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    « Inside The EU Bailouts | Main | The Kyoto Protocol: The Politics & The Economics Of Global Carbon Trade »

    The People Vs. WikiLeaks 

    The international witch-hunt going on for WikiLeaks and it's founder, Mr Julian Assange for publication of the leaked US State Department (DOS) cables, is actually turning out to be far more interesting than anything revealed by the leaked cables.

    The DOS cables for most part have yielded nothing earth shattering about the US or the rest of world. It has merely confirmed what most of the rest of us have known for a long time. We found out that China really did orchestrate hacking of Google accounts, and no one in the Arab world likes Iran and Yemen pretty much gave free reign to the US in it's fight against Al-Qaeda, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are excellent financial resources for terrorists, and the US thinks that the Italian PM Berlusconi may not be getting enough sleep due to his frequent 'late nights' and wild what's new here? Anyone who even peripherally keeps up with international politics, and news should have already known all of this. 

    Granted some of the things written in the DOS cables can be embarrassing to own up to for the US diplomats, for e.g. calling Sarkozy 'thin-skinned and authoritarian' (again nothing surprising per se, even Sarkozy knows that he is 'thin-skinned and authoritarian') and long discussions about his divorce and remarriage, refering to Medvedev as 'playing Robin to Putin's Batman' (that one is my personal favorite), long report submitted to Washington by a US diplomat stationed in Germany about the death of Bruno the wild bear (yes, for some bizarre, inexplicable reason someone in the US embassy spent time typing an 'official report' on the death of a wild bear in Germany) etc..

    But then one can argue as to why such things were written in the first place in 'official documents'. No one questions that it's the job of the US diplomats to communicate vital information to Washington, but what most cables reveal is that a lot of information is being passed along not so much with gravitas and official authority, but rather as gossip, in a very casual manner. The wording in some of the DOS cables is so conversational and casual, as if two friends are chatting with each other rather than high ranking diplomats exchanging information. 

    Washington is clearly furious about these leaks. This is a diplomatic nightmare. The US officials say that such unauthorized leaks compromise the American diplomats' ability to work in other countries in future and that they also compromise the security of the US personnel. As far as the concern about the potential difficulty in future diplomatic work, it is legitimate but perhaps a tad bit overblown. Only 6% of the leaked DOS cables were classified as 'secret', while another 40% were classified as 'confidential'. And all the rest were unclassified. So the majority of the leaked information was neither 'confidential' nor 'secret'.

    Washington is at a minimum just as much responsible for this crisis of confidence as WikiLeaks. Diplomacy, more or less, works the same way all over the world. Just as US diplomats type up reports for their bosses, so are other diplomats typing reports for their superiors about the US. This is a universally known and accepted fact in the world of diplomacy. The reason why others may think twice before they speak 'confidentially' to the US diplomats now - in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks - is because they no longer trust Washington to keep their secrets from getting leaked again to WikiLeaks or other such outlet. This is not a failure so much at the level of WikiLeaks, or at the diplomatic level in the foreign countries, as much as this is a failure at Washington.

    We can rant and rave as much as we want and blame everything on WikiLeaks, and call Assange a 'terrorist', and close down his servers, but the problem is primarily internal. Had no one leaked anything to WikiLeaks, then there would be no publishing the DOS cables. The source of the leaked documents has been traced to Siprnet, network used by the US Department of Defense, to which almost two and half million US military and civilian personnel officially have access. Talk about searching for a needle in a haystack. To hold only WikiLeaks responsible for the entire fiasco is absurd. 

    Additionally WikiLeaks isn't the only site publishing these documents. Five major international news papers - The NYT in US, The Guardian in UK, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain - were officially given the DOS cables by WikiLeaks several weeks prior to their actual publishing. They had the option to publish them or not. All five newspapers have chosen to publish these cables on their front pages and have written extensive articles about it. After they published it, all other news organizations around the world, published more or less the same information. 

    NY Congressman Pete King has called on the US Attorney General to officially label Wikileaks a 'terrorist organisation' and to prosecute Assange for espionage. So what about the NYT, which was the primary, officially designated media source by WikiLeaks in the US? Should the NYT be also called a 'terrorist organization' and should we charge the editors of NYT with espionage as well? 

    The NYT's editors have justified publishing the DOS cables as: "The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match". So what is the difference between the WikiLeaks publishing information in the public interest and the NYT doing the exact same thing? NYT is a revered national and international institution and who knows it might even win a Pulitzer Prize in future for it's coverage of the DOS cables, and yet the WikiLeaks risks being labeled a terrorist organisation for the same thing. Why is one considered 'journalism' and the other 'terrorism'? Either we extend the same freedom of speech to everyone or we don't, but then we risk looking like hypocrites when it seems we're cherry picking. 

    Now about the second potentially dreadful consequence of WikiLeaks' publication of the DOS cables, cited by Washington, i.e. endangering the lives of US personnel. Here is an excerpt of what the BBC News has to say about it: "Much of the criticism of Wikileaks, though, revolves around the notion that releasing such information risks lives. Identities of informants could be compromised, spies exposed, and the safety of human rights activists, journalists and dissidents jeopardised when information of their activities is made public, the argument goes. But is there any real evidence of this peril?

    After the release of an enormous haul of US defence department documents in August, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the Washington Post: "We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the Wikileaks documents." But, he added: "There is in all likelihood a lag between exposure of these documents and jeopardy in the field." After this latest release a Pentagon official, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the material involved, told the McClatchy newspaper group that even three months later the US military still had no evidence that people had died or been harmed because of information gleaned from Wikileaks documents.

    Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers which detailed government lies and cover-ups in the Vietnam War, is sceptical of whether the government really believes that lives are at stake. He told the BBC's World Today programme that US officials made that same argument every time there was a potentially embarrassing leak. "The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually, lives are at stake as a result of the silences and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal," he said. "The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid.""

    As far as Assange - the man at the center of this maelstrom - there is an Interpol warrant out for his arrest on charges of sexual assault (alleged to have happened earlier this summer) in Sweden. He is currently on the run and is believed to be hiding in UK. He has repeatedly denied the allegation of rape and claims that this is just a politically motivated, personal attack on him. 

    When all this mass hysteria dies down, in the end the real story here that transcends the WikiLeaks, Assange, and the DOS cables is about the future of confidentiality in government affairs in general, in this day and age of technology and tech-savvy population. For every Assange, there are many more who are lurking in the shadows, who may get access to something bigger and  even better in the future.

    The Economist sums it up the best: "If Mr Assange is murdered tomorrow, if WikiLeaks' servers are cut off for a few hours, or a few days, or forever, nothing fundamental is really changed. With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night."

    ~ Gauri

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