At their heart, WikiLeaks and its future spawns represent an alternative architecture for democracy, putting power in the hands of many rather than a few
Shougat Dasgupta | 23 Dec, 2010
At their heart, WikiLeaks and its future spawns represent an alternative architecture for democracy, putting power in the hands of many rather than a few.
So the cynics were right all along. The world is a sinister place, seething with conspiracy, controlled by the corrupt, the liars, the selfish, the wicked, the egotistical and the foolish. What else is to be gleaned from the WikiLeaks cables? As if the whole of human history were not evidence enough of our essential, incorrigible venality. This, after all, is what the world’s religions have always maintained: to live in the world is to be tainted by it.
How overwrought, you will perhaps be thinking, how naïve, how ignorant to be so disillusioned by, of all things, l’affaire WikiLeaks. You would, of course, be right. Rather than despair or resignation, the emotion WikiLeaks ought perhaps to fuel is hope. Accountability is what democratic governments promise voters. In a democracy the functioning of a country should not be a mystery to its citizens; the government, indeed, answers directly to the people it serves, the people to whom it owes its powers. Elections are one way to hold governments accountable and an independent judiciary is another and WikiLeaks, or future organisations it spawns, may turn out to be another still.
WikiLeaks, theoretically, operates as a virtual, bottomless, anonymous drop-box for classified documents circulated within a government or corporation. The public interest is plain in the case of secretive governments or those multinational companies that have so potentially cataclysmic an effect on the lives of people around the world. Basically anyone with a conscience, a grudge, an axe to grind, working for any corporation or government in the world and with access to confidential material can steal that material and send it through secure, anonymous servers to WikiLeaks, which will then, based on the material’s newsworthiness, work with its various media partners to vet and publish the material. The Orwellian nightmare of never being able to escape the unblinking gaze of authority is not repelled so much as made democratic, so that governments too are subject to the unblinking gaze of its citizens. WikiLeaks, in other words, enables the watched to watch the watchers.
This alone surely makes WikiLeaks as valuable a development as any in the last decade, as valuable at least as the social networking opportunities we so celebrate. It is an annoying journalistic tic to proclaim the world changed by every innovation but it’s hard to imagine the world, as we know it, or at least the nation-state, remaining unchanged by the growing irrelevance of borders. WikiLeaks, for instance, a group fronted by an itinerant Australian, staffed largely by a mutable cast of global volunteers and nominally based wherever freedom of speech and press is backed by cast-iron legislation, has both helped swing an election in Kenya and write legislation reforming media laws in Iceland. WikiLeaks uploaded a shelved Kenyan report detailing how the former president, Daniel arap Moi secreted nearly $3 billion out of Kenya into shell companies, hidden trusts and properties in the fancier parts of London and New York. The story was published in the Guardian and, WikiLeaks claims, helped scupper a rumoured alliance with Kenya’s current president in the 2007 elections that would have returned arap Moi to power. In Iceland, just prior to the collapse of Iceland’s banking system, WikiLeaks published the internal documents of a bank that showed huge high-risk loans to top shareholders, often without collateral. The bank obtained an injunction in time to stop the story being reported on the national broadcaster’s evening news bulletin. The episode shamed Iceland into seeking WikiLeaks’ assistance in drafting legislation that would turn the country into a safe haven for investigative reporting. An independent media organisation, dedicated to principles of freedom of speech and human rights, WikiLeaks is not constrained by considerations of sovereignty and border; the expense of running a bureau in every country is made moot by WikiLeaks’ focus on primary documents leaked by insiders and the expertise of its prestigious, traditional print media partners.
Until its recent travails, WikiLeaks’ most serious challenges were funding and public indifference. It has dealt with the frequent legal threats and lawsuits with élan, absolutely refusing to be bullied or intimidated. But its funding has been uncertain and scarce enough that the site had to shut down for a few months to focus on raising money (resuming in February this year), despite its relatively low costs and staff of unpaid volunteers. The group’s initial plan was to follow the Wikipedia model and rely on users to study, edit, discuss, draw conclusions from and write articles about the raw material uploaded onto the site. It soon discovered, though, that the teeming caches of often dull, technical, acronym-heavy documents were ignored, that even the most engaged netizen didn’t have the time, patience or ability to render these government, corporate or military documents readable, that the only people equipped for the job were traditional investigative journalists employed by traditional media organisations.
