Wednesday, December 08, 2010

To Leak or Not To Leak, That's The Question !

I suppose George Orwell must be having a blast in his grave. What has dominated the news over the last week, was Little Brother finally standing up to Big Brother and saying: "Now let's see, what have we got here, huh ?"

Julian Assange must have been on the cover of practically any magazine and newspaper from here to the moon and beyond and his "WikiLeaks"-website did what was before deemed impossible: beat Steve Jobs this time around when it came to creating buzz. Consider this figure: the site that is under heavy attack from hackers of all sorts and is now basically roaming the Web from host to host, is mirrored on over 1200 other sites, neatly indexed here. Little Brother is not likely to make it's retreat any time soon, it would seem.

Illustration by Rob Beschizza via boingboing
The leaked cables from the American diplomatic corps induced a few good laughs, a few raised eyebrows and so far a minority of real "wow"s (and even those: are we really - I mean: REALLY - surprised American diplomats are instructed to spy on senior U.N. Staff, Ban Ki Moon included, and if possible gather any biometric data they can get their hands on ?). At least, that's what the mainstream media is feeding us and I haven't gone into much further detail on the exact content of the cables themselves. Maybe there is much more incriminating stuff, maybe there is more that still has to surface from the WikiLeaks document vaults, but so far, I think the late French President François Mitterrand would have taken recourse to his famous little phrase again (when asked by the press to confirm whether he had an extra-marital daughter by the name of Mazarine): "Et quoi alors ... ?" End of the story. (Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton !)

Yet, "Cablegate" is already whipping up a growing storm (I wouldn't want to classify it as a hurricane yet, for we still do not know the complete fall-out or what is to follow still). The US State Department is already reshuffling it's diplomatic personnel, starting with those that are named in the cables. I suspect we'll see more actions coming up as a result, however I don't see a new world order emerging in the wake of the publications as some seem to think or hope. The question we should ask ourselves, is whether "Cablegate" is serving the purpose of making this world a better place, of increasing transparency and of holding stakeholders responsible. For many people, the answer is an unconditional "yes, of course". For Big Brother Government ... well, I think the current witch-hunt for Assange says it all: Big Brother is NOT amused ... at all. Good thing ! But do the pro's outweigh the contra's ? Here's my take.

I personally already get a bit nervous from the starting point. We are indeed talking about leaks, meaning per definition something that isn't meant to exist, to be there. These documents were not meant to be seen by the wide public, at least not in any near future, so someone had to go through a lot of hassle (and personal risk) to get them out of wherever they were stored. Now why is that someone taking such an action against such formidable odds, and now I am not strictly speaking about Cablegate (next release promised by Assange is on a major American Bank, so we'll be in a whole different ballpark then. That is: if the poor guy survives Interpol that suddenly shows interest in sexual assault, Swedish Justice, UK police and the wrath of the Holy American Inquisition) ? I am always inclined to think that human behavior is basically driven by selfish motives. I know the exceptions are numerous and easy to pinpoint, but for a fairly big part of what is called the human race, I think my premise stands. So if someone is coming to me with a set of documents which may contain incriminating evidence against any organisation, my first reaction would be to think: "What is in it for this person, making him do this ?". His reasons may have resulted in him selecting a very particular part of a wider set of documents that serves his particular purposes. Or it may be that he wants to  cast a shadow on one party in order to benefit another one ... that pays more ? I mean: leaks may serve a purpose for the better, but they are never innocent, for often it will be one or few individuals, by means of the leak, silently trying to impose their will or vision on a crowd who's typically not in the know. So if we are seeing the start of a movement that will flatly condone and hail any leak on any big organisation, I'm sceptic whether this is a sound foundation to work from. I'm not overly concerned (yet) with Assange's brainchild, for WikiLeaks in general seems to be doing it's due diligence on the documents before spreading them, but the next kid on the block may be tempted to be less scrupulous already, drooling at the thought of the media coverage and visibility it will get, and I don't even want to think what the next baby on the block might look like.

Then there is the issue of spin. Depending on who gets to read it, a message will often be open to interpretation in different ways. There is no need to put a spin on a message that remains hidden in the back-offices of Big Government in Washington. There is always a need to do so, for any party involved, for any message that finds it's way out of those back-offices. And from the "Cablegate" documents, I am particularly concerned with those on the Middle-East. WikiLeaks has now unmasked some of the heads of state in that region as having secretly insisted with the U.S. Government to retaliate against the nuclear "insubordination" of Iran. Forget Israël, Iran is the threat. So we are lead to think: "Hah, those hypocrites, they fear their own muslim brothers more than the Jews". However, if we had been in the Bush-era still, I suppose the champagne supply to Washington would have noticed a remarkable hausse for finally, here is the perfect excuse to go and bomb those ayatollahs into oblivion: even Iran's neighbours, even if they can't say it out loud, are begging us to do it ! Now suppose those cables had not been leaked, nobody would have been "officially" aware of the stance of those kings and presidents and then of course the U.S. couldn't have attributed any such statements to them since they are considered allies to a certain level. Those cables are a rallying cry for war against Iran and those who want to oppose the idea will now have an even tougher time to counter the arguments, since the support of the hard-line just got so much stronger.

A further related point, to which my attention was drawn in an interview with Noam Chomsky, is that by releasing all this information on the top levels of government, it is, alongside with Big Government, deviating attention away from the reality in the street:

NOAM CHOMSKY: That essentially reinforces what I said before, that the main significance of the cables that are being released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. The results are rather striking. They show the Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel -- that's 80. The second major threat is the United States -- that's 77. Iran is listed as a threat by 10%.
With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority -- in fact, 57% say that the region would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. 80, 77, say the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. 10 say Iran is the major threat. This may not be reported in the newspapers here -- it is in England -- but it's certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments, and to the ambassadors. But there is not a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership. These things aren't even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. The cables do not have any indication of that. 

