By Danny Colligan
Before I comment on the value of the State Department cables that WikiLeaks has released and is releasing, it is necessary to establish some often misreported facts. WikiLeaks has 251,287 cables in its possession, but at the time of writing only 1,344 have been released. Most of the printed cables were also printed in a partner newspaper such as the Guardian or Le Monde, and WikiLeaks applied the redactions on its web site that the newspapers suggested (so as to protect the identity of those that may otherwise have been harmed from the cables’ disclosure). WikiLeaks also provides editorial content on its site to accompany the leaked documents. So virtually any criticism leveled against WikiLeaks also could be directed with equal validity at, say, the New York Times.
With this context in mind, it is safe to say that journalism will never be the same. With its international scope, Internet presence, and distributed structure, WikiLeaks provides a mechanism for leaking documents that is almost impossible to shut down. Furthermore, the leaks can be on a scale hitherto unimaginable; the previously leaked Iraq and Afghanistan war logs are cases in point. WikiLeaks frees whistleblowers from their dependence on national print media, which often suppresses their revelations when they cast the mother country in a bad light. To take two prominent examples, the New York Times initially refused to report the National Security Agency’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program and also the bombing of the Plain of Jars in Laos (amongst innumerable other instances).
Contrary to the arrogant dismissals of “we already knew that” and “nothing new here” dominating the mainstream media, the State Department cables contain a treasure trove of previously unknown information for the public. To provide only the briefest survey:
– Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton authorized an illegal data collection program on UN officials and other people of national importance at the behest of the CIA. The campaign targeted information such as credit card numbers, frequent flyer accounts, and biometric information (one wonders how diplomats planned to swab Ban Ki-Moon).
– US and Yemeni leaders lied to their respective populations about the US bombing targets within Yemen.
– The US has been interfering in Spain’s judicial process, attempting to get the Spanish government to drop a case of a cameraman killed in a US attack on journalists in Baghdad in 2003, and also investigations into US-directed torture and rendition programs.
– The US is flying spy missions to Lebanon from a United Kingdom base in Cyprus, over the UK’s objections that they didn’t want to be an unwitting accomplice to torture and rendition.
If there truly is no original information contained within the State Department cables, one questions why the outrage over their exposure is at such a fever pitch amongst political and media figures. Or why the former Croatian Prime Minister fled his country after details of his corruption emerged on WikiLeaks.
The master narrative that emerges out of the various cables is, to quote Noam Chomsky, a “profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership.” They reveal a diplomatic service that caters to the needs of business and political elites over the preferences of the general population. One can find in the cables tales of the State Department lobbying Russia on behalf of Visa and MasterCard (by pure coincidence, the same companies now cutting off payments to WikiLeaks), but one will search in vain for any concern for implementing the wishes of US public opinion. Similar contempt was expressed by various Arab dictators with regard to their own citizens. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” and attack Iran. The Arab populace, however, according to a recent Brookings Institution poll, view Israel and the US as the greatest threats to their safety (88 and 77 percent of respondents, respectively), whereas a mere 10 percent of Arabs think Iran poses the greatest threat.
This is the true source of world elites’ fury over the WikiLeaks disclosures: the myth that the leaders of countries are advocating for their respective peoples has been shattered. People all over the world are starting to form new opinions about politics and diplomacy, armed with the knowledge that their leaders do not consider it a duty to advance their interests. Such epiphanies are dangerous to those in power that desire to keep the population ignorant and marginalized while they pursue their own agenda.
The chance that the world’s populations could put these ideas into practice is frightening to the status quo. As the Financial Times put it, “WikiLeaks could be transformed from a handful of volunteers to a global movement of politicised geeks clamouring for revenge. Today’s WikiLeaks talks the language of transparency, but it could quickly develop a new code of explicit anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism and anti-globalisation. […] An aggressive attempt to go after WikiLeaks – by blocking its web access, for instance, or by harassing its members – could install Mr. Assange (or whoever succeeds him) at the helm of a powerful new global movement able to paralyse the work of governments and corporations around the world.”
WikiLeaks shows no signs of letting up despite resistance from official channels. Spokesman Julian Assange stated in an interview with Forbes magazine that a future disclosure has the potential to bring down a major US financial institution. “It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume,” Assange said. “For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails.” WikiLeaks also is rumored to have in its possession the personal files on every prisoner held in the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Other websites similar to WikiLeaks are planned for launch. Former WikiLeaks collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg is starting OpenLeaks, another venue for whistleblowers with a slightly different philosophy than WikiLeaks. Regardless of the fate of any individual website, it appears that Internet outlets that enhance transparency and reveal leaders’ malice and ineptitude are here to stay. This is a development that should be celebrated by anyone who cherishes democracy.