Assange’s initial info-optimism looks fragile in an age newly sensitive to encroachments into the private realm by states and digital corporations, and when set next to his own sloppiness of redaction and politicised publication choices. The problem has never been just that there is a secret body of knowledge reserved to the state, but that our capacity to interpret and act on it is catastrophically limited. Mere facts do not suggest their own solution. Transparency is not an intrinsic good: the disgorgement of secrets may paralyse as much as catalyse. Only one person was prosecuted because of the video that Wikileaks released under the title Collateral Murder: its leaker, Chelsea Manning.
First, a number of disclaimers. I’m not an uncritical admirer of Julian Assange, especially in relation to what he has admitted he has done – quite apart from the criminal allegations against him – in his personal life. In brief, he seems to me to be a bit of a cad. Beyond that, I have no opinion as to his legal guilt or otherwise. I’m also not entirely in favour of WikiLeaks’ activities. I think you need to preserve diplomatic confidentiality in many areas. To qualify this, however, I’m not terribly disturbed – or impressed – by most of the ‘revelations’ in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, few of which can reasonably be thought to threaten any nation’s security. (Dignity and reputation a little, perhaps. That’s no bad thing.) On the other side, I’m certainly not anti-Swedish. I live there much of the time, and consider its political, economic and social institutions far superior to Britain’s. Recent events have led me to question the fairness of Sweden’s judicial processes, a view shared by a number of Swedes; but that should be put in the context of my overall Swedophilia. Lastly, I’m not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – this in relation to suspicions that the whole Assange affair was a put-up job by the CIA – although, having worked in this area (the history of ‘counter-subversion’), I would never dismiss the possibility of any ‘conspiracy’ out of hand. I hope that’s clear. The Assange affair really is a very curious one.
Last December, someone – hacktivists from the Anonymous movement take credit for it – stole the internal emails of the middling intelligence firm Stratfor. The emails eventually made their way to Julian Assange. And now WikiLeaks, just when everyone thought it might be finished, is publishing them in chunks. WikiLeaks wouldn't be WikiLeaks if everything had gone smoothly: as it was preparing to publish the latest batch of Stratfor emails last week, its website went down, with Assange blaming a series of crippling cyberattacks (a group called AntiLeaks – led by someone known as Diet Pepsi – has claimed responsibility). The emails in question detail Stratfor's dealings with TrapWire Inc, a security company in Virginia. But it didn’t need WikiLeaks to reveal TrapWire’s activities: the company boasts about them on its website.
Last week WikiLeaks published a confidential cable that Martin Indyk, the then US ambassador to Israel, sent to the White House and State Department after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in November 1995. Here's Uri Avnery's take on it:
‘At first I treated you as not an idiot, out of politeness,’ Slavoj Žižek said to Julian Assange last weekend, ‘but more and more I have to admit that you are not an idiot.’ Žižek and Assange were on stage at the Troxy in East London, watched by a crowd of nearly 2000 people who had paid £25 each for a ticket. If Assange changes his mind about not publishing his memoirs, he won’t be short of readers. Amy Goodman, chairing the discussion, asked Assange to respond to Joe Biden’s accusation that he is a ‘high-tech terrorist’. As Assange floundered, Žižek stepped in. ‘You are a terrorist,’ he said, ‘but in the sense that Gandhi is a terrorist.’ He quoted Brecht: ‘What is robbing a bank, compared to founding a new bank? If you are a terrorist, what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?’ Assange looked grateful.
Yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter carried an article by two leading Swedish lawyers on the Assange extradition case. ‘Assange’s criticism of Sweden is right on several points,’ the headline says. There’s a report on it in English here. Their criticisms centre on (a) the lack of a jury system in Sweden (verdicts are arrived at by a judge flanked by two party appointees); (b) the fact that accused people awaiting trial are kept in prison for months, without bail, and often in solitary confinement (the European Court has already condemned Sweden for this); and (c) the fact that in some cases (such as rape) trials can be held in secret.
Since last June, Private Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old alleged source of the WikiLeaks hoard of war logs and diplomatic cables, has been kept in solitary confinement at Quantico. He is in his cell for 23 hours a day, frequently deprived of clothing and denied the right even to do press-ups. He has no contact with other prisoners and is forced to acknowledge to a guard that he is OK every five of his waking minutes. Whether this no-touch torture is being inflicted on Manning to force a confession implicating Julian Assange, or is merely an object lesson to other potential whistleblowers, is not clear.
