WikiLeaks: why it’s important (and why it’s complicated)

Thoughtful post by Tim Bray.

Let’s Be Specific · Here, in The Guardian, is a leaked cable describing an intervention with US officials in Afghanistan by Canadian ambassador William Crosbie, who seems competent and level-headed. He is depicted as urging the Americans to lower the boom on that schmuck Karzai over obvious election-fixing, pointing out that this is politically important to Canada: “We must be prepared for confrontation with Karzai on this issue, he said, or risk losing credibility among our own population if we go along with a rigged election.” Well, yep, we all did go along with the rigged election, didn’t we, and how’s that credibility looking? ¶

So here are two sides of it: Crosbie has offered to resign, on the grounds that this cable and others expected to leak will damage his ability to work with the Afghan government. And, since it seems like we have an intelligent dude there who’s saying the right things to the right people, that would be harmful. Bad, bad WikiLeaks.

On the other hand, as a Canadian I really want to know Why the fucking hell are we sending our young people to get killed there when our senior official on the ground is telling everyone that the team whose side we’re on are corrupt and stole the last election and are “making his blood boil”? The fact that our government has kept this intelligence secret while extending the Canadian mission is making mine boil. Thank you, WikiLeaks.


Here’s the real problem I have. Cast your mind back to early this year, when WikiLeaks seized the world’s attention by releasing video of a Baghdad airstrike in July 2007, depicting what looked like a moderately-severe war crime. ¶

And the real problem is that officials from all the same governments who are screaming now were screaming in advance of that release, about how awful it was that the data was stolen, and the harm that would be done by releasing it; they had stonewalled Freedom Of Information requests for that video from the press.

Try to put yourselves in Assange’s shoes; the following fact would probably weigh heavily on your mind: You’re being told that releasing this stuff would be harmful by a bunch of people who condoned a war crime and then tried to cover it up.

I don’t know what kind of a person Mr. Assange is, and I’m not saying this is simple. But, sitting where he is, I might well have pulled the trigger and released the cables.

The New Yorker has a sharp piece by Amy Davidson, in which she discusses Senator Joe Lieberman’s grandstanding on the issue. Lieberman, who has long suffered from a terminal case of hubris, harassed Amazon into withdrawing its hosting of WikiLeaks on its Elastic Compute cloud. Later he issued this statement:

I will be asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with Wikileaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information.

Davidson comments:

Lieberman may be exaggerating his own role, and Amazon can make choices about what business to be in. Still, is Amazon reporting to a senator now? Is the company going to tell him about “the extent of its relationship” with WikiLeaks—with any customer? He’s free to ask, of course, but in terms of an obligation to answer: Does somebody have a warrant or a subpoena for that? One wonders if Lieberman feels that he, or any Senator, can call in the company running The New Yorker’s printing presses when we are preparing a story that includes leaked classified material, and tell it to stop us. The circumstances are different, but not so different as to be really reassuring.

I wrote the other day about the “hysteria” of the responses to the leaks, and a friend commented that hysteria seemed too strong a term. Well, how about this (also from Davidson)?

Sarah Palin said that Assange should be hunted down like Osama bin Laden; Newt Gingrich said that he should be treated as an enemy combatant; and Bill Kristol wants the Obama Administration to think about kidnapping or killing Assange “and his collaborators.” Kristol doesn’t use the word “kill,” but rather “whack” and “neutralize,” as if some combination of slang and clinical talk made everything all right. Is that where we are? (This isn’t to dismiss Assange’s other, Swedish legal troubles; the characters here are neither supervillains nor superheroes.) One question that came up in the debate about Obama putting Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, on an assassination list without even making a pretense of going through the courts was who else you could kill on the same grounds. It is striking to see how unabashedly that line of reasoning has been pursued. If we can shoot down Julian Assange, how about any investigative reporter who might learn something that embarrasses our government? We seem to have hopelessly confused national security with the ability of a particular Administration to pursue its policies.

I’m with Tim Bray on this when he writes:

I’m fighting a rising tide of nausea as various flavors of functionary try to whack the WikiLeaks mole, applying the thoughtcrime principle, calling for Assange’s assassination, hounding Amazon and Tableau and EveryDNS and PayPal into hasty action (and I sure wish my profession had shown a little spine). Thought leaders including Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Enrico Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin tsk-tsk in unison; those closer to the mainstream who are joining the chorus should be very fucking nervous about the company they’re keeping.

What we’re hearing is the screaming of ‘liberal democratic’ Emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the Net.