Let’s be clear on one thing. Governments that do bad things should be punished at the polls. And for that to happen, the voting population must know what the government is up to, something the recalcitrant government is usually reluctant to share. Informing the people of the government’s naughtiness is why investigative journalists exist. Airing secrets is why whistle blowers are important. Without them, investigative journalism would be nigh impossible.
Exactly how much naughtiness (especially by the US) was revealed by the leak of the diplomatic cables will be debated for years to come, but that isn’t to say governments shouldn’t react. There is a bad reaction to all this, and a good one.
There’s a reaction that acknowledges the reasons for the existence of organisations like WikiLeaks as legitimate and in need of addressing, and there’s a reaction that will cement the image of self-serving politicians, which is guaranteed to piss off millions of people. No prizes for guessing which reaction is the modus operandi of nearly every government in the world right now.
In the immediate aftermath of the cable leaks, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton overshot the mark in her remarks condemning the leaks when she said they threatened national security. A huge, maddening inconvenience, yes. An embarrassment, definitely. But a “threat to national security”? Hyperbole, or a cynical attempt to tar WikiLeaks with the same brush as a certain nefarious group of individuals that favours caves over office space? Incoming chairman of the house homeland security (and belligerent Republican representative) Peter King didn’t sugar-coat it as Clinton did. He said the government needed to brand WikiLeaks a terrorist organisation, as it “presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the US”, he wrote in a letter to Clinton. That would place it on par with previously-mentioned cave-dwellers. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Julian Assange is a “high-tech terrorist”. It makes it all the easier to send in the cavalry after Assange and WikiLeaks, eh, GOP?
This shoot-from-the-hip approach to WikiLeaks really plays well into the whistle-blowing organisation’s hands – it’s been saying all along that governments are dangerous and aren’t to be trusted.
Not to mention the more insane reactions to the leaked cables: the world’s craziest conspiracy theorist, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the leaks were “psychological warfare” and Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to the Canadian prime minister, called on Obama to send an assassin after Assange. The Canadian government must be silently thanking the heavens the comments were made by a former advisor, who actually later apologised.
Senator Joseph Lieberman is trying to make it illegal for newspapers to publish classified information. The same man was instrumental in Amazon’s decision to boot WikiLeaks off of its servers – his staffers phoned the company and harangued it into refusing service to WikiLeaks. Paypal didn’t even wait for a call from an irate lawmaker before dropping the WikiLeaks account for breach of rules, the reason being that the company can’t process money that is the proceeds of crime.
Expect to see a new election campaign front open up in future US election campaigns, with the GOP accusing Democrats of not being tough enough on “information technology terrorists”. Expect authorities to flirt dangerously with the idea of internet censorship, as they have already with censoring papers that collaborate with whistle-blowers who publish classified information.
Reports coming out of Iraq are that soldiers are being prevented from accessing WikiLeaks online or seeing any news coverage of the leaks.
The man who admitted to being the source of information for the US within the German government, identified only as Helmut M, and employed by the Free Democratic Party as chief of staff for party chairman and German foreign minister Guido Westervelle, is on the verge of being sacked.
For their part, some members of the coalition government in Germany are calling for the US ambassador to be recalled for his frank assessments of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other senior politicians in her government. The chief of the Bank of England is in a similar pickle. Mervyn King is accused of dabbling too much in politics after he criticised the British coalition government’s approach to budget cuts.
All of this creates the impression of governments coiling even tighter around themselves at the revelation of what they get up to behind closed doors. It smacks of guilt. It makes the powers that be look like they are more concerned about protecting themselves than they are about being accountable to their constituencies. This is a very bad time to let that idea take root in voters’ minds. We are in difficult times – public purses are being tightened around the world as countries battle slow economic growth, budget deficits, high unemployment and massive public debt. In response, many governments are adopting austerity measures. On top of that, there’s a growing sense that states have gone overboard in reaction to real and imagined terrorist threats.
To be a bureaucrat is to be largely unpopular. The reaction to WikiLeaks may become a big factor when voters enter that voting booth.
Then there’s the good reaction to the leak. There’s a very big need for the US government to question just how the leaks happened. And it looks like they are, in fits and half starts, beginning to address the issue. A security model that gives high-level clearance to 3 million individuals across agencies and security companies and then makes it possible for one of those individuals to download and smuggle that information from a base is horrendously flawed and needs to be fixed before the sort of information that starts wars gets leaked.
Also, why the Cold-War style of enthusiastically classifying everything under the sun? If they really wanted to neuter the WikiLeaks’ effect, governments would move to free up information wherever possible, in the name of accountability and the public interest.
Chasing Assange down like a deranged criminal and hounding WikiLeaks wherever possible will not end well for the authorities. At the very least, they’ll create a martyr out of Assange and inflate his sphere of influence far beyond where it may have ended. And it may already be too late, as rivals to WikiLeaks begin springing up. If they play this right, whistle-blowing may become the new activity of choice for counter-culturalists around the world. Bad and good, stupid and clever politicians alike are in for a rough ride in the future. DM
Photo: Members of the G20 pose during a family photo session at the G20 Summit in Seoul November 12, 2010. The Group of 20 struggles at its summit in Seoul to agree how to put the world economy on a sounder footing, as renewed fears over Ireland’s ability to pay its debts underscore the lingering fallout of the global financial crisis. The leades are: (bottom L-R) South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, (2nd row, L-R) President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, (top row, L-R) WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin.
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