My Word: Assange’s smoking gun

In the name of decency and democracy, the founder of WikiLeaks is holding the world hostage.

December 4, 2010 22:30
Liat Collins

liat collins 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

WikiLeaks? No, thanks. I’ll read the book.

Having just enjoyed a couple of reviews of Parting Shots: The Undiplomatic Final Words of Our Departing Ambassadors, I’m looking forward to getting a copy as a Hanukka present and savoring how criticism can be done with wit.

Parting Shots, edited by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, is a collection of valedictory dispatches written by British ambassadors to the foreign secretary, part of a quaint custom that was maintained both by envoys leaving their posts and those leaving the Foreign Service altogether until what Sir Ivor Roberts had to say in 2006 – or more to the point the way that he said it – led to the Foreign Office ending the practice.

Parris and Bryson used the Freedom of Information Act to access the material. Some of the letters they wanted, however, are still being kept under wraps by the powers that be in a way that might make WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lick his lips (or maybe froth at the mouth).

What I have seen and heard so far is much better than the latest Wikidrama documents being leaked to the media like Chinese water torture in carefully controlled drips and doses.

Many of the farewell dispatches were written before the age of political correctness, when diplomats did not need to be, well, quite as diplomatic.

And, while it was always known that “walls have ears,” some of these summaries of national character seem to have been written almost as a private joke between the ambassador and his bosses (“The average modern Austrian only thinks about his schnitzel and his annual holiday and longs to be called Herr Professor,” Sir Anthony Rumbold, April 1970, quoted in a Spectator review).

The book is based on his successful BBC radio series, and Parris, who once worked for the Foreign Office, seems to take immense pleasure at the potshots he has compiled.

Unlike Assange, who went into in hiding, Parris has been promoting his gold mine of indiscretions on speaking tours.

The programs can be read and heard via the BBC website.

Ambassadors of goodwill they were not, or certainly not always.

Incidentally, as our Foreign Ministry staffers threaten more strikes and sanctions, they might use some of their suddenly free time to discover what the British diplomats feel about the perks – and often deprivations – of postings around the globe.

I hesitate, of course, to form a conclusion from just reading reviews but I have this feeling that all around the global village the proverbial man on the street is doing simply that with the WikiLeaks material. What normal person, after all, is going to wade through the hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic documents when they can read the summaries in the media? And this, as in the case of the previous WikiLeaks in August, is part of the problem. While Assange claims to act in the name of freedom and transparency, his very methods prove that he is far from practicing what he preaches.

TAKE, FOR example, the synchronized release via various newspapers: The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, The Guardian and Le Monde.

Why them? Could it be because they are more likely to select the material that Assange wants revealed than, say, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Jerusalem Post, for argument’s sake? Assange seems to be waging his own private war.

Even the build-up to the publication – the threats that had governments around the world on a full alert – can hardly be seen as doing the decent thing. Who elected Assange to be the world’s arbiter of ethics and diplomacy? “Secrecy is important for many things,” Assange told Time magazine in an interview via Skype last week. “We keep secret the identity of our sources, as an example, take great pains to do it.” But, he said, secrecy “shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses.”

Assange is now a leading candidate for Time’s “2010 Person of the Year” award, but as the drama increased, I found myself imagining him as some kind of villain in an old James Bond movie – undoubtedly powerful but also dangerous. Here is a character holding the world hostage via cyberspace in an “I’ll publish and you’ll be damned” manner. The feeling grew stronger when I heard him warning of what would be unleashed should anything happen to him. Ultimately, I began to picture Assange as an Osama bin Laden-like figure: toying with the world’s leaders, playing them off one against the other.

If you read the WikiLeaks scoops, by the way, you can see that the Saudis financed al-Qaida. What you can’t find is who is financing WikiLeaks.

Or why. This obviously falls into Assange’s special secrets category.

ASSANGE IS a colorful character who combines the traits of hacker and hack. He is both a prizewinner and a police suspect and last week made it to Interpol’s “red notice” list. US prosecutors are reportedly preparing charges against him under the Espionage Act. And, of course, there’s that matter of the alleged sex offenses in Sweden.

He’s a personality just begging for a biography – or better still, a film. If Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg can be turned into the hero/antihero of a hit movie, Assange could become a superstar.

Zuckerberg’s very lack of social skills, it seems, led him to create the world’s biggest social network, encouraged a generation to opt for display over privacy and has created a situation in which, instead of expressing their opinions, millions of people make do with the word “like.”

Perhaps this is where we’re all heading. Certainly, Assange’s latest assault will cause decision-makers and diplomats to be extra careful with their words. The whole concept of “off the record” or “for your eyes only” (remember the Bond movie?) is under attack. Maybe a cautious policy maker in the future will be reduced to silently imitating the “like” thumbs-up icon.

Israel at first shrugged off any real damage done to it by the WikiLeaks exposure. As several other Post writers have already noted, it didn’t hurt to discover that Arab leaders were in (what they thought) private conversations urging the US to stop Iran’s nuclear program. I doubt it even came as a surprise. I have heard residents of the Gulf states saying the same thing for more than a decade.

Neither was I shocked by the revelation that President Barack Obama’s tying the Israel-Palestinian peace process to solving the Iranian issue is more than just a distortion. I don’t think even many people on Israel’s far left believe that world peace will result should we finally, miraculously, resolve the difficulties in this region (and if you don’t believe me, Google “China,” “Korea” and “WikiLeaks”).

I’d be amazed if even Fatah and Hamas manage to make peace any time in the near future.

The WikiLeaks material has caused some red faces rather than red alerts.

All in all, I’d rather take what Assange wants to throw at us than what Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like to drop on us. But I wish he wasn’t pretending that it’s for our own good.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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