So much of the debate over Wikileaks, when not focused on what kind of
person Julian Assange is, has been centered around whether or not the
leaked information has the potential to cause harm or even cost lives;
whether releasing it was a public service or an act of gross
irresponsibility. While this is obviously an important question,
it misses the entire point of Wikileaks and what it represents by a
mile. Likewise, most of the media attention completely overlooks
the real significance of what Wikileaks has accomplished in releasing
the documents.

The most important piece of information revealed by Wikileaks to date
has not been the graphic videos of US soldiers gunning down civilians
and two journalists in Iraq nor the US military’s systematic cover-up
of civilian deaths and prisoner abuse there; nor has it been that US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered US diplomats to steal
personal data from UN diplomats; nor the news that the Obama
administration launched secret missile attacks in Yemen or even the
revelations of rampant corruption in Kenya that may have influenced the
2008 general elections there.

The biggest revelation to date is this: When pushed, the US
government will behave no differently from any tin-pot dictatorship in
the lengths to which it will go to cover up its wrongdoings from the
people it ostensibly exists to serve. The illusion that US
citizens enjoy freedom of speech or anything resembling government
transparency, indeed the very notion that we live under a “government
of the people”, has been busted wide open. The irony, of course,
is that this information did not require any disgruntled government
employee to secret it away, in fact it was never really “leaked” at
all, but was handed over willingly to the public by the US government
itself.

Even more important than this revelation of course, is the technology
that has allowed all of the documents Wikileaks has obtained to be made
public. For the debate over the goodness or badness of Wikileaks
is really about the goodness or badness of genuine transparency and,
ultimately, genuine accountability for those in power. What
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has created is a paradigm-shifting
model that allows people to in effect spy on their governments, a tool
that threatens to change forever the landscape in which the state
exists.
Not surprisingly the state has reacted vehemently and in so doing has
revealed its true nature. Politicians and commentators have
called for Mr. Assange and his sources to be assassinated, Newt
Gingrich and others have called him a terrorist, and legislators have
proposed changing the law so that Mr. Assange can be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, Government officials have successfully pressured companies
such as Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and everyDNS.com (and very
likely the Swiss postal system) into suspending their services to
Wikileaks.

All of this was no accident. In an online Q&A
session on December 3, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said,

“Since 2007 we have been deliberately
placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered
a free speech deficit in order to separate rhetoric from reality.”

For those Americans who don’t already understand the consequences of
the regulatory regime under which businesses operate, the government’s
ability to pressure private businesses into dropping Wikileaks should
make it abundantly clear that businesses operate here only at the whim
of the Emperor. Just as the response to the Wikileaks releases
has revealed this country’s “free speech deficit”, so has it called
into question the notion that the US is a home for “free-market
capitalism”. It is this insidious intertwining of government and
business that is the foundation for what Mr. Assange refers
to
 as the “privatization of state censorship”.

PayPal, MasterCard, Amazon, et al can argue that they had no choice but
to drop Wikileaks because their Terms of Service require that account
holders not violate laws or encourage others to do so. But
whether Wikileaks has done anything illegal or asked anyone else to do
anything illegal is a matter of speculation at this point. There
have been no formal charges brought against Wikileaks. The bigger
question though is what happens when the laws are wrong? What
should private businesses and individuals do when the laws themselves
violate the rights of Americans, or facilitate government crimes and
abuses? This whole episode might just force Americans to confront
the distinction between what is legal and what is right.

It may also force us to confront the hypocrisy at the root of our
culture that imposes an entirely different moral code on those in
authority than is imposed upon the rest of us. We can no longer
ignore the gaping chasm that exists between what governments are
allowed to do and what ordinary people are allowed to do. For if
we are to condemn Wikileaks for potentially, theoretically, endangering
the lives of innocent (or even not-so-innocent) people at some
unspecified time in the future, then how can we ignore the fact that
the government making this claim has itself murdered hundreds of
thousands of innocent people in the pursuit of its ends?

Indeed, government officials have revealed themselves to be as averse
to the rule of law as they are to freedom of speech. They believe
themselves to be free to persecute those who challenge them,
unrestrained by the law and without any need for legal
justification. And more often than not, they are right. As
Glenn Greenwald so succinctly puts
it:

“Just look at what the U.S. Government
and its friends are willing to do and capable of doing to someone who
challenges or defies them — all without any charges being filed or a
shred of legal authority. They’ve blocked access to their assets,
tried to remove them from the Internet, bullied most everyone out of
doing any business with them, froze the funds marked for Assange’s
legal defense at exactly the time that they prepare a strange
international arrest warrant to be executed, repeatedly threatened
him with murder, had their Australian vassals openly threaten to revoke
his passport, and declared them “Terrorists” even though — unlike the
authorities who are doing all of these things — neither Assange nor
WikiLeaks ever engaged in violence, advocated violence, or caused the
slaughter of civilians…

“The U.S. and its “friends” in the Western and business worlds are more
than able and happy to severely punish anyone they want without the
slightest basis in “law.” That’s what the lawless, Wild Western
World is: political leaders punishing whomever they want without
any limits, certainly without regard to bothersome concepts of “law.”

