Wikileaks: a Litmus Test for Western Democracy?

“[Wikileaks] … could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.” — Time Magazine

Western democracies, especially the United States government, that fervently advocate for transparency and freedom of speech are currently under fire because of Wikileaks, a supposedly whistleblower website that promotes total transparency, defiantly releasing classified documents under the pretext of freedom of information. The website has already exposed the dark secrets of US diplomacy, the ugliness of the Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other dirty secrets of world leaders.

Nevertheless, not all governments are as “humiliated” as the US government by the Wikileaks scandal. No doubt, authoritarian governments may have found an excellent justification for their anti-transparency and anti-free speech stances; they must also be carefully watching as the battle between the US government and Wikileaks unfolds. The Israeli government, too, has publicly expressed its delight regarding the Wikileaks fiasco. An Israeli writer has gone as far as saying, “if the Wikileaks site did not exist, Israel would have to invent it.” [1] Perhaps, partially this is intended to divert media attention, therefore, to minimize the Wikileaks damage on Israel.

The US government has “angrily attacked” the actions of Wikileaks as “criminal, reckless and dangerous.” [2] Shortly after the classified documents were released, press secretary Robert Gibbs told the media, “President Barack Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.” [3] Other government officials and right-wingers have also characterized the leakage as an act of taking free speech too far, a terrorist plot, and a threat to national security.

Founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, defended his website arguing:

“Wikileaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States. … I understand that the United States government would prefer not to have the information that will be published in the public domain and is not in favor of openness. [The government] has chosen to respond in a manner, which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behavior. We will proceed to release the material subject to our checks and the checks of our media partners.” [4] That was Assange’s response to State Department’s accusation that Wikileaks has “endangered the lives of countless individuals, and placed at risk on-going military operations and cooperation between countries.” [5]

Attempts to Criminalize and Silence Wikileaks

Following the release of the classified materials, there have been multiple denial-of-service (DOS) attacks on Wikileaks by unknown hackers, attempting to bring it down, especially few days before and after the 250,000 US embassy cables were leaked. [6] After the embassy cables became public, Eric Holder, Attorney General of the US government, briefed the media that “the Justice Department has begun active, ongoing criminal investigation.” [7] Adding more pressure on Wikileaks, now Assange is a global fugitive wanted by Interpol—a worldwide police organization—for an alleged rape and sexual harassment case in Sweden, which he refutes and believes is a hoax to silence him. [8] A Yahoo! News report hinted, “the Interpol warrant strongly suggests that a number of the world’s governments want to stop Assange as he continues targeting the activities of Western states and financial operations.” [9]

According to Ann Woolner, a Bloomberg News columnist:

“no law criminalizes civilian release of classified information, except in rare circumstances, such as revealing the name of an undercover agent or disclosing secret codes. All [United States has] got is the WWI-era spy law, the Espionage Act of 1917. The best shot at making that work would be by proving Assange encouraged the leak and conspired with his inside source to disgorge the documents. An Army private first class has been charged under military law with some of the leaks. And even if investigators can find a clear conspiracy between the two, a ruling by federal judge in another case shows it isn’t easy to use the spy law to prosecute civilians. … Prosecutors would face a really big hurdle in the form of the First Amendment of the Constitution [an amendment that prohibits infringing on the freedom of speech and of the press]. Yes, Congress can pass new laws and amend old ones, but new laws can’t criminalize past conduct. The Constitution clearly bans so-called ex post facto laws so that the government can’t toss someone in jail for something that was legal at the time it was done.” [10]

In the meantime, Assange has asked Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to resign. He told TIME that “she should resign if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering US diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations, in violation of the international covenants to which the US has signed up. Yes, she should resign over that.” [11] Responding to a question whether he targeted Clinton on purpose, he said that Wikileaks has “no targets other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior … that’s created a general target.” [12]

Wikileaks and Free Speech

Los Angeles Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg wrote recently, “free speech in the abstract is easy to embrace; exercising it in concrete terms can be uncomfortable. Take Wikileaks, whose Sunday release of U.S. embassy cables have sent the State Department and contractors scrambling.” [13] ABC News, too, forwarded the following questions to its viewers on its website, “where does the line fall between free speech and national security? And are websites like Wikileaks making that debate irrelevant now that [more than] 92,000 classified reports can be disseminated with a keystroke?” [14]

Indeed free speech is a thorny issue. No wonder many governments face difficulty dealing with it. “What kind of information has to be public that is in the public’s best interest?” is always a controversial question. People like Assange advocate for total transparency, which could mean exposing sensitive military documents. And governments like the US argue that the Wikileaks-type recklessness endangers the lives of individuals and gives incalculable advantage to enemy groups such as terrorists; nonetheless, they actively pressure other governments, particularly those perceived as authoritarian, to exercise transparency and free speech.

