Although WikiLeaks itself has not been charged with any crime, the US and other governments are talking about the organization as if they as criminals and taken actions against them without any due process. This lawless behavior by governments is now routine and the establishment media goes along with it but it is really quite extraordinary how vicious the reaction has been.
What the WikiLeaks furor has revealed is the oligarchic nature of the national security state, when with wink and a nod, governments can enlist the support of the business sector (Banks, Amazon, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal) in its war on information. (PayPal said they closed the WikiLeaks channel simply because the State Department asked it to.) We saw this before when the telecommunications companies colluded with the government to spy on people, and we should expect to see more unless they are exposed enough that people wake up and see the extent to which the national security state has taken over their lives.
John Naughton has an excellent article in The Guardian that says that governments are upset because WikiLeaks has exposed how they systematically lie to their own people.
‘Never waste a good crisis’ used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.
And as the backlash unfolds – first with deniable attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly “discovering” that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook – the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.
In going after WikiLeaks with such ferocity, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be assured that the US media will not accuse them of hypocrisy. For example, NPR’s Morning Edition had a recent item on how high levels in the Chinese government tried to hack into Google earlier this year to gain information on human-rights activists. This lengthy report was based on a single speculative cable sent by a US diplomat and released by WikiLeaks. Hillary Clinton said at that time said that Barack Obama on his visit to China had “defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.” Because of course we know how highly Obama and Clinton value the free flow of information.
People like Obama and Clinton have no shame because those noble sentiments only apply to other countries. Are NPR’s investigative reporters looking into who is behind the denial-of-service attacks on the WikiLeaks servers? You can be sure that Tom Gjelten, who reported the NPR story about Chinese government abuse, won’t investigate because he has long been a slavish admirer of the Pentagon and the US government, which is why I always think of him as the correspondent for National Pentagon Radio.
One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.
The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.
The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.
The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies — with the exception of Twitter, so far — bending to their will.
But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won’t work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.
Government lies have to be exposed if democracy is to have any meaning because otherwise they are not accountable.