Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leak on WikiLeaks

My op ed in Dvevni Avaz, Sarajevo, 11 December 2010

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were very astute in leaking to an international spread of newspapers. They released the US diplomatic cables to newspapers in France, Germany, Spain, the US and Britain. That countered the pressure on editors, particularly in the US, to appease their governments. Any newspaper that was too attentive to government wishes would risk their foreign rivals scooping them, and the internet would soon make that apparent to their own readership.

In the old days, spying was about photographing, microdots, and invisible ink to copy files spread over kilometers of filing cabinets that would take a lifetime to look over. Now a government’s entire archives can be carried out in a flash drive or two and mined for key words. Out of those milions of Americans we can assume that some will be sharing their access with Russians, Chinese, Israelis and other interested parties, quite apart from the statistically significant chance that out of those millions there are going to be some with principles or axes to grind.

With literally millions of American personnel permitted access to these documents, the lesson for the US government is the usual advice for anyone on Facebook. Privacy is illusory: if you put it on the net then it will be seen.

This huge horde of diplomatic cables almost certainly came from the same source as the original Pentagon documents on the Iraq Wars, which was apparently Sergeant Bradley Manning, who bragged "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack." He is now in prison, but not yet charged.

But while the video of the helicopter attack that killed Reuters’ staff in Baghdad revealed prima facie evidence of a war crime, (which, incidentally, the Pentagon does not appear to be investigating), the latest leaks are amusing, but scarcely earthshaking. They expose the hypocrisy of politicians and diplomats and will perhaps make them more wary of substantiating the revelations with their public behaviour from now on.

For example, the revelation of complicity by the new head of the IAEA with the US over Iran will certainly bolster skepticism and resistance within his own organization about the campaign against Iran. The dismissive opinions about the Turkish government are likely to accentuate rather than blunt its independent line, while revelations that Arab governments, regardless of the views of their people, have been implicitly conniving with Israel to spur Washington into a military attack on Teheran might well inhibit such views. But all this is apparent to anyone who was observing the region. What WikiLeaks has done is to move such information from the opinion columns to the news pages.

That is important. It forces governments to justify their decisions in a field, foreign policy, where, even in democratic countries the public are often neither informed nor consulted.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the sordid secret diplomacy that had brought the world to war and that is why the League of Nations said that any treaty not registered with it was not binding. By 1945, Yalta, Potsdam and other agreements had tempered that and the UN Charter (Art 102) simply says such treaties cannot be invoked before any organ of the UN.

So, for example, if Richard Holbrooke had came to a personal deal with Milosevic, as the evidence of American reactions to Croat and Bosniak success in Operation Storm would suggest, the parties were clever enough to do it verbally, rather than in writing. But even it were in writing, it could not be invoked before the UN. Even both sides would want to keep the deal secret as they betrayed their respective proteges. It is the job of journalists to reveal such information, and the self-appointed task of governments to keep it secret. When governments are formulating or practicing policies in secret, they deserve exposure.

The media has responsibilities - to ensure that the innocent are not put at risk, for example - but protecting politicians and diplomats from embarrassment is not one of them. On the contrary, that is what real journalism is about


Anonymous said...

So the Wikileaks guys are the modern-day Bolsheviks? We all know how corrupt and secretive the Bolsheviks turned out to be in the end. What about the Wikileaks people? I don't think they'd like their own privacy exposed either.

Deadline Pundit said...

They are not trying to rule the world as far as I can see. But then, if they are taking on the US gov, they surely have at least as much justification for trying to maintain confidentiality as Anonymous commentators on Deadline Pundit!