July 27, 2010

Wikileaks, Resistance, Genuine Heroes, and Breaking the Goddamned Rules (I)

The other day, I offered some observations about the Wikileaks story and the latest release of a huge number of documents. My comments were focused very narrowly: I wanted to highlight the great heroism of those who run Wikileaks and are otherwise involved in these continuing leaks and offer my thanks for their invaluable work, while contrasting their immense courage with the loathsome, murderous behavior of the rulers of the American imperial state.

Oh, the emails I've received! Oh, the posts I've seen! Among other charming critiques, I was informed that I've proven to be a witless dupe. Don't you see, my detractors inquired with iron fist delicately wrapped in, well, iron fist, oh, Arthur, don't you see that this is yet another subterfuge by the endlessly duplicitous ruling class? Don't you see how all the talk about Iran and Pakistan aiding the resistance in Afghanistan only helps the warmongers in their quest for another chapter (or two, or five) in the neverending war? Don't you see that the U.S. government has been incredibly clever in using Wikileaks itself for its latest propaganda campaign? Oh, oh, oh, Arthur, don't you see? [Added in response to inquiries and some pushback: later in this extended essay, I'll explain in detail why I find this theory extremely problematic and unsatisfactory.]

Although I've had a little fun in presenting this counterargument (I note, however, that some of the emails I received had a very similar tone but were regrettably not half as enjoyable, and considerably ruder as well), I took the point itself seriously. I was prepared to admit that my critics were right, and that I had made a bad mistake. So I thought about it. A lot. I also did further reading.

I realized several things. There are two perspectives we can utilize in analyzing this latest Wikileaks story, as well as in analyzing the Wikileaks phenomenon itself. (We could undoubtedly identify additional perspectives as well; these are the two that seem to me most relevant and fruitful in this case.) The first, comparatively superficial perspective concerns the contents of the Wikileaks documents themselves: the details about civilian deaths and casualties, operations gone bad, speculations of all kinds, reflecting a variety of interests and agendas, concerning who's behind the resistance, and so on.

The second perspective, which inquires more deeply, focuses on the leak itself, entirely apart from the specifics of what is leaked. This inquiry examines the system in which leaks of this kind occur. What is the nature of that system? How does it work? What are the rules upon which the system is based, and upon which the system insists? How do those who direct the system's operations react when those rules are broken? Why do they react that way?

As I reflected on these matters, and as I considered the criticisms of my own initial comments on this story, I realized that the second perspective is of much greater significance. And I came to understand a further point: if you analyze this story (or any similar story) by using only the first perspective, that is, by focusing solely on the specific content of the leak, you are very likely to go astray, sometimes very badly. I finally concluded that this is what happened to some of my critics.

But it took me quite a while to see that, and the argument is not a simple one. It is hardly self-explanatory. (Obviously.) So what follows is not short. For me, the most critical questions concern the nature and the personal source of resistance to power, what I sometimes refer to as "the power of 'No.'" (See "You're Either with the Resistance -- or with the Murderers" for more on that.) But I need to cover some preliminary matters before I get to that.

Come along with me on my journey, if you wish. We need to begin with some of the details I learned about Wikileaks, its founder, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning as I read further about these matters.

Concerning Wikileaks and Genuine Heroes

Several statements from Julian Assange are especially noteworthy:
[Wikileaks'] highest-impact leak came this year, with a 2007 video – dubbed “collateral murder” by Wikileaks – which appears to show a US helicopter firing on a group in Baghdad, killing two Reuters employees. A US army intelligence analyst has been charged in connection with the video leak and Mr Assange has not visited the US since, fearing arrest.

“We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies,” Wikileaks says on its site. Holding governments to account requires information, which has historically been “costly – in terms of human life and human rights”, it says. “But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.”


[Wikileaks'] ethos is rooted in hacker culture; the “wiki” of its name refers to the same open-access publishing technology used by Wikipedia.

But Wikileaks’ emphasis on fact-checking, verification and protection of its sources has a longer journalistic lineage. Its rise to prominence has come as newspapers’ capacity to invest in investigative journalism has been impaired by falling circulation and difficulties in making money from the web.


Speaking at the TED conference in Oxford this month, Mr Assange, 39, described the gathering of hard facts as the only true form of journalism. “Capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture them,” he said of his motivation.

Mr Assange recently told the Guardian that he lived a nomadic lifestyle, carrying a computer in one rucksack and his clothes in another. After keeping a low profile for several years, Mr Assange’s public appearances have recently become more frequent. He has often criticised traditional media outlets for distorting the truth in their stories, telling an audience at London’s City University in July that he hoped the publication of primary source material online would reduce “lying opportunities”.

In joining up with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel to release the Afghan war logs, Wikileaks has sought to combine the impact of front-page news and analytic skills of specialist reporters with the radical transparency of publishing thousands of original documents.

“This archive shows the vast range of small tragedies that are almost never reported by the press but which account for the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries,” Wikileaks wrote on its site as it published the 91,000 documents. Its servers struggled under the weight of traffic on Monday.

Even as governments and authorities round the world seek to plug the leaks and their latest outlet, Mr Assange has said that there are plenty more controversial documents in the pipeline.
Several points deserve emphasis. With regard to the particular role he seeks for Wikileaks and, relatedly, in connection with the mechanics of how that role can be made to function with astonishing effectiveness, Assange is nothing less than brilliant. This is a man who understands the system he's up against, and he knows how to jam the gears of that system. You'll find this issue explored further in this valuable piece from Jay Rosen. Note these passages, for example:
4. If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, “They didn’t even contact us!”

Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.

5. And just as government doesn’t know what to make of Wikileaks (“we’re gonna hunt you down/hey, you didn’t contact us!”) the traditional press isn’t used to this, either. As Glenn Thrush noted on Politico.com:
The WikiLeaks report presented a unique dilemma to the three papers given advance copies of the 92,000 reports included in the Afghan war logs — the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian.

The editors couldn’t verify the source of the reports — as they would have done if their own staffers had obtained them — and they couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from posting it, whether they wrote about it or not.

So they were basically left with proving veracity through official sources and picking through the pile for the bits that seemed to be the most truthful.
Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.
As I said: brilliant. Jay Rosen has much more, and his commentary is well worth your time.

These facts about the operations of Wikileaks tell us a great deal about the kind of man Assange is, and I find all of it profoundly admirable. On a more personal, even intimate level, we have this kind of comment: "'Capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture them,' he said of his motivation." And Assange speaks of "the vast range of small tragedies" that account for the horrors of U.S. policy overseas. Our culture today is suffused with cynicism, distancing irony, cheap sarcasm, and many other devices which insulate us from confronting and acknowledging the reverence we should feel for the irreplaceable value of a single human life. Assange's actions and the consistency of his statements about his work speak in direct opposition to a culture of death of this kind. Most of us have made ourselves unable or unwilling to see the heroes in our midst. If you are one of those people, you should ask yourself which individuals you help with your actions, and which individuals you harm.

And never forget the grave personal risk undertaken by Assange and those who work with him. As noted in the story above: "A US army intelligence analyst has been charged in connection with the video leak and Mr Assange has not visited the US since, fearing arrest." If you were to tell me that you could demonstrate that Assange is nothing more than an opportunistic seeker after glory, I would not believe you. I don't believe that mere opportunists run risks of this particular kind. And in another sense, I wouldn't care even if you could prove such a contention. Just as I will be demonstrating the importance of the leaks entirely apart from their specific content, Assange's repeated actions take on their own significance apart from his particular motivation. My evaluation of Assange's personal character might alter; my evaluation of the value and immense worth of his actions themselves would not.

Speaking of grave risks brings us to Bradley Manning. I urge you to read this story at Wired. As the direct result of Manning's (alleged) leaks of videos and documents to Wikileaks, Manning has been charged with eight violations of federal criminal law. If he is convicted on all eight charges, he faces up to 52 years in jail. Even now, Manning is under "pretrial confinement."

Bradley Manning is 22 years old. His life has barely begun. Due to the actions of our endlessly destructive and murderous Death State, his life may effectively already be over. Words that are far more damning than "evil" and "monstrous" are required to identify accurately the nature of the goddamned bastards who would condemn this young man to such a fate.

The Wired story reveals some of the factors that led Manning to act as he did:
Other classified leaks [Manning] claimed credit for included an Army document evaluating Wikileaks as a security threat and a detailed Army chronology of events in the Iraq war. But the most startling revelation was a claim that he gave Wikileaks a database of 260,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables, which Manning said exposed “almost-criminal political back dealings.” [Wikileaks denies that it has received these 260,000 cables.]

“Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public,” Manning told Lamo in an online chat session.

Manning anticipated watching from the sidelines as his action bared the secret history of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

“Everywhere there’s a U.S. post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed,” Manning wrote of the cables. “It’s open diplomacy. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format. It’s Climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth. It’s beautiful, and horrifying.”


In January, while on leave in the United States, Manning visited a close friend in Boston and confessed he’d gotten his hands on unspecified sensitive information, and was weighing leaking it, according to the friend. “He wanted to do the right thing,” 20-year-old Tyler Watkins told Wired.com. “That was something I think he was struggling with.”

Manning passed the video to Wikileaks in February, he told Lamo. After April 5 when the video was released and made headlines, Manning contacted Watkins from Iraq asking him about the reaction in the United States.

“He would message me, ‘Are people talking about it?… Are the media saying anything?’” Watkins said. “That was one of his major concerns, that once he had done this, was it really going to make a difference?… He didn’t want to do this just to cause a stir…. He wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again.”
At the age of 22, Bradley Manning has attained a moral stature most people never reach in an entire lifetime. He came to understand the unforgivable brutality and horror of what the U.S. government is doing, and he sought to stop it in any way he could. He wanted to do the right thing, he "wanted people held accountable," and he wanted to make sure "this didn't happen again."

This is the man the U.S. government now seeks to destroy. Bradley Manning is a remarkable hero, but most of us will not acknowledge the heroes who appear in our lives. The deeply admirable Mike Gogulski is not "most of us." He has set up a site for donations to Bradley Manning's legal defense fund, and for support of other kinds.

Please go there right now. Donate as much as you can, as often as you can. Some of us write about these issues. Perhaps that's all we can do. Bradley Manning has put his life on the line to expose the atrocities committed by his government -- and the U.S. government is therefore determined to cut him down.

With this background, we can now turn to a more general consideration of the nature of resistance itself, and to some especially critical questions. I said this wouldn't be short. I'm just getting started.