WikiLeaks continues to come under assault from many corners. This week Amazon.com took down the website’s main server, and refused to say why it did so, other than to deny that its motivation was ”œpolitical pressure.” A few days later, PayPal said it would no longer accept payments to or from WikiLeaks. Whatever companies say about lack of political pressure, it is hard not to see the heavy hand of the federal government behind these decisions. Amazon had plenty of time in the past to shut down WikiLeaks, but is doing so only now after Barack Obama’s administration is under intense pressure to ”œdo something” about this apparent threat to US security.
We know it’s a threat to US security because almost every responsible government official and journalist is saying so. Glenn Greenwald has provided an excellent run-down of how the most respected journalists in America are going public with their disgust at the ”œshoddy and unethical behavior” of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Wolf Blitzer, as an example, has a running commentary on his program on how appalling all these leaks are, and demanding that the government ”œdo something” about this. In none of these programs does he include anyone who supports what WikiLeaks is doing, and he is a relatively sane moderate on the subject in comparison to others like Sarah Palin. She has joined with dozens of ideologues and authoritarians on the right who use words like treason, sedition, and traitorous to describe what Assange is doing, and not a few of these people are calling for Assange to be assassinated without trial.
The thing that amazes Glenn Greenwald is how so many ”œresponsible” journalists and newspapers, like The New York Times, are taking the WikiLeaks document dumps first to the federal government, to find out what the government wants to keep secret. This is a perfect example, says Greenwald, of the permanent deference and obsequiousness displayed by modern journalists, whose predecessors even as recently as 20 years ago would be appalled at how the ”œfourth estate” in the US has abandoned its role as watchdog and critic of the government. Greenwald postulates that American journalists are furious at Julian Assange because they understand deep down he is doing the work they should be doing.
The Case Against Julian Assange
Not so fast, says Huff Post columnist Larry Womack. He thinks the blogging community and internet commentariat have been childishly irresponsible in their rush to defend WikiLeaks, and cites case after case where Assange has taken raw data and dumped it on to his website without the slightest concern for the serious consequences. When Assange got a list of Afghanis who collaborated with NATO forces, he published it completely, despite protests from liberal groups like Amnesty International that these individuals would now be exposed to assassination by the Taliban. Assange routinely puts up people’s home and email addresses and cell phone numbers, when it would be easy for him, according to Womack, to do the responsible journalistic work of editing these out first and publishing the gist of the material of interest to the public. It is this constant disregard for people’s safety, and the weak claim by Assange that ”œhe is not a journalist”, that Womack finds reckless if not criminal, just as he finds the internet tendency to support Assange without question as irresponsible and jejeune.
Womack’s piece is a thoughtful presentation of the establishment criticism of Assange and WikiLeaks, and his supporters. In his article Womack cites a famous Donald Rumsfeld aphorism, ”œthe absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, which he uses to defend the Defense Department’s refusal to name names of those Afghanis killed by the Taliban. This argument is as weak as the aphorism itself, which is an example of the uncritical thinking that can occur in large organizations like the Department of Defense. The absence of evidence is often accepted as evidence of absence; this is a fundamental premise of scientific experiment and reasoning, as well as the application of statistical analysis. As an example of a common perception, no one today or historically has seen the Sun rise in the west, and because we have no evidence of this, we assert that the Sun always rises in the east. Indeed, this fact is one of the main reasons why humans have a concept of ”œEast”. If a government wishes to believe that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it should be continuing its search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, because the belief in Iraqi WMDs is precisely the sort of danger than can occur when sloppy thinking is unchallenged in government circles.
There is another Rumsfeld statement that is more perceptive, and to paraphrase, it says there are things we know, things we don’t know, things we know we know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. Responsible government officials must spend a lot of time thinking about this problem, because it is possibly the principal challenge facing government in how it goes about its work. How does someone like Barack Obama know what is true or factual? How does he know that the people who give him intelligence briefings have real facts and data, versus suppositions and biased opinions? Given the many filters through which information must go through before reaching the Oval Office, a president is necessarily fighting an information bubble that constantly surrounds him. It must seem easy to give in to the bubble, especially if it conforms to one’s prejudices, opinions, or political positions. Worse still, the bubble becomes an amplifying chamber for people like Dick Cheney, who poison the well by planting an unverified claim first in the bureaucracy so it can bubble up as a confirmed fact later. The whole problem of the fourth situation, things we don’t know we don’t know, is that government, corporations, and other organizations poison the well of information by planting lies and falsified documents through misinformation campaigns.
Given the many forces working against providing a president or any government official with accurate and timely information, it can be logically argued that a WikiLeaks data dump of State Department cables may be in the president’s own interest, as the best and maybe only way he can read facts. He would see, for example, that a source told the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Beijing that the cyber attacks on Google were ordered by the fifth highest ranking member of China’s politburo, the minister of propaganda, because he found Google had articles on its site critical of this minister. Of course, the problem here is that however plausible this sounds, the accusation is unconfirmed by any other evidence, and the president would have to know to be cautious about assuming its veracity. The other problem is that the president hasn’t the time to read thousands of State Department cables every week, just as no one in the Oval Office probably had time to read the details of how the Department of the Interior was willing to blindly accept the claims of British Petroleum that its offshore oil drilling rigs were safe.
Manipulation of Information Leads to Loss of Faith in the Government
We are back to the problem of what it is the president knows he knows, etc., etc. This is, by the way, the same problem you have as a citizen in a democracy, and it is both the control of this information, and the pollution of the information pool through disinformation campaigns, that has eroded public confidence in government. The only thing many people have come to believe about their government is that they are only hearing a small part of the story about what their government is up to, and the part they are hearing may well be false because the government is lying, or has been lied to and is accepting this lie as a fact.
