The State Department documents that WikiLeaks is making public expose the desire of many mainstream journalists and commentators to stand up and be counted as the dutiful water-carriers for the prerogatives of United States foreign policy. Rather than focus on the substance of the diplomatic cables, American journalists tend to either frame the story as being about the “over-classification” of documents or the personal motivations and private life of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Lost in the media static are many tidbits of information such as the squandering of U.S. tax dollars to enrich Afghan officials like the former vice president, Ahmed Zia Massoud, who was ushered through customs in Dubai carrying $52 million; or the spectacle of corrupt Sunni Arab sheikdoms (including Saudi Arabia) joining forces with Israel in demanding the United States attack Iran; or Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili nearly snookering the U.S. into a shooting war with Russia; or the double-dealing with terrorist organizations by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Even when the New York Times reports on the substance of the documents its editors couldn’t resist pumping up the volume on the alleged sale of nineteen North Korean missiles to Iran, only to walk back the story a couple of days later.
Nearly forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg exposed the official lies behind the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that provided the rationale for the Vietnam War. A few years later Senator Frank Church’s committee revealed the Nixon Administration’s role in engineering the coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. In October 1986, when a cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua carrying the American mercenary, Eugene Hasenfus, and a month later a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Shiraa, printed a story about secret U.S. arms sales to Iran it led staffers of Reagan’s NSC to concoct false chronologies and destroy thousands of documents. Observing this recent history, one could reasonably conclude there might be a pattern here: Government lies are exposed causing a momentary shock on the part of the public, followed by a renewed effort from toadies in the press to facilitate a relapse of amnesia.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York wants WikiLeaks to be labeled a “terrorist organization.” Joe Klein of Time magazine says: “If a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’ stands as a human disaster. Assange is a criminal. He’s the one who should be in jail.” And not to be outdone, the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wants Assange prosecuted under the World War I-era “Espionage Act” for the crime of “sabotage,” and offers up this gem:
“I’m not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.”
Krauthammer’s reference to the KGB is fitting: The old Soviet news outlet, TASS, couldn’t have asked for more obedience to the State from its “journalists” as American commentators like Krauthammer have shown in their attacks on WikiLeaks.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, (FAIR), the journalism watchdog group, printed in its December issue of its monthly magazine Extra! a summary of an exchange that took place on October 22, 2010 between ABC News’s Diane Sawyer and Martha Raddatz when the first trove of WikiLeaks documents came out. After Raddatz summarized some of the revelations, which included “deadly U.S. helicopter assaults on insurgents trying to surrender . . . the Iraqi civilian death toll far higher than the U.S. has acknowledged . . . graphic details about torture of detainees by the Iraqi military.” Sawyer’s next question was: “I know there’s a lot of outrage about this again tonight, Martha. But tell me, anything more about prosecuting the WikiLeaks group?” FAIR also quoted the former Bush State Department official and contributor to FoxNews.com, Christian Whiton, who called for the U.S. government to label Assange an “enemy combatant” and take “non-judicial actions” against him. FAIR’s conclusion: “It’s hard to think of another country where the opposition news media complains that the government doesn’t assassinate enough journalists.”
Massimo Calabresi’s Time cover story on Assange is dedicated mostly to the familiar Beltway musings about “over-classifying” documents, and claims Assange “may have something of a martyr complex.” PBS hasn’t been much better. On the Charlie Rose Show of November 30, 2010, Rose’s lengthy conversation with Time managing editor Rick Stengel largely ignored the substance of the leaked cables in favor of psychobabble about what makes Julian Assange tick. Stengel, who recently interviewed Assange via Skype, referred to the Australian computer hacker as “dangerous,” “delusional” and “naive.”
. . . CHARLIE ROSE: Are you admiring of him?
RICK STENGEL: I think what he’s doing is extremely destructive. It’s
certainly lessening U.S. security in all kinds of ways. On the other hand,
he is a kind of revolutionary figure, and there are bound to be all kinds
of people who admire him, who see him as somebody who is trying to rectify
this inequality in the world.
And he would say — you know, he looks at things not so much in terms
of hard power but soft power to use that calculation. Soft power is
information. So he looks at the U.S. and says the U.S. is a hyper-power in
terms of the amount of information that America has from its diplomacy,
from its espionage, from its intelligence, from its human intelligence.
And he sees that as creating disequilibrium in the world. He looks at
everything in terms of that kind of information. So he would say that he’s
trying to equalize it.
CHARLIE ROSE: He essentially says “I’m on the side of”?
RICK STENGEL: He would say he’s on the side of the common man who is
cut off from any kind of authority over his own destiny. So he’s somewhere
CHARLIE ROSE: So he’s giving people a power to have leverage against
the system, the establishment?
