My Word: Assange is the message

All this information, and the world is still a mess. Transparency, it turns out, doesn’t always make things clearer.

JULIAN ASSANGE, WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief, via video link, and Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks journalist, attend a press conference celebrating the organization’s 10th anniversary in Berlin on Tuesday. (photo credit: AXEL SCHMIDT/REUTERS)
JULIAN ASSANGE, WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief, via video link, and Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks journalist, attend a press conference celebrating the organization’s 10th anniversary in Berlin on Tuesday.
(photo credit: AXEL SCHMIDT/REUTERS)
WikiLeaks is celebrating its 10th birthday, and the candles on its cake either offer the world small rays of light or threaten to burn parts of the global village, depending on your view.
Either way, the flickering candles are a teaser.
Before I started writing this column, I took a look at WikiLeaks’ 10th anniversary pack, freely available of course on the Web.
It boasts “WikiLeaks: 10 years, 10 million documents,” marked by an “initial press conference” in Berlin on Tuesday, and promised in that typical WikiLeaks way “More information coming soon.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaking via a video link, said the group would publish another million or so documents related to the US election and three governments in coming weeks.
One of my favorite WikiLeaks tidbits was studied by Evelyn Gordon in Commentary magazine in October 2010 under the headline “WikiLeaks and the Gaza War”: “The New York Times tucked a remarkable statistic into the tail-end of an article on WikiLeaks’s latest document dump, one with ramifications for the ongoing delegitimization campaign against Israel,” Gordon wrote. “For most of the last century, the normal civilian-to-combatant wartime fatality ratio has been 10:1....
“This elicits an obvious question,” noted Gordon. “If civilians routinely account for 90% of all casualties in modern warfare, why is the world up in arms about the civilian casualty rate in last year’s Israel-Hamas war in Gaza – which, by even the most anti-Israel account, was markedly lower?”
The press pack published “The Top 10 Greatest Hits of WikiLeaks” including the Guantanamo Files; the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs; the Collateral Murder, a “classified US military video of a helicopter gunship slaying 18 people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad”; The Public Library of US Diplomacy, “a growing collection of 3,326,538 diplomatic cables from 274 consulates and embassies spanning the period 1966 to 2010....
The collection has vastly expanded since the initial publication of Cablegate in 2010”; the Syria Files into six years of the Assad regime through more than two million emails; the Global Intelligence Files which “revealed the inner workings of the private intelligence firm Stratfor that services the US government and large corporations such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency”;
the NSA World Leaders Targets, “the most highly classified documents ever published by a media organization”; and the Democratic National Committee Leaks, which “consist of 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the US Democratic National Party leadership, which resulted in the resignation of five top officials who had stacked the chips against one of the two Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders, to favor Hillary Clinton by pressuring media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and black PR methods.”
ALL THIS information, and the world is still a mess.
Transparency, it turns out, doesn’t always make things clearer.
Part of the problem is the huge quantities of information that Assange releases. No ordinary person is going to plow through 10 million documents just because they were once headed “classified.” The information is largely presented through intermediaries whose selection of what is important inherently creates a certain prism.
I wonder if Assange himself has waded through all 10 million documents, although he probably has time on his hands, having spent four years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London. He is wanted in Sweden for questioning about rape allegations. While he vehemently denies the charges, he fears he would be extradited from Sweden to the US to face possible criminal charges relating to WikiLeaks.
As I write these lines, Assange is promising (or threatening) to release more information, but denies it is part of a campaign to discredit US presidential candidate Clinton.
As I’ve noted before, Assange’s delight in building up tension before publication can hardly be seen as doing the decent thing. Yet, in an era in which the top two contenders for the US presidency are Clinton and Donald Trump, having Assange as the self-appointed world arbiter of ethics and diplomacy doesn’t seem surprising.
I did not see in the anniversary press kit – and I have never seen – who helps finance Assange’s smoking-gun campaigns.
In a section titled “Frequently Distorted Facts about WikiLeaks,” (no mundane Frequently Asked Questions, here), the press kit states that “WikiLeaks is entirely funded by its readers – not by public funds, like the BBC, and not by private foundations, like the vast majority of non-governmental organizations.
WikiLeaks is not ‘anti-Western’ or ‘anti-US.’ It releases public interest material on governments and corporations – no matter who they are.”
When Assange was being touted as a strong candidate for Time’s “2010 Person of the Year” award (he ended up as runner-up to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg), I began imagining him as some kind of villain in an old James Bond movie, powerful but also dangerous.
As I put it at the time, “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.”
Assange, a colorful 45-year-old Australian, has come a long way from the days when he was “best known in his own circles as a teenage hacker turned ‘cypherpunk’ – a prolific coder with visions of technology as a tool for political change,” in the words of a Time magazine profile.
But while Assange himself remains a rogue character, how do we know to trust the data he chooses to unleash? He sees himself as a sort of super-journalist but, accountable to no one, he is more super hacker than hack supreme.
As Hugo Rifkind summed him up in The Spectator in August 2014, “Assange is a blinkered zealot, a conspiracy theorist, a narcissist and a nut. He has the politics of a teenage boy who has read too much Chomsky (which is any Chomsky). But he is not a stupid man, and there remain few people who understand the frontiers of digital freedom with such precision. He got there backward, I think, hacking not for liberty, but preaching liberty to justify his hacking.”
Assange undoubtedly changed the world. The concept of “off the record” or “For your eyes only” has been battered beyond recognition. We now have a wealth of information at the expense of diplomatic discretion and our personal privacy. Sadly, it doesn’t make the world seem any safer.