When citizens lose faith in what their government is telling them, they lose faith in the government itself, because information is the stock and trade of government. It has no other product, with the exception of currency notes and coins, and arguably information is much more important than specie. A government employee’s title and pay grade are nowhere near as important to status as the security clearance given to that employee. It is the control of and access to information that is the hallmark of government power, to the point where it is unthinking behavior of government bureaucrats to stamp whatever crosses their desk as confidential.
It is not a surprise then, that a State Department employee would tell a dean at Columbia University that students should not discuss WikiLeaks, or post a link to WikiLeaks, on social sites such as Twitter or Facebook, because to do so would jeopardize their chance at government employment. The dean sent the admonition out to graduate students in international diplomacy, since they would likely be applying for jobs with the government. This story, by the way, got twisted around by the newspapers themselves, since headlines said the State Department was advising students not to discuss WikiLeaks on social sites. The State Department has denied that this is its policy, but the warning is nevertheless apposite: background checks are done on federal employees at levels requiring security clearance, and if you are found unworthy of keeping a secret, you won’t get hired. Apparently having an opinion about WikiLeaks is enough to tarnish your reputation as a reliably secret federal employee.
The instinct of the government employee here is twisted in an important way. Security clearance is no longer just about who can see what information. The emphasis has shifted now to whether a federal employee can keep secret what it is they are allowed to see. If this is what the bureaucracy is focused on, and if this is the principal qualifying feature of any federal government hires, then do not expect that the government is going to improve its ability to interpret information, and determine what is factual, because there is less emphasis on this. We should also expect that the emphasis on keeping information secret, which certainly seems to pervade the federal government, will continue from one administration to the next regardless of party, but will also be selectively applied. Barack Obama lost no time in strengthening the secrecy practices of the Bush administration, and to this day no one in the federal government has gone after Dick Cheney for his role in outing secret agent Valerie Plame, which was a federal offense. If you are high enough in the security clearance chain, the rules and laws of secrecy can be ignored and information can be used for political purposes.
Perhaps no US federal agency is as secretive with non-military or intelligence data as the Federal Reserve. With great reluctance, and only after resisting disclosure by filing appeals up to the Supreme Court, the Fed this week revealed details about its actions under six programs designed to ameliorate the financial crisis of 2008. With such programs as the Term Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, and the Commercial Paper Funding Facility, the Fed lent over $3 trillion to a host of domestic and foreign banks, US insurance companies, corporations like General Electric, mutual funds like PIMCO, and even private individuals (mostly billionaires). The Fed resisted providing this information because it would jeopardize ”œnational security”, since the data constituted ”œstate secrets”. While the data have certainly restoked the anger at banks, and raised more questions, such as why the Fed valued collateral as low as 15 cents/dollar when banks have taken it back on their balance sheets at 100 cents/dollar, for the most part this data dump has now disappeared from the public mind. It seems the government and the banks have survived the publishing of these deep, dark state secrets. This is an abject lesson in the government’s resistance at revealing important information, and the tendency to provide spurious national security reasons for its secretive behavior.
Nor is government the only entity with a covetous approach to information. Corporations and prominent organizations have joined in the crusade to control and exploit information. Corporations in particular have a tendency to enforce employee secrecy while abusing customer secrets. Cookies exist on the internet in order for corporations to track your internet usage, your preferences for information, your buying habits, your friends’ email addresses, your taste in porn, the movies you download, the politicians you support, your religious beliefs, your medical problems, your financial condition, your investment decisions, and so on. Yet if you work for these companies, woe betide you if you leak out company information to the public. This is designed to protect company secrets, some of which may be germane to the company’s success such as patent information, but much of it merely part of the organization’s passion for protecting any of its proprietary information in an age when cyberattacks and hacking are common. Proprietary information also includes any non-public information about corporate executives, who are as touchy about personal criticism as any propaganda minister in China. Anyone who works in Oprah Winfrey’s company, for example, must sign a confidentiality agreement as a condition of employment, binding them to complete silence about the star and sole proprietor of the company.
A Helpless Public
It takes organizations with large resources to be able to control and manipulate information; the individual is at the mercy of these organizations when it comes to what information is disseminated and how it is interpreted. It may be this helplessness that motivates someone like Julian Assange or the people who at great risk feed him files of information from their place of employment. It may be that Assange understands intuitively how heavily the deck is stacked against the citizen by corporations, organizations, and the governments that are increasingly financed and controlled by wealthy individuals. His statement that he is not a journalist may be more than merely a subterfuge to avoid the ethical standards that apply to journalists. He may be saying that these ethical standards are meaningless in an age when the information flow is so controlled that journalists are no longer able to perform the socially useful function of checking, verifying, and challenging the government or corporations, or any other organization that hides behind ”œno comment”.
After all, neither Wolf Blitzer nor Larry Womack have answered the serious question posed by the WikiLeaks data dumps: which of them would jeopardize their position as ”œserious journalists” by doing what Assange has done? Scrubbing the data to protect individuals is one thing, but accepting the data from an inside source is altogether another level of risk for their careers and possibly their liberty. The fact is that any journalist dealing with government or other information sources is held to nearly the same high standards of secrecy and confidentiality as apply to employees of these organizations. The blanket of security clearance has been thrown wider to cloak the fourth estate, which makes it harder for you to get information of meaning, and which makes it much easier for the ”œstate”, encompassing increasingly corporations, to control and manipulate you.
Yes, Julian Assange should apply higher standards when releasing individual names and personal data, but assuming WikiLeaks survives (which is increasingly in doubt), you and I as citizens of a democracy should look at it as one of the few sources available for information about what governments, corporations, and other organizations are doing to us, and in our name.