Julian Assange is not a fellow you’ll invite to your holiday party this year, unless you want black ops crashing your soiree to do a little wet work on your guest.
Assange is the man behind the mysterious website known as Wikileaks, where cyber-plumbing reached new depths—or heights, some would say—this week with the release of a quarter-million ostensibly classified cables, missives and messages to and from the State Department. Following Wikileaks’s previous release of 500,000 documents involving the Pentagon and its prosecution of our various Middle East wars, Assange has become the planet’s loudest whistleblower, making him a hero, in the eyes of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (a conclave of former CIA officials), or a terrorist, as New York Representative Peter King, calling for his arrest under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, would have it.
Assange was born and raised in Australia by what the hometown paper calls “alternative borderline hippies” and started getting into cyber-trouble while still a teen, arrested for hacking the computer system of the Australian National University. Intensely interested in big ideas about the planet, Assange started formulating the Wikileaks concept in 2006, projecting it as a means to introduce transparency into international governance.
However, it is difficult to peer deeply into Wikileaks’s own operation. Its first major cache of documents may have been obtained by Chinese hackers, but Assange seems cagey about discussing the subject. Obviously a sophisticated computer network such as the one Assange and company have constructed—originating in Sweden, it is supported by servers all over the world to be crash-proof and, so far, hackerproof—requires a great deal of money to operate, but Wikileaks is not forthcoming about its major contributors. Such internal secrecy has led to speculation in some quarters that Assange might actually be a CIA plant, involved in some fantastically complex misinformation front.
That would be bad news for Bradley Manning, were it true. Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, is widely considered to be the principal source for Wikileaks’s October and November data dumps, but he is currently locked up, doing solitary time in a brig in Virginia, only for charges that he provided Assange raw video of American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians from helicopters. Lacking hard evidence, government prosecutors assert nevertheless that Manning, while stationed in Iraq with access to classified data networks, perused information he decided must be exposed to public scrutiny and downloaded it illegally. Assange has put up money for Manning’s legal defense while making no statement about Manning’s relationship, if any, to Wikileaks.
The latest Wikileaks drop, the State Department documents, followed a familiar path to public scrutiny. After Assange announced their imminent release, the documents were provided first to newspapers in Spain, France, Germany and England. Journalists examined the trove and made preliminary findings that were published last Sunday, but the documents have been rolling out less expeditiously at the Wikileaks site (http:// cablegate.Wikileaks.org), which at press time had only put up 290 of the 251,287 cables extant.
Prior to publication, official Washington sources warned of dire consequences ensuing upon revelation of these secret messages, though apparently Wikileaks offered the State Department an opportunity to redact sensitive documents and was rebuffed. One might have thought vital revelations impinging the security of the nation were forthcoming.
Here is the true revelation: diplomats lie.
In document after document, we find ambassadors who have said one thing to their host countries say quite another thing to Foggy Bottom. Here is a cable describing Italy’s prime minister as “vain and ineffective”, another dishing on the French PM as an “emperor with no clothes”, another comparing Russia’s Medvedev and Putin to “Batman and Robin” (with Putin as the Dark Knight). State Department operatives prattle endlessly about seemingly irrelevant foreign policy issues, such as Prince Charles’s lack of charisma or the Kazakh leaders’ profligate spending habits.
The diplomats pry into more significant matters as well. Other Wikileaks cables suggest that China has had it with client state Korea, that Paraguay could be providing safe harbor for terrorists, and always Iran, Iran, Iran: the Saudis say invade, the Israelis say invade, Baku—it’s a city in Azerbaijan—says invade.
There is much, almost too much, to view in the trove the newspapers have parsed so far. How does all this affect us? At first glance, not at all. These documents are the stuff of master’s theses footnotes, ideal for foreign policy researchers or trivia buffs. The interchanges seem to exist in some rarefied scholastic space far removed from real life.
Yet this is also the data upon which our nation’s foreign policy is predicated. If we conduct unjust wars or intervene unethically in the affairs of other nations (or make monies available or provide assistance), it is on the basis of these diplomatic communications that decisions are ultimately made. In this instance, Wikileaks has not blown a whistle, but raised a curtain, allowing those of us not connected to foreign service a look at how America conducts its business abroad.
It is not a pretty sight. Through these missives, we are seen to be an empire in disarray, vain and not a little paranoiac. However, had Wikileaks dropped these docs on any other country in the world, we would have seen the same characteristics in their private diplomatic exchanges. Since the beginning of international commerce, nations have dealt with each other on a distrustful basis, trafficking in euphemism and using hypocrisy as legal tender, always maneuvering for advantage even as strictly observing protocol.
Wikileaks will not change that process. It reveals the folly of trying to keep an electronic secret, but even as it promotes transparency, its revelations will drive governments to hide even more information from the public, and diplomacy will continue, abashed but unabated, heedless of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.