As Beatlemania and Watergate were products of their time, the WikiLeaks furor wouldn't be possible at any other point in history. Besides the nihilistic hedonism our generation indulges in, we can also boast that our access to information is at an unprecedented high. However, it has been the common practice of the "establishment"-- to use a generic term to refer to a wide variety of institutions-- to offer token reactionary opposition to societal and cultural changes. The Internet has advanced society at an incredible speed, making the backwards nature of our institutions particularly evident.
Julian Assange is guilty of the wilful subversion of governments with the intention of undermining their interests, but this isn't a bad thing. Whether or not governments try him for a crime is irrelevant, as he hasn't done anything to weaken democracy in any country. My idea of betrayal would undermine the democratic principles the western world was founded upon, but Assange has not done that. In fact, he has actively contributed to improving the strength of our rights, exposing those who sought to undermine liberty.
It cannot be denied that Assange has an agenda. However, this conversation is hardly about Assange personally-- he is simply a scapegoat for WikiLeaks' detractors and the personification of all that is good for the admirers. The main issue is the publication of a series of documents that either should or should not have occurred. What has been published that caused such an uproar?
First of all, thousands of documents detailing NATO war crimes during the Afghan and Iraq wars were made public. It's quite obvious who would want these kept secret and for what reason. The exposure of these crimes would not have been made possible without the Internet and WikiLeaks. It took more than a decade of government sponsored slaughter of civilians in Vietnam before the Pentagon Papers were leaked, helping to turn the public against the war. Never before has information been so open and the imperialistic war machine so vulnerable and helpless to suppress it. However, there still is a long way to go in phasing out the mainstream media. We still get the majority of our information from it, but with the Internet allowing us a greater variety of sources and sites like WikiLeaks helping to foster citizen independence from corporate media, we may very well be moving into an information renaissance.
The disclosure of these most recent documents will shake the foundations of international diplomacy. What the detractors of WikiLeaks imply is that the entire world order was dependent upon lies and distrust, all of it kept from the eyes of the public governments claim to represent. The burden of proof is upon those who wish to censor these documents and this is all they have presented: a retention of the status quo that sees Machiavellian governments manipulating each other for their own interests. If you need a pragmatic reason, it is now public knowledge that China isn't fond of the psychopathic North Korean dictatorship and several Islamic countries are getting fed up with the clerico-fascist regime in Iran-- just to prove the leaks don't only harm America's interests.
There is no reason that the public shouldn't be allowed to view this information and, in this age, there's no way the truth can be avoided. Prepare for a revolution in the way nations conduct their affairs. Some much-needed transparency has been shed and will continue to be shed as long as WikiLeaks-- and media organizations like it-- are willing to dig.
Media and governments attempted to personify everything evil about Assange to discredit "whistleblowers" like WikiLeaks through simple character assassination (including a flimsy sexual assault charge). This strategy might backfire when Assange makes his way into the history books and WikiLeaks is credited with creating a revolution in the way nations interact and, more importantly, in the way information is disseminated. Transparency and government accountability are within our reach. Let's not allow the opportunity to pass by.
The release of a plethora of classified documents on the website WikiLeaks last week has been all over the news. There have been op-ed pieces written, countless news stories on television and in print, as well as a great deal of vitriol from many individuals both inside and outside of government.
Of course, here at the U of C, there was the news that political science professor Thomas Flanagan called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The suggestion unleashed a flurry of scorn and, ultimately, Flanagan apologized for his "glib" remark. Now frankly, I don't care about Flanagan's comments one way of the other. Assange is an anti-Western crook who, without the great equalizer known as the Internet, would probably be just another anti-American quack printing conspiracy pamphlets in his basement. The fact is Flanagan was probably not completely serious. I mean, after all, this is the man who helped bring us Prime Minister Stephen Harper-- he obviously has a sense of humour (however twisted.) Yet his comments and so many others are distracting from the real issue here.
WikiLeaks is a dangerous and criminal organization. Assange himself is a joke, though a dangerous one, and the release of these documents is a threat to all free nations and their diplomacies. Yet despite the cries of people like Flanagan suggesting that this release constitutes an immediate threat to our fighting men and women and that it is espionage of the worst kind, the danger of WikiLeaks and websites like it is a more basic one: it threatens the processes necessary for international diplomacy.
There are two factors at play in this debate that are being obscured by comments from people like Flanagan. The first is what kind of information should be released. This is one of the important distinctions that need to be made in this situation. When WikiLeaks published documents that demonstrated private contractors' very questionable activities, it was a legitimate release of information. It showed us that there needs to be a serious discussion about whether or not these private organizations are actually helping the efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The release last week, however, was fundamentally different. Thousands of cables from diplomat-to-diplomat were put online. These cables do not directly endanger men and women on the ground. They do not immediately jeopardize an important policy or foreign policy ideal. It is hard to take seriously the people that suggest as much. Yet, it does endanger something else: the process. I know, I know-- it isn't sexy. It's way better to say words like "blood" or "death" or "treason." That's what so many people have been focusing on. But the insidious part of what Assange and WikiLeaks have done endangers the process of diplomacy and this will have very serious consequences.
Diplomacy cannot be a public undertaking. Secrecy is necessary sometimes. Is that a pleasant idea? Probably not, but it's the truth. Diplomatic discourse does not start at a conference table between presidents and prime ministers. It often starts at the bottom, with spit-ball conversations between lower ranking diplomats free from the magnifying glass the higher ups are subjected to. These men and women, free to speak their minds (to some degree) to both their own superiors and the other side, participate in conversations that are the real building blocks of diplomatic relations between states. WikiLeaks has, more than anything, seriously harmed these conversations.
Is it possible that men and women will lose their lives as a direct result of the release of these documents? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that more than a few people are endangered by the erosion of the basic conversations that form the foundation of the relationships between countries? Absolutely. It isn't as exciting to suggest that the biggest threat WikiLeaks poses to Canada, the United States and just about everyone else is probably not a James Bond-like one, but it is nonetheless very serious.