RICK STENGEL: Yes, the system, the establishment. I mean, he — he
is against centralized power. He’s an anarchist in that sense.
CHARLIE ROSE: So he’s an anarchist or just in that sense?
RICK STENGEL: You know, the definitions all kind of blur. I think he
– I don’t know what he would say in terms of what his ideology is. I
think he’s an anarchist in the sense that he wants to bring down
institutions, bring down centralized power, bring down governments. I
don’t know –
CHARLIE ROSE: Bring down governments? He wants to bring down the
RICK STENGEL: You know, Charlie, I’m not going to say that. You
know, that would be for the attorney general to decide. But –
CHARLIE ROSE: But did he say it? Did he say that “my goal is to
bring down the U.S. government?”
RICK STENGEL: No. I mean, one of the things I asked him, for
example, I said we talk a lot about American exceptionalism these days for
all kinds of reasons, and you seem to be an American exceptionalist in the
sense that you feel that the U.S. is exceptional for being the source of
all evil and damage in the world. Do you accept that?
And he said — he said, no, I don’t. He said the U.S. for centuries
was actually a source of good in the world. He talked about the
constitution. He talked about it coming out of the French Revolution. He
talked about federalism and the United States as being a great model for
governments around the world.
But he sees the U.S. since 1945 as being a source of harm throughout
CHARLIE ROSE: Because of — not imperialism?
RICK STENGEL: He would say imperialism. He would say cultural
imperialism, information imperialism, and diplomatic global political
CHARLIE ROSE: How did he become who he is?
RICK STENGEL: He was born in Australia.
CHARLIE ROSE: He moved 30 plus times.
RICK STENGEL: His mother was a kind of anarchist.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yes, exactly.
RICK STENGEL: And she taught him to distrust authority and
centralized power. She succeeded admirably. He would — he believes that
centralized power disenfranchises people and that insofar as he can
undermine that power, he’s helping people.
CHARLIE ROSE: And he believes America’s evil?
RICK STENGEL: He believes, I think — I think he is an American
exceptionalist in the sense that he believes that the U.S. more than any
other country is a force for this disequilibrium in the world.
I asked him –
CHARLIE ROSE: Disequilibrium has to do with power.
RICK STENGEL: With power, but power for nefarious purposes, he would
say. I mean look at what he’s talked about in terms of what he’s trying to
expose. He said he’s trying to expose American hypocrisy, American lies,
American deception. That’s what he would say the leaks are about. . . .
The above tête-à-tête reveals establishment thinking at its most unconscious and internalized.
One of the only journalists with a relatively large following who has handled the WikiLeaks revelations in a way that is consistent with the tenets of professional journalism has been Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. She has delved into the substance of the documents free of the psychobabble and voyeuristic obsession with Assange. The rest of the herd, with some exceptions, have been either wasting precious airtime or column inches trashing Assange or discussing how best the government can shield itself from future whistle-blowers.
The fact is Julian Assange possesses no security clearance and doesn’t work for the United States government. He could not have “leaked” anything even if he wanted to. The documents in question are not private. They are official correspondence by federal employees and therefore are public property (and will be treated as such when they become a normal part of the national archives). Missed in the blather about WikiLeaks is that whoever inside the government might have leaked the documents probably did so out of a sense of civic engagement or even duty. Besides, if the motives of U.S. foreign policy are as pure as our leaders claim they are, then what’s the big deal if these documents see the light of day?
Ah, you say, diplomacy doesn’t work that way. Secrecy is necessary to protect the lives of Americans and their allies working abroad in often-dangerous situations. We’ve heard that before. “Lying does not come easy to me,” Oliver North told the Iran-Contra committee. “But we all have to weigh in the balance the difference between lives and lies.” North, who played a key role in setting up a privatized CIA run out of the NSC, claimed he had no choice but to lie to Congress to prevent the Soviet Union from knowing about their secret operations. But when the committee’s attorney confronted North with evidence from his own memos indicating that the Soviets already knew about the secret arms sales to Iran, it was clear that North was trying to hide his illegal activities, not from the Soviets, but from the Congress and the American people.
This penchant for secrecy that produces the “over-classification” problem reveals a kind of tacit recognition on the part of official Washington that U.S. citizens would object if they knew what was really going on. That understanding among elites is a kind of backhanded compliment to the decency of the American people. In 2002 and 2003, our government lied us into a debilitating war and occupation in Iraq that has cost us dearly in blood and treasure, as well as damaged our international standing. The American people have every right to be skeptical about what their government tells them. Julian Assange and his organization seem to be committed to the simple idea that citizens living in a democracy have a right to know what their government is doing in their name.