Russians, shortarse Frenchmen, artistic pictures of horses and people who duet with Blue: Just some of the things that the US government HATES
The publication last week of the first few batches of leaked US embassy cables has brought whistleblower website WikiLeaks – as well as the fate of its founder and editor in chief Julian Assange – dramatically to the front pages and top bills of news media around the world. As this article was being drafted, Assange, the website’s principal spokesperson and main public figure, is reported to be have been taken into custody in London, in connection with alleged sex offences in Stockholm in August this year. Unlike some others, SSY prefers to take rape allegations seriously, at least until substantial evidence suggests we should do otherwise.
To deal with this issue first, first of all let’s say something – Wikileaks is not Julian Assange, and Julian Assange is not Wikileaks. Attempting to repress and punish Wikileaks for being inconvenient and worrying to the establishment is not the same as a man being arrested because he is suspected of the very serious crime of rape. Let’s not confuse Assange with Wikileaks. Wikileaks (with Assange as its public face), as we will go on to discuss, has made a brilliant contribution to anti-imperialist activism and we absolutely applaud it for that. Do not let the fact that Wikileaks has got the right ideas about freedom of information blind us to the fact that rape is one of the most reprehensible crimes someone can commit, and that violence (sexual, physical, psychological, emotional) against women (which the overwhelming majority of the time goes unpunished) should be opposed in all its forms – and perpetrators brought to justice where it has been committed.. We offer no opinion on whether Julian Assange is guilty of the crimes that he has now been charged with. It wouldn’t be appropriate. But neither is it appropriate for socialists to promote the position that the women who have made allegations against him should be disbelieved, simply because Assange’s organisation Wikileaks do good things, or because of what the women have said on the internet in the past, or because they are women – which is what a lot of the ‘Defend Assange’ stuff out there on the interwebs is boiling down to. Just because we consider someone to be a “good man” who promotes some of the same ideals that we do does not mean that, if they HAVE abused women, they should get away with it, sticking it to the man yeah? Many men, men who consider themselves to be left wing, are using this arrest as an excuse to propagate often repeated rape myths, and this is unacceptable. Rape myths should always be challenged, no matter how suspicious you find the timing of Assange’s arrest. It’s sad to see people we respect, like Naomi Wolf join in the reactionary smear campaign against the women who reported Assange to the Swedish authorities. This is a misguided approach to anti-imperialism. You have to be anti-patriarchy too, or sorry, you’re not a socialist. For a brilliant article on the meaning of the word ‘consent’, visit Feministe. No means no, and tricking someone in to consenting to sex is rape. That goes in all cases, not just the ones where there’s no left wing icons who might be involved. Now, on to the substantial issue of the leaked cables..
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, originally adopting a wiki-style of organisation (similar to Wikipedia, where users could freely upload, edit and discuss documents. However it has since taken on a far tighter editorial policy, as it became clear the wiki format wasn’t appropriate for the organisation’s aims.
The ongoing release of US embassy cables – taken from the US military internet system SIPRNet (insert Terminator joke here) and representing a database of some quarter of a million secret communications from US embassies around the world – is just the latest in a long line of high profile stories broken by the organisation.
These include the website’s role in releasing the membership lists of the British National Party (BNP) in November 2008 and October 2009, the release of US military footage of an airstrike in Baghdad that appeared to show the gunning down of civilians and journalists, their involvement in the controversial so-called “climategate” leak of emails from the University of East Anglia and the 2009 Trafigura scandal concerning the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, and this year’s release of many thousands of secret documents concerning the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What's an assange? A smelly orange?
As Assange told an audience of journalists and students in London earlier this year, the idea behind the website was to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the internet to “find a way to not be scared to publish…anything”. Unlike the journalism of mainstream media organisations, WikiLeaks perceives of its duties being primarily to its sources – to publish what they say they will publish, not to step back or take things down; to protect those sources as much as possible – as well as to what Assange refers to as “achieving just reform”.
It is perhaps unsurprising that such a project has inspired a vitriolic reaction in the seat of power. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the most recent leaks as life-endangering, ‘illegal’ and a threat to US national security. Others have taken this much further, with former Vice-Presidential candidate (and likely future Presidential candidate) Sarah Palin describing Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands” and calling for him to be “pursued with the urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders”, while other political leaders have openly called for his assassination. As has been repeatedly pointed out by WikiLeaks’ spokespeople and supporters, no evidence of anyone’s life being endangered has been forthcoming, and the timing of the releases and the care taken in their publication makes the endangerment of individuals unlikely. Also of note is that US authorities were approached prior to publication to ensure anything they felt might have been explicitly dangerous to individuals could be redacted – the US however refused to cooperate.
