I’ve been following the WikiLeaks saga for the past week now. Those who are subscribed to my Twitter and Facebook feeds would have noticed by now my passionate tweeting of news and opinions on WikiLeaks. I’m following this story closely because I believe that this phenomenon has an unprecedented world-wide impact. Historians would look to this as crucial turning point on Internet laws, journalism, freedom of the press, foreign diplomacy, and how the U.S. government lived up to its First Amendment.
The developments on WikiLeaks story are fast-paced. As of this writing the mirror sites for WikiLeaks continue to grow, Julian Assange has been granted bail but still remains in prison pending an appeal from the Swedish authorities, hacking group called Anonymous and volunteers sympathetic to WikiLeaks had performed coordinated DoS attacks against Paypal, Visa, Mastercard (and now targeting fax machines), the U.S. government is still trying hard to come up with something “criminal” to charge Julian Assange, all the while blocking federal employees and the Air Force from accessing WikiLeaks and other sites that posted the secret cables (New York Times, The Guardian, or Der Spiegel, be damned. It’s matter of national security because the government says so!).
Like a lot of level-headed people, I too was conflicted about WikiLeaks. So I wondered how integrally-informed people would look at this issue. To my surprise I saw this Facebook post from Robb Smith, CEO of Integral Life and Integral Institute.
Al Qaeda just announced they’re going to use Wikileaks to exploit security weaknesses to kill innocent people. Nice. Assange is a terrorist. His defenders will argue he’s preserving freedom. Not in the real world he’s not. He’s merely a criminal aiding other criminals. Man this is dying for an integral breakdown, wish I had more time.
My first reaction was, really?! I mean, really?! Does Robb really believe what he posted? I was waiting for an “integral breakdown” on this topic. I wanted to get a better idea from what perspective Robb is coming from. Robb’s post generated a lively discussion among integral geeks. But I found most were just philosophical waxing with little to do with facts. So instead of engaging in the debates, I participated in the thread by posting links to news articles, opinions and editorials, and even first-hand accounts from Julian Assange. That was part of my fishing expedition. In the end, I was able to draw a more nuanced opinion from Robb. Here’s a portion from his response:
In a world with a lot of folks who will leverage another’s capabilities to do harm, Assange’s efforts and those of his allies will have serious consequences. I believe that I have to take full responsibility at every step for my ethics and my capabilities. Though I know many of the effects of these leaks will be unpredictably positive, others might be devastating. Just watching how these hackers are now using this interaction as an excuse to try to bring down global retailers, I ask myself: really, is this helpful? Is this humane? So now thug-like rioting in the streets and anarchy-like behavior is what we get? Mark my words, regular folks just trying to go about their day are going to get hurt before this is done. These are the effects that an ethical and mature world citizen would have accounted for. You don’t just shit all over civilization and the rule of law because you can. What an integral view calls for is a massively deep sensitivity to the power we wield and a deep humility at the outsize effects our actions can have.
I still don’t agree with Robb’s view on WikiLeaks. I feel that his view is based on a very partial consideration of the facts surrounding the WikiLeaks phenomenon and the actual laws on freedom of the press and the First Amendment. However, I do respect Robb’s opinion and thank him for taking the time in granting my request for a more detailed exposition of his views. WikiLeaks is a very polarizing subject even among integral geeks.
However, the more perspectives I looked at the more I’m convinced that WikiLeaks has done (and will do) more good than harm, and that the way Julian Assange is being treated and pursued will make him a hero rather than an international super villain. You may be wondering, what are those perspectives which convinced me to take the sides of WikiLeaks? Allow me to weave them in links and quotes…
If we are going to love or hate Julian Assange, it’s better to do it based on our impressions on his own words, instead of the way the mainstream media had painted a caricature of him (e.g. as a rapist and terrorist). Here’s a quote from Assange’s editorial piece on the Australian:
I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth.
These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth.
WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?
Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption.
People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it.
Based on the above piece, ask yourself: Does this guy deserve to be treated like a criminal? It seems to me that if the world were his country, then he’s a real-deal patriot.
Now, you may not agree with Assange’s idealism, so let me direct your attention to the following perspectives:
On freedom of expression, here’s Amnesty International’s position on WikiLeaks:
The US government has indicated since July 2010 that it is conducting a legal investigation into the actions of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange for distributing secret documents. A range of US political figures have called for a criminal prosecution of Assange.
