin have also weighed in, the latter, predictably, using the “fiasco” as a stick with which to beat Obama for being “incompetent”. But the knee-jerk response of people like Palin (“Why was [Julian Assange] not pursued with the same urgency as we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”) also gives us a flavour of their outright contempt for freedom of information (“Shouldn’t [individuals working for Wikileaks] at least have had their financial assets frozen just as we do to individuals who provide material support for terrorist organizations?”) and of their internal philosophical contradictions—government is bad and therefore needs to keep secrets and relentlessly pursue those who threaten to expose those secrets. The equation of Assange with the Taliban or al Qaeda (and one suspects that Palin isn’t clear on the difference between the two) is absurd, as is the characterisation of Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation.

There has been an extraordinary amount of hand-wringing about the threat to diplomatic practise and the secretive conduct of international relations that the ability of an outside organisation to access classified documents poses. So much, in fact, that I’m left with the feeling that the real threat posed by Wikileaks is to a monopoly on information.

Or to the dishonest way in which that information is collected. Presumably the news that many diplomats double as ‘spies’ isn’t really new. It’s just that many in official circles find it unseemly that such practises get dragged out into public. But there should be a higher degree of transparency in the conduct of international relations (because after all, governments are supposed to be acting on behalf of the people they ostensibly serve).

One of the most disgusting revelations to come out of the Guardian’s publications of Wikileaks documents so far are Prince Andrew’s comments about the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation of BAE’s corrupt arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Prince, who acts as the UK’s Special Representative for International Trade and Investment, reportedly referred to the ‘“idiocy”’ of the investigation and ‘”these (expletive) journalists, especially from the National Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere” and (presumably) make it harder for the British businessmen to do business”’.

Here is a British official, a representative of the government, a member of the Royal Family, condoning corruption, to the applause of the business community who were present—something which surely merits investigation. This is unlikely to happen given that Tony Blair killed the SFO’s investigations when blackmailed by the Saudis, and given David Cameron’s emphasis on an amoral business-oriented foreign policy.

I suspect that nothing earth-shatteringly new will emerge from the latest release of documents from Wikileaks. But as published in the NYT and Guardian, the documents reveal a pernicious culture of secrecy, a deep mistrust of the public, a fear of transparency, and a kind of moral void. It is easy to see how all of these things have historically translated into the cover-up of colonial abuses, the misuse of state authority to undermine emergent nations in Africa and Asia, the unscrutinised expansion of wars in places like Vietnam, and the slow, corrosive undermining of our rights because politicians are so ready to jump on any attempts at transparency and condemn them as “threats”, “terrorism”, or anti-freedom.

And all you have to do is look at Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan to include Pakistan, the weakness of media in taking on the Pentagon over claims about the value of our wars, the impending arms deal with undemocratic Saudi Arabia, or the stamp of approval that the Supreme Court has put on official corruption with its rulings on campaign financing, to see that state secrecy is alive and well. A lot of abuse of our liberties, whether collective or individual, gets committed in the name of national security, one of our world’s most abused terms.

And so long as our governments persist in behaving unaccountably, I think that we need to applaud those who take the initiative to make the decision-makers and their processes accountable for their actions.

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