In the 19th century it was virtually impossible to extradite anyone from Britain. In the first place there had to be a bilateral extradition treaty with the country concerned. These were very few and far between. All of them specified very precisely what a person could be extradited for. It had to be a serious crime, recognised as such in Britain too; there had to be a formal charge; a prima facie case needed to be established that a prosecution would probably succeed; no one could be extradited for one offence only to be tried for another; and the crime could not be ‘political’. ‘Political’ at that time embraced politically motivated crimes, including those that might have been extraditable if they weren’t committed for political reasons, such as murder, and what today we would call ‘terrorism’.
The release of Abd al Basit al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 continues to attract ‘revelations’ in the media, the latest of them in the Telegraph and Vanity Fair.
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, may be the first senior diplomat to fall victim to the release of confidential embassy cables on WikiLeaks. ‘Ambassador (Gene A.) Cretz is in Washington for consultations... The question of when Ambassador Cretz returns to Libya will be one of the many subjects of his consultations,’ a spokesman said last week. Appointed in 2007, Cretz was the first US ambassador to Libya since 1972. Last month Colonel Qadhafi praised WikiLeaks for exposing US hypocrisy. ‘The true face of US diplomacy has been revealed through the confidential documents,’ he said. This ‘proved that America is not what it has led allies and friends to believe it to be’. Most of the stories from Tripoli that were picked up in the western media were old news in Libya, where few are unaware, for example, that Qadhafi suffers from phobias about flying, travelling over water and staying on upper floors. Many elderly desert bedouin feel the same way and no one thinks that Qadhafi travelled 7000 miles around Africa by land because of his love for African unity.
The CIA announced yesterday that it has set up a task force with a rude acronym to assess the damage caused by WikiLeaks. So far, more trouble seems to have been caused by the bare fact of the leak, and the sheer scale of it, than by the content of any of the published cables.
For the most part we see able, professional diplomats doing their best to understand and report on the places where they’re stationed, as anyone familiar with the State Department would expect. Those I have looked at (mostly from or concerning the Middle East) are classified up to ‘secret’, which is supposed to mean the information in them would cause ‘grave damage’ to national security if made public. One lesson is that over-classification, which is a form of bad security, is even more prevalent in the State Department today than it was in the British diplomatic service when I served in it.
Two things we can learn about Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara from the US embassy in Rabat, courtesy of Wikileaks: 1) it’s a source of personal revenue for Moroccan army officers but 2) everything’s fine really.
US embassy cables released yesterday by Wikileaks describe al-Jazeera as ‘a useful tool for the station's political masters’ and claim that the channel altered its output to suit the interests of Qatar’s foreign policy. These allegations, which al-Jazeera has denied, are neither new nor surprising, even if they’ve never come from such an authoritative source before. A confidential cable sent from the US Embassy in Doha to Washington in February this year quotes a conversation between the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ) al-Thani, and US senator John Kerry, in which HBJ says that he told the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, that Qatar would stop al-Jazeera broadcasting if Cairo would change its position on Israel-Palestinian negotiations:
The Wikileaks confirm what we already know about Af-Pak. Pakistan is a US satrapy: its military and political leaders constitute a venal elite happy to kill and maim its people at the behest of a foreign power. The US proconsul in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, emerges as a shrewd diplomat, repeatedly warning her country of the consequences in Pakistan if they carry on as before. Amusing but hardly a surprise is Zardari reassuring the US that if he were assassinated his sister, Faryal Talpur, would replace him and all would continue as before. Always nice to know that the country is regarded by its ruler as a personal fiefdom.
One of the more interesting cables to have been wikileaked so far is the United States’ official assessment of the overthrow of the president of Honduras on 28 June 2009, and whether or not it was a coup. On 25 August State Department officials were still pondering the question. The significance of their decision was that, if Zelaya’s ousting was officially recognised as a ‘coup’, the US government would have had to pull the plug on all aid going to the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the US government very much wanted to avoid having to do that, so they wavered until it no longer mattered. If they had wanted a timely and thorough assessment of the legitimacy or otherwise of Zelaya’s expulsion from office, all they needed to do was to refer to a cable sent by their ambassador. Hugo Llorens sent a cable to the White House and to senior State Department officials (including Clinton) on 24 July, less than a month after the event.
Well, nothing much there. But then we’ve only, so far, been given a few tasty morsels picked by the editors of the newspapers that were favoured with a preview of all this stuff: selected by criteria of their own (usually what would make the most interesting headlines in their countries); and apparently heavily ‘redacted’ by the editors themselves. What more is to come we can’t yet know. (I’ve tried to get into the Wikileaks site directly, but can’t. Is it my ageing computer? Or internet traffic congestion? Or is someone blocking it?) But it is unlikely to be the really damaging ‘top secret’ stuff, which apparently is more secure.