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A lot has been made of the uncharacteristic actions of the Swedish, British and US governments in relation to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Right now, UK military and police are laying siege to the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange has been granted diplomatic asylum. Both the UK and US have declared that they don't recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum...even though they've offered it to others in the past.

Clearly, they want this guy. A lot. And they're willing to dispense with a considerable amount of well-established international nicety to get him.

I have no idea if the charges against Assange are true. If they are, he should be punished for them. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the siege in London and ongoing effort to bang up Julian Assange don't have anything at all to do with them.

True or false, is is obvious that they are a pretext. Three governments do not go to the lengths of violating international diplomatic protocols and surrounding an embassy with an armed encampment to incarcerate a rape suspect if that suspect is an ordinary person. So something odd and unique is going on here, evidently rooted in who Assange is, the threat WikiLeaks presents to state secrets, and the nature of information Assange may have in his possession.

Opinions on this controversy--€”at least, as expressed on that paragon of diverse opinion, the Intertubes--seem to fall mostly to extreme ideological poles: either Assange (and Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked a substantial body of classified military and State Department material to Assange) should be summarily executed as a traitor and a national security threat, respectively, or they are Whistle Blowing Heroes of a Free Information Age Being Oppressed By The Man, and should be set free with the thanks of a grateful world and a showering of marijuana buds.Yesterday, Assange spoke publicly for the first time in more than two months, calling for the US to call off what he described as a "witch hunt" against WikiLeaks, and characterizing Manning, if he did as he is alleged to have done, as a "hero" and an "example to us all".

This is a complex situation, and both sides of the debate have some valid points. It's one of those moments when ideals collide with practicalities, and there are never simple answers at such times. So here goes: my take on the whole WikiLeaks/Assange/Manning mishegas.

The undisputed facts are these: Bradley Manning or someone else provided Assange with 250,000 United States diplomatic cables (of which more than 53% are unclassified, 40% "Confidential" and 6% "Secret"), plus 500,000 army reports that came to be known as the Iraq and Afghan War logs and other classified materials. Much of this has now been released--€”some of it redacted to try to keep the really incendiary parts out, but let's face it, it's hard to know what is dangerous information when you're not a member of the institution that created it.

I will not discuss Manning's guilt or innocence here, or his treatment while in custody. That is irrelevant to what I am writing about here. Prisoners should be treated humanely, period. But that has nothing to do with the fundamental question of whether or not what Manning is accused of is wrong.

Some of the revelations emerging from WikiLeaks' data dump of the leaked material have seriously embarrassed and hampered American diplomatic relations. Thousands of the military documents contained specifics about Afghans who had cooperated with US troops, giving names, locations, and ideological affiliations. It is certain that this has led at the least to intimidation of these Afghans and their families, and probably to violent reprisals. The Taliban has publicly said as much.

Release of at least some of this material also falls under a legitimate definition of whistle blowing. The so-called "Collateral Murder" helicopter video, for example, documents what is either a war crime or a tragic mistake. There isn't any legitimate basis for classifying something like that; it was done, obviously, because it's just easier to pretend the event didn't happen. That's not a valid rationale for classifying something. The American people have a right to know when those working on their behalf do something wrong.

More beyond the Koseonimbus

So on the side of the Free Informationists, I grant this: abuse of secrecy happens. It is inevitable that entities which have the power to put information under wraps will use that power to avoid embarrassment, even if doing so is only for their own convenience, rather than in the genuine interests of security. That's just the nature of power, and it is something that will always seesaw as public accountability and governmental fiat come into conflict over time.

But in the case of the Manning/whoever data dump to WikiLeaks, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of secret communications between military leaders and embassies and their command chains in Washington.

Is there stuff in there that doesn't need to be secret? Sure. But the more pertinent question is whether there is material in the leaked documents that is deservedly classified and should remain secret, and the answer to this, clearly, is also yes.

Living here in Fortress America, and having experienced only two significant attacks in living memoryâ€--both of which lasted but a single day, and involved thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths--€”it is easy for many Americans to make the mistake of thinking this whole national security thing is just a paranoid scam to feed defense contractors and put the rest of the world under the American boot to as great a degree as possible. As with most conspiracy theories, there are kernels of truth to this belief.

Broadly speaking, however, it is wrong.

