Eccentric Flower:201011/Assangery

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Assangery

I admired WikiLeaks for exposing how stupid and misguided the US's Afghanistan policy is, and how stupid and misguided our Iraq policy was ... but now they have lost me. Any sympathy I had for their cause is now gone. Because they have leaked what is mathematically known as a "shitload" of US diplomatic cables, most of which were intended to be at least somewhat confidential, and now they need to be destroyed.

No, I don't mean the cables need to be destroyed; too late for that. I mean WikiLeaks needs to be destroyed. It is clear now that this is not the work of someone who has a legitimate cause or any sort of good motivation. As long as I could reasonably assume this was the work of someone who had a genuine sunshine policy, who felt that full disclosure was always the preferable alternative, it was fine. Even if it did have faint hints of hydrophobia, I could overlook those. But now it seems clear that there are only two possible explanations for Julian Assange's behavior:

1) He is an honest-to-god zealot who believes the military and political establishment should not be allowed to have any secrets, ever;

2) He just wants to stir up the shit.

I ferociously disapprove of either position.




In general I am in favor of a sunlight policy. I believe that disclosure, to a point, helps reduce corruption and shady-if-legal backroom horse-trading, neither of which we need more of in politics. I think disclosure helps the people who are a little slow on the uptake realize when the Emperor has no clothes. (It's always nice to have documents to back you up when you need to explain to people yet again exactly why our current involvement in Afghanistan is such a tragic, doomed, ill-conceived idea.)

But you cannot conduct diplomacy without secrets. And you can't have civilization without diplomacy. If you wanted to make America look bad (and god knows I have endorsed that goal from time to time), this was a fine way to do it; but, you know, there's such a thing as broader consequences. Did Assange really want to set American diplomatic relations back 5-10 years in some areas, and jeopardize a fragile peace in a number of locations? If he didn't intend to do that, then he's dangerously naive. If he did intend to do that, then he's just dangerous*.

* Especially so since we are, right this minute, on the brink of confronting one of the real tough nuts of the world diplomatic situation, one which may have no acceptable solution and which we've been putting off for far too long because of that. Afghanistan is bullshit; North Korea is the real deal, and if it turns nasty, it will turn very nasty very quickly. How nasty? Picture this scenario: China decides that preventing South Korea from taking control of a reunified Korea is not in their interests, because if anyone is going to control Pyongyang, it's them; we don't realize this is the way they are going to jump until we have already committed (remember we have an existing military commitment to support South Korea); and suddenly we are in a land war in Asia (remember what Vizzini said about those) against what is currently, I believe, the largest standing army in the world. Sound like fun? No one really wants North Korea; the South Koreans and the Chinese don't want the headache of reincorporating it, but they also each don't want the other to have it. Meanwhile, the Kims keep starving their population (except the army), rattling the sabre until it's dented, and using nuclear technology as blackmail so the Fearless Leader can keep himself stocked with Courvoisier. If you're not keeping an extremely nervous eye on North Korea at all times, especially right now, you are watching the wrong channel.




I realize that most of the big "bombshells" in this crop are not surprises (or at least shouldn't be). I also realize that most of the big revelations are absolutely true. For example, the US thinks Berlusconi is incompetent and a crook. Well, he's both. No duh. This is the kind of thing where I want to say, "If you're surprised by that, you're not reading the right publications," until I remember that 88 out of every 100 Americans have no idea who Berlusconi is. (I made that statistic up.)

But the thing is, in diplomacy it does not profit you to say that Leader X is a moron or a crook or a thug or what-have-you, even if you think he is, even if most of the world thinks he is. What does it accomplish? Try to strike some mutually acceptable terms with him, try to establish some kind of mutual basis, try to work around his faults, or, worst case, labor quietly for his ouster - but don't call him out in public; that will just make it harder to accomplish any of those goals.

The only reason I can think of why someone might want to call out one country because of what they secretly think about another country is to deliberately start a fight. Like the kid in the schoolyard who says to Y, "Hey, did you hear what X said about you?"

(I should note, though, that Berlusconi is reported to have basically laughed off the report. At this point he has very little relationship with the US to jeopardize. Besides, he's too busy worrying about how he can safely fit Gianfranco Fini for a pair of cement overshoes.)

Perhaps a more subtle non-surprise, one where you might have a legitimate basis to be surprised but I wasn't, is learning that Saudi Arabia is just as scared of Iran having nukes as, say, Israel is. Well, yeah. Everyone is scared of Iran having nukes because Iran is under the thumb of a batshit insane theocracy. It's not a condemnation of the Iranian people or mindset, it's a condemnation of the leadership they have had forced upon them. But now that this fact has come out, it's going to give the theocrats a method of trying to invoke solidarity from their subjects which may actually work. It gives them more ammunition for the "Look, the whole world is against us" mentality they have carefully cultured for thirty years. This exposure, in other words, helps no one's cause except Iran's. Even though it is no shocker whatsoever, its revelation is still dangerous.