According to Amnesty International, criminal proceedings aimed at punishing a private person for communicating evidence about human rights violations can never be justified. The same is true with respect to information on a wide range of other matters of public interest.
At the very least, a significant number of the documents released by Wikileaks appear to fall into these categories, so any prosecution based in whole or in part on those particular documents, would be incompatible with freedom of expression.
On whistleblowing and disclosures, here’s a quote from a statement released by The Institute for Public Accuracy signed by ex-intelligence officers, including Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
The big question is not whether Americans can “handle the truth.” We believe they can. The challenge is to make the truth available to them in a straightforward way so they can draw their own conclusions — an uphill battle given the dominance of the mainstream media, most of which have mounted a hateful campaign to discredit Assange and WikiLeaks.
So far, the question of whether Americans can “handle the truth” has been an academic rather than an experience-based one, because Americans have had very little access to the truth. Now, however, with the WikiLeaks disclosures, they do. Indeed, the classified messages from the Army and the State Department released by WikiLeaks are, quite literally, “ground truth.”
On the legal grounds on which the U.S. could pursue WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent article on this. Here’s the relevant quote (links are from the original article).
Even better than commentary, we can also provide legal information on this complicated issue, and today we have for you some high quality legal information from an expert and objective source: Congress’ own research service, CRS. The job of this non-partisan legal office is to provide objective, balanced memos to Congress on important legal issues, free from the often hysteric hyperbole of other government officials. And thanks to Secrecy News, we have a copy ofCRS’ latest memo on the Wikileaks controversy, a report entitled “Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information” and dated this Monday, December 6.
Like this blog post itself, the CRS memo isn’t legal advice. But it is a comprehensive discussion of the laws under which the Wikileaks publishers — or anyone else who obtains or publishes the documents, be it you or the New York Times — might be prosecuted and the First Amendment problems that such a prosecution would likely raise. Notably, the fine lawyers at CRS recognize a simple fact that statements from Attorney General Eric Holder, the Senators, the State Department and others have glossed over: a prosecution against someone who isn’t subject to the secrecy obligations of a federal employee or contractor, based only on that person’s publication of classified information that was received innocently, would be absolutely unprecedented and would likely pose serious First Amendment problems.
On Assange being labeled as a “terrorist”, here’s Michael Moore’s statement, after he contributed $20,000 towards Assange’s bail.
And indeed they are! They exist to terrorize the liars and warmongers who have brought ruin to our nation and to others. Perhaps the next war won’t be so easy because the tables have been turned — and now it’s Big Brother who’s being watched … by us!
WikiLeaks deserves our thanks for shining a huge spotlight on all this. But some in the corporate-owned press have dismissed the importance of WikiLeaks (“they’ve released little that’s new!”) or have painted them as simple anarchists (“WikiLeaks just releases everything without any editorial control!”). WikiLeaks exists, in part, because the mainstream media has failed to live up to its responsibility. The corporate owners have decimated newsrooms, making it impossible for good journalists to do their job. There’s no time or money anymore for investigative journalism. Simply put, investors don’t want those stories exposed. They like their secrets kept … as secrets.
And if you think that support for WikiLeaks is just coming from liberals, here’s a conservative case for WikiLeaks published in The American Conservative.
…the worst hypocrisy throughout this controversy has been in conservatives reflexively defending the government and attacking WikiLeaks. Since when have conservatives believed that Washington should be able to shroud any action it likes in secrecy and that revealing government’s nefarious deeds is tantamount to treason? Isn’t it government officials who might secretly work for corporate, ideological or transnational interests — and against the national interest — who are betraying their country?
Interestingly, Wikileaks’ founder espouses the traditionally conservative, Jeffersonian view that America’s constitutional structure limits and lessens government corruption. Reported Time: “Assange appears to believe that the U.S. has not become ‘a much-worse-behaved superpower’ because its federalism, ‘this strength of the states,’ has been a drag on the combination of the burgeoning power of the central government and a presidency that can expand its influence only by way of foreign affairs.”
As far as mainstream media is concerned, only WIRED was ballsy enough to stick out its head and take the side of WikiLeaks, proclaiming that “WikiLeaks is Good for America.”
