There is little doubt that the phenomenon of WikiLeaks has lost the excitement and positive glow it once sparked among journalists, pundits and activists. Infighting in the organisation, the lack of anything terribly surprising in most of the more recent releases of information and the loss of novelty partly explain this change. But the recent “accidental” release of the entire unredacted database of US diplomatic cables not only led to widespread condemnation, but helped put the final nails in the coffin of WikiLeaks as the global “cause celebre” it once was among many, including in Australia.
Now Nick Cohen of the Guardian has written a piece suggesting the possibility that the unredacted cable leak could well have been an intentional act by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, because Assange always opposed the idea of redacting the names of those mentioned in the cables. Cohen notes that:
As soon as WikiLeaks received the State Department cables, Assange announced that the opponents of dictatorial regimes and movements were fair game. That the targets of the Taliban, for instance, were fighting a clerical-fascist force, which threatened every good liberal value, did not concern him. They had spoken to US diplomats. They had collaborated with the great Satan. Their safety was not his concern.
David Leigh and Luke Harding’s history of WikiLeaks describes how journalists took Assange to Moro’s, a classy Spanish restaurant in central London. A reporter worried that Assange would risk killing Afghans who had co-operated with American forces if he put US secrets online without taking the basic precaution of removing their names. “Well, they’re informants,” Assange replied. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” A silence fell on the table as the reporters realised that the man the gullible hailed as the pioneer of a new age of transparency was willing to hand death lists to psychopaths. They persuaded Assange to remove names before publishing the State Department Afghanistan cables. But Assange’s disillusioned associates suggest that the failure to expose “informants” niggled in his mind.
Cohen’s view that Assange was determined to get all cables out and did not care much about redacting names to protect the lives of many of those mentioned appears to supported by the recollections of former WikiLeaks employee James Ball. Ball wrote of a planning meeting early in his tenure at WikiLeaks:
Around the dining table the team sketched out a plan for the coming months, to release the leaked US diplomatic cables selectively for maximum impact. Phase one would involve publishing selected – and carefully redacted – high-profile cables through the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. Phase two would spread this out to more media organisations.
But clearly a large volume of cables would remain, of little interest to any media organisation. Several at the meeting – myself included – stressed these documents, which would probably number hundreds of thousands, could not be published without similar careful redaction. Others vehemently disagreed.
Johannes Wahlström, Swedish journalist and son of antisemitic WikiLeaks activist Israel Shamir, shouted: “You do realise the idea of not putting ALL of these cables up is totally unacceptable to people around this table, don’t you?”
Julian took Wahlström’s their side. One way or another, he said, all the cables must eventually be made public.
Both Ball and Cohen also discuss WikiLeaks’ involvement with veteran antisemitic agitator and Holocaust-denier Israel Shamir, and his apparent use of the cables to support the dictatorial regime of Belarus (more background on Shamir and his role is here and here.)
But Cohen goes on to note what should have been apparent to the all too many who hailed Wikileaks as the harbinger of a great new age of free information.
We need also to question the motives of the wider transparency movement. Anti-Americanism is one of its driving inspirations and helps explain its perfidies. If you believe that the American “military-industrial complex”, Europe or Israel is the sole or main source of oppression, it is too easy to dismiss the victims of regimes whose excesses cannot be blamed on the west. Assange’s former colleagues tell me that the infantile leftism of the 2000s is not the end of it. Never forget, they say, that Assange came from a backwater Queensland city named Townsville. He’s a small-town boy desperate to make the world notice.
The grass or squealer usually blabs because he wants to settle scores or ingratiate himself with the authorities. Assange represents a new breed, which technology has enabled: the nark as show-off.
He argues, correctly, that in the wake of the latest unredacted release, clearly placing activists opposing dictators in various countries in genuine physical danger, there needs to be some effort to hold the unquestioning supporters of WikiLeaks to account, morally, for what WikiLeaks is doing:
there needs to be relentless pressure on the socialist socialites and haggard soixante-huitards who cheered Assange on. Bianca Jagger, Jemima Khan, John Pilger, Ken Loach and their like are fond of the egotistical slogan “not in my name.” They are well-heeled and well-padded men and women who know no fear in their lives. Yet they are happy to let their names be used by Assange as he brings fear into the lives of others.
Cohen’s opinion piece is the best overall evaluation I have seen of the Wikileaks phenomenon, and I recommend it strongly.