Okay, I concur with Chomsky that the cables thus uncover the cover-up of this reality by the western leadership, as he calls it, ... but only if you are aware of that reality from other sources. Meaning, the cables do not in themselves give you the right or total view. The cables themselves are putting already a spin on a reality that many at the top would prefer to be kept hidden and it is for us to strip it down again. Not an easy task indeed, if you ask me.

And then there is "Transparency". I bet God Almighty himself is jealous he didn't create that during the seven days he had at his disposal for Creation. What would we be without transparency ? WikiLeaks says it is offering up 250.000 documents for perusal. Hallelujah, Transparency brought to us on four wheels, drawn by a 2 and a 5. However, I think that in itself is an insane number. No-one, however interested he or she may be, is going to read all that, yet, a lot of that stuff will have obvious (or less obvious, but maybe not less important) links to each other in the frenzied folly of world politics. So what will happen ? Big Media will filter it for us so that it's easier to digest, in the process putting THEIR spin on it ... and we're back from where we came. I have my doubts that the release of all those classified documents is really going to represent a major breakthrough in transparency and holding governments accountable for their actions. Governments start wars, so they're good at it. First rule when you come under attack from the enemy: either run for your lives ... or dig yourself in. I suppose we'll be seeing a lot of digging going on in the foreseeable future, thus bringing in effect the exact opposite of what we were after.

So should we get rid of this new sort of "leak-journalism" altogether ? Not by any means.

We in the West pride ourselves on the fact that we have democratic institutions, that we live in democratic countries and yes, it's not me who is complaining about that. But let's look at the facts. After the nice show that is being made of elections, it's still a select group of people at the top who set out the lines. Where I live, with our six governments, it has been very much "en vogue" over the last rounds of elections -and I can assure you, we've had more than of our fair share of them- to put candidates on the lists who were telling us beforehand that, if they were elected, they wouldn't take up that mandate (for instance, because they were already elected in one of the other five governments) but who are simply there because they have the highest visibility within a certain Party and thus are useful for electoral marketing purposes. Have no doubt: some of those, notwithstanding the upfront warning, do get elected so you won't find me among the chorus chanting that the voter is always right. But that means that our electoral process shows the A-side, while the important things are going on on the B-side. That's an oversimplification of sorts, but I guess you know what I am hinting at. Therefore, it is good that some pressure is exerted on those in Big Government, or as Sean Connery put it to Wesley Snipes in "Rising Sun" (Philip Kaufman, 1993): "We're beating the grass to startle the snakes". WikiLeaks may have started to do just that. If "Cablegate", as well as the previous or the still to follow releases, is contributing to creating a mindset with those in command where, before taking action, they start asking themselves :"What if this gets known ?", then we're on the right track.

The Internet, by means of this sort of actions, may be growing into the sort of instrument that becomes the nightmare of corrupt governments worldwide. By virtue of it's easy and ubiquitous access, it is predestined to become just that and WikiLeaks is exploring it's possibilities at full throttle, leaving some of the implicated in uncomfortable positions gasping for breath. And for sure, there is much more work left to be done by this whistleblower, as basically, what we've seen so far is that the one blowing the whistle becomes the hunted while the target walks free. Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst of the U.S Army in Iraq who leaked this video of a U.S. helicopter attack on a group of Iraqi civilians, killing several among whom two Reuters' journalists and injuring two children, is now being held in a Kuwait prison for leaking this information while the attackers still have to be charged and the Rules of Engagement for U.S soldiers have not been changed in any significant way. So yes, let's keep pushing the buttons, but let's do it in a responsible way.

Because, after all, it's a very thin line we are walking. I'm not with those wolves howling in the woods that every diplomat is a corrupt and treacherous creature. Diplomacy, in my view, is one of the very few instruments we have that can keep this world from sinking down in outright chaos and diplomacy is often what is still saving lives when the big industrial complexes and various lobby groups have decided that it wouldn't be bad for business to start a war. Halliburton, anyone ? The very essence of diplomacy is that it works in the background (for it's the only place where it can work, with too many over-sized ego's monopolizing the foreground) and I wouldn't want to see that entire machinery being destroyed. Also, the job was never meant for sissies, so let's get over it when they call each other a "nutcase" and move on. We've seen far worse things than that. Finally, one last thing to keep in mind: when Mao Zedong kicked off the "Four Pests Campaign" in 1958, he ordained all sparrows to be killed because they eat grain seeds and were considered bad for agricultural production. So the masses were mobilized to turn China's countryside into the noisiest place on earth, such that the sparrows had to constantly remain airborne, leading to them falling dead from the sky by the millions from sheer exhaustion. What followed, however, was an enormous increase in locusts and insects that destroyed the crops, leading to a nationwide famine, as there were no more sparrows to keep them from doing it. So let's be careful what we ask for, let's make sure we are not killing all the sparrows.

The famous "Chinese" curse "May you live in interesting times" is definitely working it's charm again these days. I prefer to keep a cautious attitude on what's going on now, though I do feel a certain sense of excitement that this is happening and that Little Brother is voicing some opposition to Big Brother. I tend to like equal playing fields, so as long as we don't forget to "check the checker", I'll be pleased to side with the underdog.

George, weren't you working on a sequel ?

Sincerely Yours.

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