As I’m writing this, the New York Times, the Guardian in the U.K. and Der Spiegel in Germany are publishing the third in a series of huge document “dumps” by Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s non-profit whistleblower website that since 2006 has been unmasking government and corporate secrets.
Wikileaks this time is releasing 250,000 documents—diplomatic cables that remove the veil from the U.S. State Department’s assumption that anything it does in backchannels is nobody’s business but its own even as it twirls the fates of millions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her little army of damage-controllers have been calling world capitals all week in hopes of limiting the embarrassing blowback from documents that show ambassadors and flunkeys not so diplomatically describing their partners and enemies in other governments, candidly describing various states of war in various places, and (for example) unmasking how, to this day, Saudi money, billions of it collected at American gas pumps, is al-Qaeda’s principal greaser.
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It’s an indication of how willingly the American public has swallowed the lies and assumptions of the national security state as necessary that more people instinctively agree with the government’s defense of secrecy than applaud the whistle-blowing. It’s a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome: captives coming to the defense of their captors. In summer, when Wikileaks made public almost 100,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, 66 percent of those questioned in a Gallup poll declared the release “wrong.” Curiously, when CBC, the Canadian news agency, polled Canadians about the latest leak, 85 percent were in favor. Naturally: the world prefers to be better informed, for once, about how the United States exercises its power.
Americans aren’t in the mood. They’ve long ago lost sight of the meaning of freedom as anything more than freedom from taxes and (in Florida, anyway) wearing helmets on a motorbike as opposed to, say, freedom from the presumptive reins of a police state. When their government—the same government that recently gave them secret wiretapping, secret prisons, a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay and two presidents who invoke the “state secrets” privilege to deny even citizens their day in court—invokes a blanket presumption of secrecy, Americans—including the same tea party types who want government out of their lives—are conditioned not only to shut up and submit, but to demand that their neighbors do so as well. Those who don’t comply are traitors.
Without offering specifics, the Obama administration claimed that when Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of documents about the Iraq and Afghan wars earlier this year, it endangered lives of soldiers, spy agents and informants. Similar claims were made by the Nixon administration in 1971 when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, the secret military history of the Vietnam War that revealed how, early in the 1960s, the U.S. military was aware that the war was virtually unwinnable. Nixon claimed the papers were endangering “national security,” a vague invocation made by every president who’s tried to put government secrecy above the public’s right to know to what extent its government was breaking laws, murdering en masse, screwing up and hiding from accountability, all at the expense of taxpayers and their patriotic gullibility. George W. Bush and Barack Obama are the latest apologists of deception on a mass scale, emperors whose clothes Wikileaks is stripping one document at a time.
Those emperors might remember what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that 1971 decision rejecting Nixonian lust for secrecy: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” Justice Hugo Black wrote, referring to the origins of the First Amendment. “The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.”
Don’t bother claiming that Wikileaks isn’t part of the free press. In many respects, it’s better: It’s the raw materials. The C-Span of government’s and the military’s underbellies. The Iraq and Afghanistan papers have, for example, shown that civilian casualties have been far heavier than reported, that American soldiers and mercenaries have murdered civilians more often than reported (read one example), that Iran’s role in the Iraq war, well known by the Bush administration, was far heavier than the administration let on, that Pakistan’s secret services, funded by U.S. military aid, have been aiding the Taliban for years, and that, in either Iraq’s or Afghanistan’s case, public notions of American successes are undermined by the secret documents’ grimmer and far less hopeful accumulations of failures.
But claims that Wikileaks’ Assange is doing anything illegal, and more hypocritical claims that he is endangering lives or damaging national security, speak more of the illegalities Assange is uncovering than of his own. If it’s loss of life the U.S. government is concerned about, it should begin with paying more attention to the soldiers and civilians it’s putting in harm’s way every hour in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are “informants” and diplomats somehow higher on the totem pole of “assets” to be protected? These aren’t secret sources operating under the protection of civilized rules and laws and codes similar to, say, the secrecy guaranteed the whistle-blowing source behind press reports. That guarantee is in place to help uncover wrongs, not hide them. In the world of government secrecy, there is no such broader aim. “Assets” and diplomats are engaged in a game rigged by its own rules and sustained by its own self-serving ends. Power and prestige, not national security or national interest, are being protected.