Wikileaks Conspiracy

We may not know for sure what is going to happen to Assange and to his Wikileaks website any time soon. But we know that governments, especially the US government, are after him, and his days may be numbered.

Maybe the whole Wikileaks phenomenon is a staged play, written and directed by the intelligence community; Assange plays the villain while the US government acts as the hero. An American blogger, who has a criminal investigation background and who does not support the Obama administration, agrees with that conspiracy:

“Based on my professional analysis of the available facts surrounding the Wikileaks controversy, “staging” is exactly what has taken place. … Consider that while the Wikileaks documents were being dumped, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a coordinated effort with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, were tasked with seizing over 80 websites for copyright infringement. If there was a genuine administrative concern over the publication of sensitive documents, it would hardly seem reasonable to direct intelligence assets in that manner. … I suspect that this event will serve as a catalyst for this administration to advance their known objectives to regulate the Internet. With Cass Sunstein as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the organized chaos created by Wikileaks will certainly provide the requisite fodder to control the type of information available through the Internet.” [15]

Russians, on the other hand, have an alternative Wikileaks conspiracy. Fred Weir, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent, reported:

“in Russia, the motherland of conspiracy theories, almost no one believes that Julian Assange and Wikileaks are free agents acting on a desire to crack official secrecy and broaden the horizons of public awareness. … Many Russians are already viewing it as part of a plot by American hardliners to discredit President Obama and, perhaps, to undermine his fragile efforts to “reset” US-Russia relations. … In Russian political culture, the secret services, Kremlin leaders, and business oligarchs have long practiced the dark arts of kompromat, spreading misinformation to blacken opponents’ reputations and influence public moods. So they suspect that there has to be something or someone with a hidden agenda standing behind Wikileaks.” [16]

Anything is possible since there is a lot of room for various kinds of conspiracies to emerge. But, such conspiracies aside, if Wikileaks is indeed a rebel—pro-freedom of information—website, it can serve as one of the greatest litmus tests for Western democracy.

Soon or later, the following questions will have some answers: Will the governments let Wikileaks continue dumping information or will they destroy it permanently? How far are they willing to go to tolerate Wikileaks’ demand for total transparency? Are founders of Wikileaks really taking undemocratic, criminal actions? What kind of information has to be public that is in the public’s best interest?

Meanwhile, citizens of the world are hungrily waiting for more information to be released.

Update 1: … For days, WikiLeaks has been hounded by governments, hackers and companies that have forced it to move from one website to another. … Swiss authorities closed Assange’s bank account, depriving him of a key fundraising tool. Assange’s lawyers said the account contained about $41,000. Over the weekend, the online payment service PayPal cut off WikiLeaks and froze $80,000 of the organization’s money. … WikiLeaks is now relying on a Swedish host (moving its website address from http://wikileaks.org to the Swiss: http://wikileaks.ch). But its Swedish servers were crippled after coming under suspected attack again Monday [Dec. 6, 2010]. It was not clear who was organizing the attacks, but WikiLeaks has blamed previous ones on intelligence forces. WikiLeaks’ huge online following of tech-savvy young people has pitched in, setting up more than 500 mirrors. In one of its most sensitive disclosures yet, WikiLeaks released on Sunday a secret 2009 diplomatic cable listing sites around the world that the U.S. considers critical to its security: undersea communications lines, mines, food suppliers, manufacturers of weapons components, and vaccine factories.” — AP

Update 2: “An apparent campaign by the United States to lock down the WikiLeaks website sits awkwardly with its rhetoric on free speech. It comes only months after the State Department criticized Gulf states for threatening to block Blackberry smart phones over access to encrypted messages. … Heroes to some, villains to others, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange highlight divisions over data security and show the tech-fueled information revolution is outpacing debate over its use.” — Reuters

Notes

[1] The Jewish Week
[2] Yahoo! News
[3] See [2]
[4] NY Times
[5] See [4]
[6] Computer World
[7] Bloomberg News
[8] IB Times
[9] Yahoo! News
[10] See [7]
[11] Time
[12] See [11]
[13] LA Times
[14] ABC News
[15] Canada Free Press
[16] Christian Science Monitor

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