Secrets and Lies
Those who have met Julian Assange, the self-exiled Australian editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website, describe him as singularly obsessed by the digital world he inhabits: his supporters portray a clever activist whose cause is altruism and political reform; detractors suggest more sinister motives, claiming a fractured childhood created a deeply flawed, thin-skinned individual fuelled by anger. The fact that at the time of writing Assange was under arrest in connection with alleged rape and sex assault charges in Sweden while at the same time being considered as Time’s Person of the Year, is merely testament to the gulf of opinion he engenders in others.
“He is an egocentric, but not an egomaniac,” a senior British journalist who spent 12 hours interviewing Assange before Christmas told me. “He’s not a good public speaker, but he has a very broad lexicon and loves the sound of his own voice.
“Even insiders at WikiLeaks dislike him but they know he is too clever to oust. He’s a canny, committed activist who genuinely believes that exposing government secrets is a path to achieving greater social justice in the world. But it is all about him: essentially he’s a paradox.
“In that, at least, Assange reflects the organisation of which he is at the heart. By any standard, WikiLeaks, whose small but mischievous army of webmasters has tried to hold the world to ransom with a steady drip feed of US diplomatic cables, has never been short on contradiction. The central arguments in favour of these whistleblowers revolve around public interest and a need for transparency in government (and business); by contrast, governments argue the necessity to maintain certain secrets for reasons of national security and to prevent lives from being endangered – again, of course, in the public interest.
Perhaps the best example of the former was a WikiLeaks posting in April 2010 of a truly shocking video taken from inside a US military helicopter as its operators gunned down innocent Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. While some could argue that the incident epitomises the fog of war, the language inside the cockpit alone is enough to ask very serious questions about US command structures and the insensitivity of those wielding weapons on behalf of their country. The public interest here seems abundantly clear.
Not so, perhaps, the trickled release of 250,000 State Department cables that provided the bulk of coverage in The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. The newspapers, whose investigative records and journalistic cadre are beyond reproach, have made a very public defence of the need to publish this series of bon mots from America’s diplomats. The editors stated that intelligent and careful redaction of the documents by senior journalists prevented exactly the dangers of which the governments in question are so fearful. Daniel Ellsberg, the former US military analyst who famously released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is among a number who rejected criticism that the site is endangering the lives of military personnel and intelligence assets. “Not one single soldier or informant has been in danger from any of the WikiLeaks releases,” he said. “[This is] a script that they roll out every time there is a leak of any sort.
“Certainly, at the time of writing, this appears to be the case. In fact what has been most striking about the release has been that instead of a catalogue of high-level secrets so far WikiLeaks has provided little of earth-shattering significance – albeit confirmation of what most aficianados of foreign relations will have known already. That Gulf Arab Sunni leaders have encouraged the US to wage war on Shiite Iran, for example, comes as little surprise – even if the vehemence of the princely dialogue might be seen as such. And neither do more premature Israeli predictions about when Iran will have a nuclear weapon, Pakistani nuclear procrastination, continued Saudi funding of Al-Qaeda, or news of the Chinese politburo hacking into Google.
At their most light-hearted and entertaining, the cables have revealed the foibles of Prince Andrew and the peccadilloes of Silvio Berlusconi, exasperation with Gordon Brown, Colonel Gaddafi’s love of flamenco, that Nicolas Sarkozy rerouted his presidential plane to avoid seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up in Turkey’s national colours, and that Robert Mugabe believed that his 18 doctorates gave him the authority to suspend the laws of supply and demand. There is nothing other than high-grade gossip in any of the above examples, but a level of detail that all journalists will appreciate. Some, such as Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune, have correctly suggested that the real heroes of the WikiLeaks cables are none other than the US diplomats themselves who are ‘thoughtful, well-informed servants of the American interest who write clear, declarative English sentences’.
So what is all the fuss about? Apart from some red-faces in Washington, is there really anything of significance to the efforts of Assange and his henchmen ‘to achieve a big amount of political reform with a small bit of energy’? In the post-Watergate, post Pentagon Papers world, there was never going to be any question of whether mainstream media outlets would publish the purloined documents from the State Department. Responsible news organisations can and do choose to redact, delay or very rarely permanently withhold information in exceptional circumstances, usually those regarding potential loss of life. The embarrassment and inconvenience to a few US diplomats, however, goes very little way towards meeting such a standard.
The fact that Assange thus far has co-operated with his chosen publications is important. The lack of deadline pressure has allowed senior teams to present an otherwise unmanageable mountain of material in a considered manner. And although the outcome of their efforts has been widely viewed as trivial, serious threats to individuals have been avoided. Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, said his paper had ‘edited out’ any information that could identify confidential sources, including informants, dissidents, academics and human rights activists, or otherwise might compromise national security. While this continues to be the case, some senior journalists say that Keller and Assange have had ‘a serious falling out’. The WikiLeaks founder in fact feels he has been ‘let down’ by certain publications: it is here that potential problems lie.