It is a dangerous world out there, and there are those who mean us harm. I don't dispute that some of them have legitimate grievances, but I think it's fair to say that while we might prefer that they pursue nonviolent resolution of those grievances, they don't always agree. Who can blame them? The perceived threat of violence is sometimes the only leverage the powerless can muster, and the world is awash with military-grade weapons.

Security of the citizenry is the first and most fundamental charge of a national government. Check your Maslow's hierarchy of needs: if you're dead, you can't very well worry about your self-actualization. And while I'm the first to grant that we devote grossly excessive amounts of our national treasure to defense, that does not mean that there is no need for defense at all.

The need for security is real. Not the pretend security theater of taking your shoes off at the airport--that's a joke, a psy-ops charade to make people feel safer--€”but real security. Intelligence gathering. Understanding the nuances of the changing conditions in volatile areas where we have citizens and interests, and tracking to as great a degree as possible those who either explicitly mean us harm, like Al Queda and the Taliban, or who intend to undermine and usurp American positioning and replace it with their own, like China and Russia. Those aren't empty exercises, and the threats they seek to defuse aren't myths. They exist. It is a necessary function of our government to make sure those activities take place.

Sadly, homo sapiens doesn't give peace a chance. S/he competes vigorously for land, resources, energy, and positioning. It's always been true, and it always will be. It is how we are made.

In order to reduce the resultant bloodshed as ever-climbing populations struggle over ever-dwindling resources, over the centuries humans have developed protocols and rituals of international diplomacy and cooperation. It's a system that works—not all of the time, but more often than not. So long as they are connected in this way, nations may express their displeasure with one another through all manner of symbolic gestures that don't get anyone killed before considering military action. By expressing mutual respect and opting for talking about our differences as a first option, we avoid a great deal of potential armed conflict.

This shouldn't be an alien concept for liberals who are upset about the arrests of Manning and Assange; indeed, many of them are the very same people who reacted with outrage when George W. Bush threw out the tradition of diplomacy first and asserted pre-emptive war as a first option.

The system of protocols and relationships that constitute international relations depend on the ability of the diplomatic corps to maintain a polite and respectful face towards nations to which they are deployed, while simultaneously doing the necessary work of reporting truthfully on conditions in these nations to decision makers in their own countries. Think of it as the "mother in law" strategy: the best way to meet the interests of all concerned is to keep smiling and be civil.

If they knew that their communications were subject to public exposure, diplomats would have to keep up those pretenses when reporting back to decision makers at home. But decision makers need the unvarnished truth, not pleasantries. If all information were subject to airing at any time, diplomats would have to play make-believe constantly to keep from embarrassing their host countries and undermining our interests. Meanwhile, our strategic decisions would be made on the basis of Disneyfied versions of the what was going on in these countries, instead of the truth.

Oh, and thousands of our soldiers would die, too, because we'd be broadcasting our military plans to anyone who wanted to hear them.

It would be nuts.

Enter WikiLeaks, the radical theory of which is that "information 'wants' to be free", and there should be no secrecy, period. So any information you can get your hands on from a government or corporation is fair game to pop up on the Internet for all the world to see.

It is an explosively dangerous idea. And I do not mean that in a good way.

Think about it for a minute. Think about what the world would look like if that vision were true. Do you want your boss to know your sexual proclivities? You want your neighbors to have access to every detail of your private life? Would you wear a t-shirt that read, "my credit card number is..."?

Of course not. There is information that does harm when it becomes public. And this is even more true for a nation-state, with its constellation of thousands of relationships and agreements, than it is for an individual.

I should mention, BTW, that I find it rather bizarre that many of the organizations and activists most upset about governments' hostility to WikiLeaks are also those adamant about rights of privacy. At root, they are exactly the same principle: an entity, be it a person or a nation state, will have information it necessarily needs to keep to itself. And it needs to have the right and power to do that.

Sunshine and shadow must necessarily be balanced. You need the former to have an accountable democracy. But you need the latter to survive in the world, and it behooves us not to forget it.

WikiLeaks by its very nature violates that balance. By going overboard on the whole "no secrecy" thing and making no distinction between revelations of criminality and revelations of private or diplomatically or militarily sensitive information, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are squarely in the wrong.

Whistle blowing relates to crime. It doesn't mean you can just air anything you can get your hands on. It cannot possibly be considered acceptable to do what Bradley Manning has been accused of doing. It's wrong, and it's dangerous.

