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Wikileaks is not just a lot more of the same. It has changed the game

2010 December 12
by Paul Vallely

The assault on the royal car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall last week showed that the old politics is alive and kicking – and daubing paint and smashing windows, as ever before. But, threatening though it was, there seemed something faintly anachronistic about the preposterous student cries of “off with their heads”. The assault on corporate websites – in retaliation for the global establishment’s attempts to shut down WikiLeaks – was, by contrast, something singularly modern.

In the old days leaks came in plain brown envelopes containing a few hastily photocopied pages. But a paradigm shifted last month when the WikiLeaks website began publishing 251,287 secret US military and State Department cables. This was more than just the largest set of confidential documents ever to be leaked into the public domain. It did more than embarrass on a bigger scale. It threatened the basis of international diplomacy, which relies on the possibility of frank private exchanges of views, and threatened to compromise the security of nations.

At the heart of this changed game is the internet. For a decade or more the worldwide web has been creating new ways of doing politics. It began in 1999 with the posting on the internet of a 151-page draft of the Multinational Agreement on Investment. That scuppered what was to have been the most far-reaching international agreement of the 20th century – to remove all regulations on the global movement of money – which Western civil servants were negotiating behind the backs of most politicians. The web passed another milestone in 2006 when, in the United States, Congressional candidates with support from the netroots – political jargon for the grassroots on the internet – were found to do better than candidates who lacked such support. Then in 2008 Barack Obama became the first US president to use the internet to raise large amounts of cash and organise an army of volunteers.

The internet has not only revolutionised the process of politics. It has changed the way we get our news. Experts blog, offering a critical counterpoint to the traditional media. Ordinary citizens find a platform for views excluded from the mainstream political agenda. Politics has become more participatory. And recent days have shown that protestors do not need to stand on a picket line any more; they can use technology to fight back.

But to fight what? Defenders of WikiLeaks say that US government attempts to remove its domain name system and close down its income sources it are assaults on freedom of speech. A group of “hacktivists” worldwide have offered their services in cyber-assaults on companies who have done Washington’s bidding.

Most of them are just internet geeks instinctively defending their obsessions. But the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has a broader agenda. He sees power in information and regards himself as something of a revolutionary. In an essay he wrote in 2006 called “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”  he quotes Theodore Roosevelt to the effect that “behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people”. Assange then goes on to write: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie”.

More recently he told Time magazine that his aim is to push the US towards even greater secrecy, implying that this would bring the current US system closer to collapse. “They have one of two choices,” he said. “One is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavours, and proud to display them to the public… The other is to lock-down internally and cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organisations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.” As well as mass leaks he advocated the use of misinformation.

It is not hard to see why this has spooked Washington.  US intelligence analysis of the 9/11 attacks showed that a key problem in American unpreparedness was the tendency of different departments and agencies to compartmentalise information. The US government’s left hand did not know what its right was doing. For the past nine years Washington has rolled back that tendency with a series of reforms to share intelligence across government. It was that new system of sharing that allowed a single US intelligence analyst in Iraq, Bradley Manning, to allegedly leak a quarter of a million documents to WikiLeaks. Washington experts fear a recompartmentalisation of intelligence – of the precise kind Assange has outlined – will compromise their ability to piece together bits of disparate information and head off terror plots against the United States.

The challenge for the rest of us is to separate the good that WikiLeaks has done from its potential for harm. There is no doubt Wikileaks has performed an important public service in exposing government-backed torture in the “war on terror”. It has revealed a casual indifference among Western authorities to the death of innocent civilians as “collateral damage” in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has shown that the British government secretly allowed the US to keep cluster bombs on its soil in defiance of our treaty obligations. It has disclosed that the US State Department pressured the Germany authorities to turn a blind eye to the CIA’s kidnapping of a German citizen.

But it has also revealed banal tittle-tattle. Colonel Gadaffi loves flamenco dancing. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia likes the idea of surgically implanting those freed from Guantanamo with tracking chips such as he uses on his horses and falcons. US diplomats say Russia’s President Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman”. It is highly doubtful that such disclosures are worth the damage they do to world leaders’ confidence in the privacy of the conversations they have with foreign diplomats.

The global hackers who call their organisation Anonymous as they seek revenge on firms who have abandoned WikLeaks say their ultimate goal is a “utopian society”  which protects “the freedom to share information freely without any censorship”.  This, like much of what Assange has written and said, is the rhetoric of student politics. In the real world lists of undercover spies, secret locations, clandestine operations, vulnerable pipelines and sensitive communications systems have to remain beyond the public eye. That is not ideal, but the world is not an ideal place.

The danger now is of a false polarisation – and that knee-jerk outrage over the highly-charged anti-WikiLeak rhetoric of right-wing American politicians – will lead to the defence of useful and legitimate internet freedoms being hijacked by an anti-American, anti-imperialist and anti-globalisation protest.

Cyber-attacks, like all terrorism, are far easier to launch than to defend against. The risk is that Western governments will react with a draconian clampdown on the internet, such as the one imposed by China, where sites are blocked, content is filtered and censorship is routine. A requirement that governments have the code for all encryptions, for example, would make the internet a much less attractive place on which to conduct social or business exchanges.

WikiLeaks ought to be a responsible part of our system of democratic checks and balances. If it becomes the rallying point for oppositionists with a contrary confrontational mindset we will all be the losers.


One Response
  1. David permalink
    December 12, 2010


    That is very thoughtful and well put together article.
    Thank you.


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