Of course there will be - in fact already are, if you are brave enough to read some comments on some of the links below - people who are so eager to find fault with anything the American government does that they are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hey, who cares if we destroy diplomatic relations? At least we made the US look stupid again! I am coming to suspect that Assange may be one of those people.

This is not only short-sighted, but it is disingenuous. Look into the private diplomatic communications of any government and you will find just as many skeletons in their respective closets. Just as clergymen are seldom witnesses in criminal trials, very few diplomats are saints. If they were, they wouldn't be effective diplomats.

I'm waiting eagerly for Assange to render the same service for the Australian government (I gather that is his home nation of record). Then at least I will know he is an equal-opportunity shit-stirrer. Of course, that is unlikely to happen because the Australian government would then try him for treason, an option which is sadly unavailable to us in the United States in his case.

Linkage:

The New York Times wallows in it while hypocritically attempting to keep its hands clean

The Guardian watches the storm stoically and Britishly

Der Spiegel has itself a good and badly needed laugh (can't begrudge it; German politics are falling apart at the seams right now)

The Daily Beast gets out the bellows and lighter fluid ...

... but Peter Beinart's column is good (and not just because I agree with it)

Judith Miller deliberately misses the point

Meet the guy who WILL get tried for treason in the US

Opposing point of view from Digby at Hullabaloo, which, given that I got it from Patrick Nielsen Hayden's sidebar, seems to imply that once again I disagree with PNH.

The funny thing is, that I would agree with virtually everything Digby said if it were applied to other secret-holding situations - for example I endorse the Moynihan comment that "the problem with secrets is that the secrets are usually wrong" as it pertains to virtually all intelligence gathered by the US military and the CIA in the last twenty years. But everything I've heard about the State Department's secret opinions tells me that their "secrets" seem to mostly be right (eg. Turkey is going to go Islamist; Erdogan's a smart guy with bad advisors; Merkel is an unoriginal bureaucratrobot; Kenya is so corrupt that it essentially has no working government; et cetera).


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ProfRobert:

I've only seen the Times' cover story, but I don't think this is the disaster so many people imagine. Berlusconi's partying with underage hookers -- he has bigger things to worry about. I also think Iran may take the reverse lesson from the one you suggest. They need to seriously worry about other Muslim countries coming after them. And I like the Saudis getting outed there, too.

I also don't see the Times' introspection as hypocritical. This is a delicate area -- remember that Ellsberg didn't turn over the diplomatic volumes of the Pentagon Papers. There is a real need to balance what is important news for the public vs. something actually damaging to the nation. I can't say yet if they got it right, but I applaud them for trying.

-- 19:48, 30 November 2010 (GMT)


Columbina:

Most of the revelations are embarrassing but not seriously damaging. The problem is that the two which will be seriously damaging also happen to be the two that involve the world's only serious, highly unstable, trouble spots: Iran and North Korea. With Iran it's just going to make life harder. With North Korea it may very well mean a war we don't want to get into. One of those leaks could cause NK to think that suddenly they can't trust China anymore, and since the US and SK won't come to the table unless China gets NK to clean up its act (because they feel it would be rewarding bad behavior), if China suddenly loses its ability to put pressure on NK, then NK becomes a starving nation ruled by a loon who suddenly has absolutely nothing to lose.

Anyway - all that aside - my big question was not the seriousness of the revelations but whether Julian Assange has gone too far. I say he has, and if I sound a little cranky, it's because I feel like too many of my peers are defending him on pure freedom-of-information grounds right now. My point is that - unlike, say, details of our sleazery in Iraq, which deserve to come out - diplomatic secrets are generally secrets for a very good reason. By either not understanding that or deliberately not respecting that, or both, Assange has proved himself an actual menace to society.

-- 21:20, 30 November 2010 (GMT)


Bunny42:

This is one peer who agrees with you completely. I know you get tired of hearing that I'm a former Fed. Well, one of my duties involved the processing, and sometimes actual release of Freedom of Information Requests. Freedom of the press does not give anyone the right to endanger someone else's life. There are some things that are secret for a reason and should remain that way. I happen to think Scooter Libby had a big mouth.

Do you think Moynihan meant wrong, as in incorrect, or wrong in the moral sense of having been leaked at all?

