Saturday, December 11, 2010

the shameful attacks on julian assange

The Atlantic | The true importance of Wikileaks -- and the key to understanding the motivations and behavior of its founder -- lies not in the contents of the latest document dump but in the technology that made it possible, which has already shown itself to be a potent weapon to undermine official lies and defend human rights. Since 1997, Assange has devoted a great deal of his time to inventing encryption systems that make it possible for human rights workers and others to protect and upload sensitive data. The importance of Assange's efforts to human rights workers in the field were recognized last year by Amnesty International, which gave him its Media Award for the Wikileaks investigation The Cry of Blood - Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances, which documented the killing and disappearance of 500 young men in Kenya by the police, with the apparent connivance of the country's political leadership.

Yet the difficulties of documenting official murder in Kenya pale next to the task of penetrating the secret world that threatens to swallow up informed public discourse in this country about America's wars. The 250,000 cables that Wikileaks published this month represent only a drop in the bucket that holds the estimated 16 million documents that are classified top secret by the federal government every year. According to a three-part investigative series by Dana Priest and William Arkin published earlier this year in The Washington Post, an estimated 854,000 people now hold top secret clearance - more than 1.5 times the population of Washington, D.C. "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive," the Post concluded, "that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."

The result of this classification mania is the division of the public into two distinct groups: those who are privy to the actual conduct of American policy, but are forbidden to write or talk about it, and the uninformed public, which becomes easy prey for the official lies exposed in the Wikileaks documents: The failure of American counterinsurgency programs in Afghanistan, the involvement of China and North Korea in the Iranian nuclear program, the likely failure of attempts to separate Syria from Iran, the involvement of Iran in destabilizing Iraq, the anti-Western orientation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other tenets of American foreign policy under both Bush and Obama.

It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest - and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together.

The idea that Wikileaks is a threat to the traditional practice of reporting misses the point of what Assange and his co-workers have put together - a powerful tool that can help reporters circumvent the legal barriers that are making it hard for them to do their job. Even as he criticizes the evident failures of the mainstream press, Assange insists that Wikileaks should facilitate traditional reporting and analysis. "We're the step before the first person (investigates)," he explained, when accepting Amnesty International's award for exposing police killings in Kenya. "Then someone who is familiar with that material needs to step forward to investigate it and put it in political context. Once that is done, then it becomes of public interest."