WikiLeaks is not perfect, and we have highlighted many of its shortcomings on this website. Nevertheless, it’s time to make a clear statement about the value of the site and take sides:
WikiLeaks stands to improve our democracy, not weaken it.
The greatest threat we face right now from WikiLeaks is not the information it has spilled and may spill in the future, but the reactionary response to it that’s building in the United States that promises to repudiate the rule of law and our free speech traditions, if left unchecked.
Calling Mr Assange a terrorist, for example, is deeply counterproductive. His cyber-troops do not fly planes into buildings, throw acid at schoolgirls or murder apostates. Indeed, the few genuine similarities between WikiLeaks and the Taliban—its elusiveness and its wide base of support—argue against ill-judged attacks that merely broaden that support. After a week of clumsy American-inspired attempts to shut WikiLeaks down, it is now hosted on more than 700 servers around the world.
The big danger is that America is provoked into bending or breaking its own rules, straining alliances, eroding credibility and—because it will not be able to muzzle WikiLeaks—ultimately seeming impotent. In recent years America has promoted the internet as a menace to foreign censorship. That sounds tinny now. So did its joy of hosting next year’s World Press Freedom Day this week. Chinese and Russian glee at American discomfort are a sure sign of such missteps.
The best lessons to bear in mind are those learned in such costly fashion during the past decade of the “war on terror”. Deal with the source of the problem, not just its symptoms. Keep the moral high ground. And pick fights you can win.
As to that “rape” allegations… Remember that there are no criminal charges filed against Assange. He’s just wanted for “questioning.” The more you know about the details of the alleged sex crime, the more you’ll realize that this is a political stunt to keep Assange behind bars while Sweden and the U.S. figure out ways to extradite him. Keeping Assange in prison even after posting bail is obviously more a political ploy than seeking justice for rape victims. Naomi Wolf has an excellent opinion piece on this topic.
How do I know that Interpol, Britain and Sweden’s treatment of Julian Assange is a form of theater? Because I know what happens in rape accusations against men that don’t involve the embarrassing of powerful governments.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in solitary confinement in Wandsworth prison in advance of questioning on state charges of sexual molestation. Lots of people have opinions about the charges. But I increasingly believe that only those of us who have spent years working with rape and sexual assault survivors worldwide, and know the standard legal response to sex crime accusations, fully understand what a travesty this situation is against those who have to live through how sex crime charges are ordinarily handled — and what a deep, even nauseating insult this situation is to survivors of rape and sexual assault worldwide.
And finally, of all the bloggers I’ve read, I find Clay Shirky’s opinion to be the most insightful, nuanced, and right on the money. I very much resonate with his views on WikiLeaks and the long-haul.
I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.
The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. (Calls for Julian’s assassination are even more nauseating.) It may be that what Julian has done is a crime. (I know him casually, but not well enough to vouch for his motivations, nor am I a lawyer.) In that case, the right answer is to bring the case to a trial.
In the US, however, the government has a “heavy burden”, in the words of the Supreme Court, for engaging in prior restraint of even secret documents, an established principle since New York Times Co. vs. The United States*, when the Times published the Pentagon Papers. If we want a different answer for Wikileaks, we need a different legal framework first.
Having linked and quoted all the above perspectives, I hope you can now see why I’ve taken the side of WikiLeaks.
Then again, regardless of our opinions and philosophical waxings on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, one thing is clear: WikiLeaks has already changed and continues to disrupt journalistic laws around the globe. Other whistleblowing sites will sprout inspired by the example set by WikiLeaks (e.g. see OpenLeaks).
I won’t be surprised if Julian Assange wins the Nobel Peace Prize. If and when that happens, I hope the U.S. won’t behave like China and boycott the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. If it does, then I believe the Obama administration will be remembered for being on the wrong side of history.
P.S. I’m very disappointed with how the mainstream media in the U.S. is covering the WikiLeaks saga. Thanks to the intertubes I can easily and freely roam around to get perspectives from different countries on the world-wide impact of WikiLeaks. For a more in-depth look at WikiLeaks and the people behind it, see “WikiRebels: The Documentary” via Swedish SVT.
UPDATE – 12/15/10: According to the New York Times, the U.S. is build a case against Assange. Here’s the quote via BoingBoing.
Justice Department officials are trying to find out whether Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped the analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to extract classified military and State Department files from a government computer system. If he did so, they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.