Also, out of some 250K leaked documents, how can you say only two of 'em might potentially harm someone? I was reading someone else's journal entry and comments today, and a soldier's wife brought up the at least three soldiers killed in Afghanistan as a direct result of information contained in the previous Wikileaks dump. I think Julian Assange is a publicity hound with no regard for the consequences of his actions. I don't, in any way, advocate no oversight of government. Far from it. But I think the "low-level analyst" who let this stuff out should be boiled in oil, then tarred and feathered, and then... I stop short of execution, on moral principles, but if I believed in capital punishment, he'd be a candidate. We Feds, most of us, work hard and long to maintain honesty and respect for peoples' confidentiality. Even if we didn't want to, we swore we would. Unless that oath means nothing, then he should be punished for breaking it.

I've always believed you shouldn't bad-mouth your employer while you are taking his money. If you don't like what he's doing, quit. THEN you can talk all you want. But even then, if you were sworn to keep certain things secret, for whatever reason, then you are ethically (and, usually, legally) obligated to do so. Whatever happened to integrity? Yeah, I know. I'm naive.

-- 22:37, 30 November 2010 (GMT)


Columbina:

Bunny, as far as I can tell, most of the leaked communiques were very low-level sorts of secrets, but there IS a layer of protection needed, notably when underlings and other "little people" are named and this information might endanger them personally.

This is why I am currently so angry I can't see straight because of this Making Light item and the Salon piece it refers to. So the New York Times is being "servile" because it's checking with the government to make sure it doesn't reveal any names which might actually hurt someone? Is Glenn Greenwald next going to come out in favor of outing covert operatives because, y'know, anything less than total, irresponsible media disclosure is "servile"? [One wonders how Greenwald feels about the Valerie Plame affair, which was one of the nastiest and pettiest bits of schoolyard-bully retribution ever committed by the Cheney goonsquad.]

"Servile" is refusing to call the government out when they're doing something wrong. This is something entirely different. That's my big problem here - I do not believe that those diplomatic messages reflect any wrongdoing (whereas I do believe that much of the Iraq disclosure DID). I believe disclosing these diplomatic messages stems from no other impulse than to do damage to the United States.

By the by, never ask me "Whatever happened to integrity." The question just ruins my mood for a day or so, and I don't have a good answer anyway.

-- 17:22, 1 December 2010 (GMT)


Columbina:

Ah, apparently the Making Light folk are upset because they smell a cabal. TNH:

I find I'm slowly getting angrier at my government and its lapdog media. Two or three million people had unchecked access to this material, but my government is outraged that I can read it? What am I now, a peasant?

If the matters discussed in these cables were fit subjects for genuine operational security, no way would millions of government employees have unchecked access to them.

This isn't about security. It's about caste-based access to information about the world and how it works.

Of course TNH neglects to consider the idea that some of these communications did need to be locked up better because they were of genuine consequence (I concede most were not), and the government did a lousy job of it.

Dan Lyke elsewhere repeated the old trope that "one should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity." I am always more than willing to believe my government is incompetent. I am not willing to believe that they are a cabalistic ruling class that conspires with the media to systematically disenfranchise people and suppress information. They're simply not that well-organized. (The media are occasionally that well-organized, but the media are totally amoral, and are only interested in whatever best brings eyeballs and money to their content.)

TNH says, in essence, "If this material wasn't that controversial, then why all the outrage from the government about its leakage?" I say, "If this material wasn't that controversial, then what was Assange's motive for leaking it? What was Manning's motive for stealing it?"

I don't care very much about the fact that this information was exposed. I am quite worried about Iran and North Korea, but what else is new? What I do care about in this case is the motivation of Julian Assange. I say he is a loose cannon whose primary motivation is open hostility toward the U.S. While heaven knows I am no friend to U.S. policy a great deal of the time, I can see no benefit in just harrassing the U.S. government for the sake of harrassment, and it shocks me that so many of my peers are so far down on the U.S. that they apparently believe this sort of harrassment is good and welcome. I didn't think I would ever meet people more cynical about this country than I was.

-- 17:39, 1 December 2010 (GMT)


Columbina:

Wrong consequences.

I support punishing Assange for his malice, but that does not mean I approve of Amazon's behavior - if this information is correct. In short, I agree with Ethan Zuckerman that this is a bad thing, and I agree with his reasons why.

-- 22:47, 1 December 2010 (GMT)


ProfRobert:

Amazon is a private company. It is not a common carrier. If it thinks hosting Wikileaks will damage its business, it has every right to boot it off.

Would you think of this differently if Amazon had refused to host them in the first place as opposed to taking them in and then booting them out? Suppose the Times, Guardian, Der Spiegel, et al., all agreed to refuse to publish what Assange stole? Would you have an issue with that?

-- 20:10, 2 December 2010 (GMT)


Columbina:

Ah, I didn't say they weren't within their rights. I said I considered it a bad thing.

-- 20:22, 2 December 2010 (GMT)

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