WikiLeaks, according to its website, was “officially launched in 2007” and “is a project of the Sunshine Press.” The site was founded and is run largely anonymously by what it describes as an “independent global group of people with a longstanding dedication to the idea of a free press and the improved transparency in society that comes from this.” The group apparently includes accredited journalists among programmers, network engineers, mathematicians and unspecified others. The cadaverous Julian Assange, variously described as a director, executive editor and founder, is the face of WikiLeaks; indeed, to all intents and purposes, for the general public he is WikiLeaks. Assange was arrested as a teenage boy for hacking into the computer systems of, among others, an Australian university and a Canadian telecommunications firm, and with his height, his pale lankiness, he still looks like a (somewhat spectral) schoolboy. The judge let him off with a fine for what he saw as no more than “intelligent inquisitiveness.” Assange remains the articulate outsider, an autodidact whose piecemeal education included dozens of schools and almost as many universities. With his rather rakish background — his instinctive anti-authoritarianism, driven not so much by political ideology as a professed desire to see justice done — he must have appeared to the founders as the ideal frontman in whose large, charismatic shadow the rest of the organisation could work unhindered.
In April this year, WikiLeaks released video footage from 2007 of an American helicopter crew killing several Iraqi men (a couple of whom were armed, one perhaps with a rocket-propelled grenade) gathered on a Baghdad street. The men included two Reuters employees and unwitting passersby who had stopped their van to help a crawling, wounded man. Two children in the van survived the attack. If you watch the video, which WikiLeaks titled ‘Collateral Murder’, you can see why the US military considers its release so incendiary. It’s a video that would fill anyone with sorrow and, more dangerously from the American point of view, anger. WikiLeaks certainly, through editing and that blunt title, guides the viewer’s emotions, but does not leave out any evidence that might suggest that what we are watching is anything other than what happened — the utterly futile, utterly heedless killing of innocent people, for no other reason than that the killers have the power and are coarsened and damaged enough by war to casually exercise that power.
‘Collateral Murder’ served as a primer for the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs published in July and October, respectively. The largest leak of classified documents in US history, the logs were an exhaustive internal account of both wars, the sour deceits and compromises and crimes all the more stark for being written up in pedantic, banal officialese. The release of the war documents heralded a new WikiLeaks strategy, its mutually beneficial partnership with select newspapers to simultaneously publish the leaks, providing the papers with scoops and WikiLeaks with the papers’ infrastructure, credibility, respectability and audience. Much has been made of the political bias WikiLeaks shows in their choice of papers, the apparently left-leaning Der Spiegel, the Guardian and the New York Times. Of course, only in the United States, seemingly listing ever rightwards politically (or at least in its loudest political commentary), could this collection of stolid, eminently establishment organs be described as left-wing or, more amusingly, radical. Assange has been quoted criticising the mainstream media for its timidity, for allowing an unheralded, ad hoc, barely incipient group of online activists to publish more leaks in a few months than the world’s news sources have managed in their entire history. But WikiLeaks’ true value is in its technological savvy, in its guarantee of secure servers for whistle-blowers to leak documents. Newspapers offer another, just as valuable expertise, the skills and manpower to vet these leaks and assess their value as news stories and determine angles for further investigation.
The US government traced the ‘Collateral Murder’ link to a soldier in his early twenties, an intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning, a high school dropout so alienated by his country’s foreign policy, its “almost criminal political back dealings” that he decided to dump hundreds of thousands of leaked documents onto WikiLeaks’ servers. He snuck them out on CD-RWs marked ‘Lady Gaga’. This 23-year-old, still awaiting court-martial, has been held in solitary confinement since May. The documents Manning is suspected of leaking include the diplomatic cables that have generated headlines and front page splashes around the world for nearly a month now.
To this observer at least, the war logs were far more damaging than these leaked cables much of which, or at least much of the fraction to which we’ve had access so far, has been mere gossip or, as Umberto Eco observed in the French newspaper Libération, recycled press clippings. No reader of papers such as the Guardian or the Spanish El Pais or, indeed, the New York Times, papers with which WikiLeaks has partnered, can have been shocked by the hackneyed observations in these leaks or surprised at the sneering pen portraits of foreign leaders written by American diplomats happy to colour within lines already sketched by the media. That Manning, still astonishingly young, should be so treated for leaking this correspondence contributes further to the picture created by the war logs and the diplomatic cables en masse that the founding ideals of the United States has become the threadbare fig leaf behind which the country as it really is today so inadequately hides.
WikiLeaks justifies its publishing of stolen classified material on the grounds of more transparent government. The argument offered by governments, and the reason why it classifies documents at all and makes it a crime to steal them, is that some secrecy is necessary for countries to conduct their affairs, for them to be able to speak frankly to and about each other. Public interest is the justification for both the need to classify material and the need to publish classified material. Both may be contradictory positions but both are true.
