Pinchas Landau blog photo.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To say that the activities of WikiLeaks are a source of annoyance, embarrassment
and concern to governments throughout the world – but primarily, of course, the
Western world – would be a massive understatement. The systematic leaking
of huge numbers of government documents of various sorts and on various topics
has gone well beyond causing mere annoyance or generating mere
One very simple and very crude measure of just how fierce the
reaction of the governments of democratic countries is becoming with regard to
WikiLeaks and its boss, Julian Assange, is the following extraordinary fact: On
Tuesday, Tom Flanagan, who is a senior adviser to Canadian Prime Minister
Stephen Harper, called for Assange’s assassination. Not in a secret meeting that
was bugged or in some private conversation that was leaked.
made his call on live TV, on CBS News, no less. Hardly surprisingly, although
hardly flatteringly to him, his government and his country, Flanagan’s comments
were compared to the televised “fatwa” issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah
Khomeini against British writer Salman Rushdie in February 1989.
Assange will meet with an “accident” or simply be rubbed out. Maybe the British
police, who supposedly know where he is hiding, will arrest him. We may even
have a reprise of the classic line from Casablanca, when Captain Renault says:
“We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to
escape” – because there is a strong desire, to which Flanagan perhaps unwisely
gave public voice, to be rid of this turbulent and trouble-making
But the WikiLeaks phenomenon is not about this or that
individual. It is quite obvious that the Western governments have to be rid of
the whole organization. WikiLeaks itself will have to be put out of business.
And to this end there are reports that Amazon, whose servers allow it to
function, is being pressured to pull the plug on it in an operational sense.
Shutting it down would shut it up.
However, it doesn’t take long to
realize that silencing WikiLeaks is not going to solve anything beyond the most
immediate aspect of the real problem: the Internet.
discussion of the WikiLeaks issue must not be sidetracked by the persona of
Assange and whether he raped or merely consorted with women in Sweden, or
whatever else he ends up being charged with. If WikiLeaks is silenced tomorrow,
numerous other organizations will take its place the next day, with the number
of leakers and the quantity of material being leaked to them increasingly
“What we have here,” to upend another classic movie quote,
this time from Cool Hand Luke, is not “a failure to communicate,” but precisely
the opposite: an excessive ability to communicate. So the fundamental clash that
is building around the WikiLeaks issue is over free speech, the right to
disseminate information and the right to access information that has been made
available. The medium in question is the Internet, the openness of which has
come to be regarded as sacred and to be upheld in all but the most extreme
circumstances. Even pedophilia is not to be interfered with, according to
WikiLeaks is not in the pornography or racist or other classically
problematic areas of dissemination. It is publishing purely political material,
and this time it’s not Burma, China or Iran that is the victim, but rather the
Western democracies, which actually believe in free speech and practice it – up
to a point. Where that point is has long been a vexed issue; shouting fire in a
crowded theater is the classic example of abuse of free speech.
whether revealing what American diplomats in Israel or Germany said about their
host country’s leadership may well not be so clear-cut a case.
other hand, making it difficult if not impossible to conduct foreign or defense
policy (and further leaks will soon extend the problem to other areas of policy)
creates the threat of anarchy. At least, that’s how it looks to the governments
and civil servants of virtually every country, even liberal ones. So the
arguments between libertarians and authoritarians about the limits of free
speech – and other rights – are going to rapidly mutate to the political center,
becoming rows over policy between liberals and conservatives.
this is happening in an increasingly nervous and insecure world – in which many
countries feel themselves under geopolitical threat from the likes of North
Korea and Iran, and most households perceive themselves as threatened by the
loss of their homes, their jobs or their pensions – both peoples and governments
are much more easily rattled.
In this atmosphere, governments will find
it much easier to convince their citizens that tough measures – even the sort
that were “unthinkable” not long before – are now essential. Do not expect the
Internet to survive as an open arena for much longer, and don’t expect the
change in the sociopolitical environment to stop at the