We can no longer pretend that there is any meaningful distinction
between the way our government operates and the way those in China,
Myanmar or Saudi Arabia do. When threatened, they throw off any
pretense of respect for democracy, due process or any part of the legal
system that does not serve their immediate ends. If this is
indeed what the Wikileaks team intended to reveal, then it should be
considered the site’s most important leak to date.

Anonymity is revolutionary. Governments have long recognized
this. What Wikileaks has done is to give us the ability to in
effect spy on government with a powerful assurance of anonymity.
It has begun to level the playing field. Now ordinary people can
be protected as they work to hold governments accountable for their
actions and for their lies. Defending Julian Assange, or even
Wikileaks itself, is not the point. The point is that this
technology, this ability to spy on governments with some degree of
protection, is critical for any semblance of a free society to
flourish. And now that Wikileaks has done it, anyone else can
too. Even if Wikileaks is destroyed, the model has been
demonstrated and other sites will be built to perform the same
function. Already, the former deputy to Mr. Assangesays that
he plans to launch one such site, Openleaks
any day now.

Will “bad” people ever use these sites for nefarious ends? Of
course they will. Just as bad people use the state for nefarious
purposes every day. But let’s remember that there is a
distinction between actually committing an evil act and providing
information that others may use to commit one. Those whose
secrets Wikileaks has exposed are guilty of the former, while
Wikileaks’ complicity even with the latter remains purely
hypothetical. There is no evidence that anyone has been harmed
because of information released on the site.

Neither releasing information nor suppressing it is inherently good or
evil. But there are good reasons for preferring openness over
secrecy. Among them is this: Operating in secrecy helps
governments to commit crimes ranging from the misappropriation of funds
to the outright slaughter of innocent civilians. Breaching the
wall of secrecy makes it much more risky to commit such acts, creating
a disincentive to engage in them. Anything that leads to a
reduction in the kind of criminal behavior the Wikileaks documents have
unveiled is a good thing.

Assange is no anarchist. Nor is he even philosophically opposed
to war. He has said:

“We have clearly stated motives, but
they are not antiwar motives. We are not pacifists. We are transparency
activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce
just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our
whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the
public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can
work on it to produce better outcomes.”

Yet by his very actions — acting outside of the limits set by
government and possibly in violation of its rules — he is implicitly
acknowledging that working within the confines of the system is not
sufficient to keep it accountable. He is acknowledging that
governments not only cannot be trusted to police themselves, but they
cannot even be trusted to set the ground rules under which they will be
policed; that we do need competing forces outside of government in
order to impose any kind of meaningful checks and balances on it.

This is huge.

Those who argue that governments “need to keep some secrets” ignore the
fundamental problem of allowing governments to decide which secrets
they get to keep. Does anyone really believe that the US
government would have disclosed the Apache video or the fact that it
had bombed civilians in Yemen, blaming the act on the Yemeni
government, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests?
(Indeed, Reuters reporters had been trying since 2007 to obtain the
Apache video through FOIA requests). Government cannot be its own
watchdog. As long as government officials get to decide what
information gets released and what is secret, they will always conceal
its crimes and its lies.

Wikileaks is in fact busting the monopoly not only on information but
on the law as it relates to information, and on who gets to decide what
that law is. Whether Mr. Assange chooses to acknowledge it or
not, Wikileaks challenges the legitimacy of the monopoly state itself
by the act of establishing a real-world check on it — not to one
government in one country, but to all governments everywhere.
Wikileaks has shown that government monopoly on information must be
subverted if there is to be genuine transparency and any hope of
accountability. And if this is true for information, in what
other areas might it also be true?

The significance of Wikileaks is not to be measured by the value of the
information it has released, or by the legitimacy of releasing
it. Nor is it a function of the integrity, or lack thereof, of
Mr. Assange or those working with him. Whether Wikileaks is a
force for good or for evil is a function of its potential to offer up a
real challenge to government control of information and by extension to
governments’ power over the lives of ordinary people.

 

Originally published on CampaignforLiberty.org, on December 16, 2010.