Unlike previous whistleblowers like Ellsberg who dealt with a fraction of the documents, the digitisation of information has now empowered ‘citizen journalists’ like those at WikiLeaks to such an extent that they are trying to determine the agenda not merely of government but of the mainstream media also. If the Guardian, Le Monde or El Pais had declined to co-operate with WikiLeaks, there is no doubt that the material would still have been published in Britain, France and Spain. So the question then remains how long WikiLeaks and others who inhabit the ever expanding blogosphere can remain responsible. Senior journalists with longstanding careers are experienced at self-editing and ensuring they do not jeopardise national security. From their perspective, of course, the ultimate irony of the WikiLeaks releases will be that diplomatic contacts will themselves now start to self censor and go quiet, particularly in the most unstable parts of the world where a journalistic window on events, however small, can make a difference.
Less mature, and little trained ‘citizen’ journalists such as Assange do not view their work through the same prism as their mainstream colleagues. Their goal is not to carefully nurture contacts to create the necessary trust on both sides that allows for important reporting, but instead to discover secrets by any means, and at any volume. The fact is that technology has now made it possible to upload hundreds of thousands of documents onto a USB stick no larger than a thumb. “The [WikiLeaks] trove of information is so enormous,” says Professor Eric Alterman of the City University in New York. “The target is not any US policy or even the US government. It is secrecy itself.
“It is in that context, and in the wrong hands, that WikiLeaks represents a real threat – and the fact that many who practice this new form of web-leak are driven by an anarchic streak that has very little to do with the public interest. What if an increasingly marginalised Assange decides to break away from the current system of supplying his information to the well established media? What if he and his acolytes decide to hole up in Iceland, the unofficial home of WikiLeaks, and establish a separate web platform to transmit their latest material?
And then, what if uncensored documents reveal that US diplomats had recorded a particular tirade against the leadership in Beijing, something that could severely dent trade relations – or perhaps intimated that it was time to bomb Pyongyang? The cables have shown US diplomats to be more forthright than their European counterparts; there is every possibility that something more serious could emerge. Then the comments by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, that the disclosure is not merely an attack on American foreign policy but ‘on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conventions and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity’ may seem something of an understatement.
For the time being, however, there are a few hopeful signs that this will not be the case. Even among those who might be thought close to WikiLeaks, there are some who clearly do not approve. A computer hacker known as the Jester claimed that he temporarily disabled the WikiLeaks site in early December before the release of a particular tranche of documents. He later tweeted: “www.wikileaks.org ‘Tango Down (the Special Forces term for having eliminated a terrorist) – for attempting to endanger the lives of our troops, ‘other assets’ & foreign relations’. In fact, this self-styled ‘hacktivist for good’ said he viewed WikiLeaks as a sideshow as his real interest was to disable jihadist websites that recruit young people.
In addition, it seems that the internal system from which WikiLeaks was able to obtain its documents may not have been as permeable as originally thought. We are told that US diplomats were required to insert a tick if they wished to share information with colleagues. In the event, America’s diplomats proved either too Luddite to notice this simple distraction, or naturally more secretive than we have all assumed. Had they all ticked the relevant box, the ‘document dump’ would have run into the millions and WikiLeaks would have been in business for a digital eternity. As it is, the one certainty is that American officials by now have changed every system in Foggy Bottom to better ensure its security.
There is also the wider point of relevance, and the extent to which the apparently most damaging disclosures have had any effect on decision-making. The idea that Russia is now a de facto ‘mafia state’ run by Vladimir Putin’s state security machine clearly did little to alter the minds of FIFA officials when just days later awarding their choice of venue for the World Cup in 2018. Robert Gates, the current US Defense Secretary and a former CIA director has been equally dismissive of the ‘game-changing’ nature of WikiLeaks. “Many governments – some governments – deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still, as has been said before, the indispensable nation,” he said. “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.“
Where Gates is wrong is that the threat to governments from WikiLeaks cannot be perceived as singular or momentary. The organisation headed by Assange represents merely one part of a multi-headed hydra more in keeping with the jihadist movements Gates has spent the latter part of his career trying to counter. Should Assange disappear, others are waiting in the wings to fill his place, because the very existence of the Internet has created a mechanism where massive amounts of secret information can be pried loose and easily distributed. That barricade has been toppled forever.
But where Gates may be proved right is in the ephemeral nature of today’s journalism. Barring some notable exceptions, few established newspapers remain engaged on a particular subject for too long. “Newspapers are more into the flavour of the month approach than ever before – and I don’t think WikiLeaks is probably any different, although no-one can be certain,” one senior British journalist told me. “There is not much long-game journalism out there anymore.”
The US Administration and other governments must therefore hope that the cyber guerrilla movement, based in its frozen Iceland home, will eventually peter out as did that country’s unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which brought global air travel to a standstill. They are also deeply aware, though, that the tectonic plates have now shifted forever – and a new and potentially more dangerous volcano may erupt at any time.
Tom Rhodes is Chief Operating Officer of Montrose Associates and a former Washington Correspondent for The Times