Julian Assange’s situation has cooled down in recent days. While Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, the UK government has revoked its earlier statements threatening to invade the embassy (Ecuadorian soil, and therefore an act of war). Ecuador has made a big deal out of granting Assange theoretical asylum, but they are unwilling to aid his escape from Britain. All the while, prosecutors in Sweden still want to question him on allegations of rape.
In the eyes of the US, this show is a gold-mine. While I don’t think the allegations are necessarily made-up, I am sure that they are being pursued with extra vehemence thanks to some friendly prodding.
Every story that shows the legal trouble Assange remains embroiled in further discredits Assange and WikiLeaks. It serves as a demonstration to would-be whistleblowers that Assange can’t even protect himself, let alone his sources. In fact, the U.S. determined several years earlier that WikiLeaks was as threatening as to warrant a counterintelligence investigation (which WikiLeaks then coyly leaked).
The report determined that the Wikileaks uses, “trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers or whistleblowers.” Therefore, it recommends, “the identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the Wikileaks.org Web site”.
This counterintelligence report, as well as current Obama administration policy represents a very narrow conception of the role whistleblowers play in a democracy. All secrets are secret for a good reason (otherwise they wouldn’t be secret–so the logic goes), and therefore all whistle-blowing is a danger to the organization. A threat to the organization vicariously represents a threat to the country at large (L‘Etat, c’est moi).
At the very least, the probability that leaks are damaging or the magnitude of the damage is so great that none can be permitted any leniency. This conception leads to the belief that all whistle-blowers should be punished maximally for deterrent purposes. In addition, the ability of journalists and whistle-blowing sites like WikiLeaks to protect their sources should be discredited.
A slightly wider conception of the benefits of leaks views the military itself as an organization that can benefit from leaks, albiet occasionally. Since the military relies on efficacy, legitimacy, and efficiency to accomplish important national-security goals, leaks may provide benefits to each of those pillars. As such, leaks must be done with proper editorial input by journalists–though the un-democratic contradiction of this decision is one important criticism here. With this input to protect the lives and assets of Americans, whistleblowers can be an important check on multi-level systems of secrecy and compartmentalization that may lead to redundancy, inefficiency, and lack of accountability. In this view, leaks might serve an important purpose to the goal of the organization as well as to the greater democratic goals of transparency in a democratic society.
In the widest possible view of the benefits of leaks, one sometimes taken by supporters of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, information is power, and therefore secrets are power withheld from the people, the demos of a democracy. While there will always be a necessity for secrets in a world with violence, this view sees the government as the direct employees of the people of a democracy. This “who will watch the watchmen,” perspective holds that the people must demand that the government, in the medium of information, be accountable directly to the people, not indirectly via corruptible representatives or agencies.
Ron Paul discusses some of the dangers of government secrecy for successful public policy and democratic legitimacy.
In all these conceptions, there are important points and counterpoints as to the specific role of Wikileaks, Assange, Manning, and other’s actions. In my belief, it is only in these specifics that we can arrive at serious answers when discussing Bradley Manning. Treating all leaks the same is dangerous and wrong, whether it is a hacker-anarchist idea of total free information or the current policy of the military to pursue an indefinite, borderline unconstitutional detention of Bradley Manning.
That the court will not permit evidence on the consequences of the leaks is dangerous. Any serious attempt at successful public policy, let alone justice, demands context, and difficult and complex as it is, this context includes the content, the intent, and the unforeseen consequences of the leaks.
Is it intelligent to treat a leak aimed at exposing an inept general to that of sharing advanced weapons secrets? Of course not. But that is effectively what the ruling does. At best, it is poor public policy; at worst, it is dangerous to US national security.
The third part will turn to exactly these issues. What exactly is the context of the Bradley Manning leaks? What was his intent? And how did it turn out for US personnel, diplomacy, assets, and the public interest?