The incredible achievement of WikiLeaks, the reason it could represent the greatest triumph to date of the cyber age, is that it may force democratic governments to consider a more mature, more trusting relationship with their citizens, the people elected governments purportedly serve. The ease and relative safety with which an organisation like WikiLeaks makes it possible to leak information should force governments, banks, energy companies and the like to reconsider their conduct. The British government’s justification for what many consider its excessive use of surveillance cameras is that it shouldn’t concern or affect those who abide by the law. Similarly the surveillance of governments shouldn’t concern or affect those who abide by the law; and people, incidentally, should have rights to privacy, governments should not. Remember too that the documents sent to WikiLeaks required a relatively low level of security clearance, a level so low and granted to so many that the need for secrecy of any sort ought to be questioned. WikiLeaks is entirely dependent on sources and its goal of transparent government, or corporations that behave ethically, would eliminate the need for whistle-blowers. WikiLeaks wants fervently to eat itself.
All that said, the reaction of the US government to the leaks suggests we shouldn’t hold our breaths for a more mature relationship between governments and the governed, or even the media and its consumers. The increasingly sordid extradition case of Julian Assange exposes the Achilles’ heel of contemporary media, wedded as it is to distraction and personality. WikiLeaks continues to publish cables and the papers dutifully print them but the story has become Assange himself, whether he is a rapist or the victim of collusion between the American, Swedish and British governments or possibly even both. The big tent has been raised; the media circus is in town. All the signs are there: the surreal image of Jemima Khan (or was it Bianca Jagger?) offering to pledge surety for Assange in front of photographers jostling each other on the sidewalk; the columnists’ tiresome rush to either beatify or vilify Assange; the breathless reports of ‘cyber war’ and self-styled ‘hacktivists’ supposedly wreaking havoc; the ‘Free Julian’ T-shirts. You can almost see Assange’s future as a Che Guevera-style commodity, a face on the side of a mug or silkscreened Warhol-style onto a T-shirt.
WikiLeaks is so closely identified with Assange that any suspicion of moral failing in Assange is tantamount to an indictment of the organisation. It is WikiLeaks and the potential it represents that is extraordinary and it exists separate from Assange. At the moment it is the idea of WikiLeaks, the ideal it represents, that is vulnerable. American-owned corporations, like Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard and Visa have denied WikiLeaks access to servers and funds. A Swiss bank has frozen an account intended for Assange’s legal defence. The muscle flexing is intended as much as a deterrent to copycat sites as to shut WikiLeaks down. Assange’s legal troubles, even a potential indictment in the United States, cannot be allowed to derail the organisation itself.
One potent defence for WikiLeaks is the vast tranches of information it has already acquired, information so many people have access to that stopping publication is impossible. In the crosshairs, Assange has said in the interviews, is a major American bank. The thousands of documents in WikiLeaks’ possession, Assange claims, are damaging enough to warrant resignations from top executives and fresh regulation. The speculation is that the bank Assange is referring to is Bank of America, the latest American financial institution to withdraw services from WikiLeaks. But damning information aside, WikiLeaks has to evolve as an organisation to survive.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German spokesman for WikiLeaks, the only other person apart from Assange authorised to speak for the group, recently resigned, citing Assange’s increasingly paranoid, autocratic behaviour and the group’s lack of transparency. He is starting a similar website, OpenLeaks, that will serve as a conduit for information rather than as a publishing platform. OpenLeaks will essentially be the secure repository for whistle-blowers to leak documents that will then be offered to traditional media to disseminate. This is similar to WikiLeaks’ arrangement with its media partners except that OpenLeaks will not take on the role of editing or selecting material and will not select its media partners but merely act as a middleman for media that want access to anonymous material and leakers that want access to mainstream media.
The question germane to India is can WikiLeaks be replicated under Indian conditions? The fact is few countries outside Scandinavia, maybe the Netherlands and Switzerland, have the requisite freedoms enshrined in law. There is no reason, however, why Indian whistle-blowers cannot leak information to organisations with safe servers based in one or more of those countries and no reason why WikiLeaks or its equivalent cannot partner with Indian media groups. The Radia Tapes show that it is in the public interest to learn how the country is run, to uncover the connections and the cronyism. If WikiLeaks, whether Assange is guilty of rape or not, can survive as an organisation, find secure ways of raising money through public donations and, indeed, become more transparent, working in concert with newspapers and journalists around the world, it’s open season on governments and corporations the world over. Perhaps the public mood, in a period of economic stagnation in the West and growing inequality, is ripe for revolution after all. Even one in cyberspace.