The embassy cables released to date have contained so many revelatory details that stories that would otherwise have ran for days have been almost buried in an avalanche of new disclosures. So far we have discovered that the US has been spying on UN officials, that leaders of various Arab states have been calling for a US attack on Iran (as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, despite opinion polls showing the populations of those countries perceive the US and Israel as by far the greatest threats in the region), that the Labour government “put measures in place” to protect the US during the Iraq inquiry, and much more. It’s a lot to sift through, and according to Assange only 200-odd cables out of a staggering 25,000 have been released so far. You can browse the cables by which country you want to hear US diplomacy staff slag off using this handy Guardian guide.
Wank, wank, daft guy, wank
In this then sense WikiLeaks is very much a political project, both with respect to press freedom and independence, and with challenging US power. In an online Q&A session with Guardian readers, it would even seem that Assange is informed by something of an anti-capitalist perspective. In response to a question about press freedom and the west, he answered:
“The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be “free” because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade.”
However it would be misleading – as some have attempted – to try and claim WikiLeaks and Assange to any particular political current or outlook. As Assange told the audience in London earlier this year:
“[…]we can all have particular brands of politics, but I say it’s all bankrupt. And the reason it’s all bankrupt, and all current political theories are bankrupt…is because actually we don’t know what the hell is going on. And until we know the basic structures of our institutions, how they operate in practice… until you know that, how can you possibly make a diagnosis?”
In contrast to this, some on the left have argued that the leaks have told us nothing we didn’t already know. Leaving aside that reports so far have only covered a fraction of the database, this is clearly a bit of an overstatement. As with the Pentagon Papers undermining the US case for war in Vietnam, the leaking of the embassy cables has opened up aspects of US power to a level of scrutiny previously unimagined. While it mostly confirms what many of us already knew about the role of the US empire in world politics, it would be foolish to dismiss such knowledge as of no use, or to pretend that the details don’t matter. While the contents of the cables might not substantially change our understanding of global power relations and US imperialism, they will be a valuable resource for activists, journalists and historians.
Assange and Wikileaks’ lack of ideology beyond a commitment to sharing information and protecting and supporting whistleblowers is appropriate in the project of trying to create a genuinely free news media – even while it might sometimes be counterproductive for those with progressive aims (witness for example the tremendous – and unjustified – ammunition given to climate change-deniers by the release of the University of East Anglia emails last year). In cases like this, those who fund mainstream news outlets have been able to use their money and power to criticise scientific consensus, and nearly trash the reputation of some of the most valuable climate scientists in the world at present.
Tellingly, as the whistleblower’s website hints at what a genuinely free and critical news media might look like and achieve, mainstream press commentary – as well as some mind boggling leftie websites – has echoed the US government and right-wing politicians attacks as irresponsible and dangerous. The weakness of the mainstream media and its subservient relationship to political and economic power is what makes WikiLeaks so vitally important. What the US government and politicians have failed to grasp in focusing so much on Julian Assange is that WikiLeaks can and will continue without him; and if one site is shut down another can appear to take its place.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell our state secrets to Wikileaks
The man who the US government have identified as the source of the leaks, Bradley Manning, is now languishing in solitary confinement in a US army prison in Kuwait, facing 52 years in jail. A huge injustice, THIS is what you call a political arrest. Manning is a young Welsh guy, who joined the US army and found himself putting his intelligence and technological skills and to use working for US intelligence gathering agencies in Iraq. Evidently he realised the extent of the deception, unfairness and murder being committed by the American government, and the ease with which he could access so much secret information. He was already having a shit time in the army, especially badly treated by the repressive Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy which forces LGBT people to live a depressing lie or be kicked out of the army. For an example of how homophobic the rhetoric around this issue can be, check out this lovely piece by the vile Ann Coulter (choice quote: “Let’s check our “Gay Profile at a Glance” and … let’s see … desperate for acceptance … delusions of grandeur … yep, they’re both on the gay subset list!”). It’s a separate discussion, but if readers are interested in the debate around the campaign to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a short while ago there was an open letter sent to vocal campaigner Lady Gaga from a gay Iraqi fan which is worth a read.
Clearly, Manning was fucked off with working for an oppressive murder machine like the American government. A lot of people are, but Manning, it’s alleged, chose to do something about it, and he’ll go down in history for it.
Manning is suspected mainly based on this discussion with a former hacker, who reported him to the authorities. Whistleblowers put themselves at great risk to expose the awful truth about war and corrupt governments. They do an incredibly important job for democracy. All socialists and progressive people should support the growing campaign to defend Bradley Manning. Don’t fall prey to the reactionary idea that Wikileaks are “putting lives at risk” by revealing the truth about the American and other capitalist, imperialist governments. They’re saving lives. There have been 108, 094 documented civilian deaths in Iraq since the war began in 2003, and who knows how many haven’t been counted. Up to 34, 240 documented deaths in Afghanistan. We deserve the truth, and those innocent people deserved to live.
(Co-authored by Neil B)