Granted, there are no absolutes. In very few cases secrecy, at least for a brief while, is essential: revealing the Manhattan Project’s atom-bomb secrets or broadcasting the date and place of the landing in Normandy would only have helped Hitler. But that was when the United States was engaged in a war whose objectives were clearly defined, attainable and justifiable (and when the nation’s secrecy-obsessive complex was yet unborn). The cold war was not a just war, having been primarily unnecessary. Nor have any wars the United States has prosecuted since (with the possible exception of the intervention in the Balkans). Iraq is an outright illegal war. The invasion of Afghanistan lost its legitimacy the moment American and NATO forces decided to turn Afghanistan into a staging ground of moral prestige in the unwinnable “war on terror.” And diplomacy is not a war.
The Times explains in an editor’s note that “As a general rule we withhold secret information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that might be useful to adversaries in war. We excise material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material, compromise intelligence-gathering programs aimed at hostile countries, or disclose information about the capabilities of American weapons that could be helpful to an enemy. On the other hand, we are less likely to censor candid remarks simply because they might cause a diplomatic controversy or embarrass officials.” The note leans ethically in the right direction, but is overly broad: who makes those calls, based on what more precise criteria? And there seems to be little sense, ethical or pragmatic, in excising “material that might lead terrorists to unsecured weapons material” when it would be more useful to get the government off its evidently incompetent rears and secure the material–by publicizing that incompetence. That’s the point of clarity against secrecy: to not play the conspiratorial game–to serve the governors instead of the governed–and pull out the vague national security-national interest card at every classified turn. This is not The Times of 1971.
So with extremely rare exceptions, keeping information from the public does more harm than good. That’s been true since the dawn of government secrecy. It’s been especially true during the cold war and its twin successor, the “war on terror.” That the secrets are American rather than Soviet or Iranian doesn’t make them more virtuous. It merely makes them—and us—more like Iran’s and the old Soviet Union. The assumption that secrecy is necessary doesn’t stand up to sunshine’s scrutiny.
Keep in mind that it was the secret 1957 report—“Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age”—that created the fiction that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States economically by 2000, and the equally absurd fiction of a “missile gap” that sent the next three administrations wasting billions in dollars and manufactured fears to close. For all its absurdities, the report was not declassified until 1973. Imagine if a Wikileak of the time would have uncovered it in 1957. Of course Wikileak would have been condemned, reviled, burned at whatever stake the Eisenhower administration, so susceptible to fictions, would have conjured up. But it would also have exposed the fictions to scrutiny, and done what scrutiny does: it would have exposed the flaws in the report and possibly slowed down the nation’s hysterical submission to that colossal waste created by Harry Truman in 1952, when he signed the directive creating the National Security Agency (see: illegal wiretapping, Bush admin.) and launching the CIA on its long odyssey of futility.
Matters didn’t improve. “Just because the United States won the cold war doesn’t mean our Government did everything right,” the historian and journalist Sam Tanehaus wrote—not so ironically, in a 1998 review of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy: The American Experience. “On the contrary, as one of the most zealous cold war Presidents, Ronald Reagan, delicately put it when acknowledging the criminal excesses of the Iran-contra scandal, ‘mistakes were made.’ Indeed they were. The Central Intelligence Agency, in particular, was a command center of malfeasance in the 1980’s. Under its Director, William Casey, the C.I.A. fed the White House exaggerated reports of Soviet military and economic strength and kept Congress in the dark, illegally at times, about various covert operations. Meanwhile, a mole within the agency, Aldrich Ames, was peddling secrets to the Kremlin, with the result that at least 12 prized overseas ‘assets’ were killed.”
And that, of course, was before the cataclysmic failure of intelligence that led to 9/11, the equally cataclysmic failure that led American forces on a chase for nonexistent WMDs in Iraq in 2003, and the continuing chase of an ever-vanishing objective in Afghanistan. Protecting the “diplomacy” behind it all ensures more cataclysms, especially when that diplomacy has been turned into “one of those services so ineptly called secret” (as Graham Greene put it). Wikileaks could not be rendering a greater service.