So I'm afraid I don't buy either Assange's self-aggrandizing characterization of himself as an innocent victim or his facile framing of the wanton theft and distribution of state secrets as heroic. Whoever stole those cables and war logs is a criminal...and so is Assange, for releasing them.

By doing so, Assange may have looked really punk-rock to those who are enthused about poking Power in the eye, but make no mistake: he endangered lives, and may well have ended some of them. It's nearly certain that in those cables is information which can be sifted and distilled to identify American information sources and agents who are undercover in other countries. No nation state can be expected to indulge the willful publication of this sort of information: it constitutes a survival threat for its citizens and its infrastructure of international information-gathering: the infrastructure that helps us to avoid going to war.

This brings us back to the Siege of London. It is quite clear that the UK and US view Julian Assange as a dangerous man. They can't be going to all this trouble about WikiLeaks per se, or just to make an example of Assange, because other such sites have already sprung up on the Internet. That genie is out of the bottle for good. Yet they're still on the verge of literally invading the territory of another country in order to get him, willing to flout those diplomatic niceties--€”granted, in relation to Ecuador, which doesn't have much power to push back--€”in order to do so.

The only way these actions make any sense is if Assange still has in his possession unreleased information which these governments believe will be profoundly harmful if revealed.

And here is where things get sticky, because at this point, principles--€”like, say, due process, equal treatment under the law, &c--€”run up against practicalities, like we have to get control of this guy and make sure that information doesn't get out, by any means necessary.

What they say about principles is that they are the things you choose to uphold even when they are inconvenient...otherwise, they're not principles. I agree with that.

On the other hand, in most cases that apply to you and me, we carve out convenient loopholes in our principles from the outset. We're not supposed to kill one another, for example, but oh, in self defense that's not the same thing at all. See? Special dispensation.

And we expect our government to operate in this incomprehensibly complex, shifting and fractal world as if there are bright-line differentiations between right and wrong, all the time? When not too infrequently, it is forced to choose between actions which are all pretty lousy?

A bit naive, perhaps.

Our government did not choose this situation. It was placed in this predicament through the commission of a crime which would have resulted in its perpetrator being summarily executed at pretty much any time in history prior to this one, and the irresponsible ideology of a zealot. Now it has to choose from a crummy menu: take the damage from revelation of the information Assange is keeping as his hole card, or flout some rules, step on some toes, and try to grab the mad bomber before he can press the detonator.

Unsurprisingly, it has chosen the latter. It is not going to allow its personnel, resources and strategic positioning to be seriously wounded without trying to stave off that result.

Personally, gotta say I don't have a big problem with that.

Imagine, for instance, that among the hundreds of thousands of documents stolen and given to WikiLeaks is a list of undercover agents operating on behalf of the United States in China. Hundreds, say, of names and contact protocols.

Releasing that list wouldn't just kill a bunch of people (though it would certainly do that). It would devastate our capacity to gather intelligence in the nation which unquestionably poses our greatest economic, military and international relations challenge for the foreseeable future.

If that is the kind of thing that is at stake, ignoring a few international social niceties to keep that from happening and take down the guy who has proudly admitted that he deliberately gouged our national security in the name of his wacky philosophy doesn't seem like that terrible a thing to do, if you ask me.

In the era of the mobile phone video camera, WiFi and Twitter, you can't just black-bag someone famous and make them disappear. That's good: I'm glad that is true. I'm glad we have access to a great deal more information, and that we can use technology to make witnesses of us all, to seek to crowdsource that the powerful shall be accountable. And I'm a complete believer in the nobility and sanctity of the whistle blower in revealing criminality, corruption or dealings that undermine the public interest for private gain.

But that isn't what's going on here.

When someone behaves like a toddler waving a gun around, with thousands or even tens of thousands of lives potentially at stake, you do what is necessary to get that situation under control.

I'm not saying this is easy, pat, or comfortable. The issue is complicated, and there are no simple answers.

But in my view, putting the black hat on the UK and US governments is inappropriate. They wouldn't be in this situation if they weren't confronted with a fanatic bearing a powerful weapon to which he should never have had access. Ideal, meet real.

Reposted from Green Dragon

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Comment Preferences

  •  Spare a penny, guv'nor? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sandino, SoCalSal, Garrett

    Have a flagon and discuss the news of the day at the sign of the Green Dragon

    by Dracowyrm on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 09:56:41 AM PDT

  •  People have rights (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dude1701, taraka das

    not governments, not corporations.  Privacy is a right of persons, governments should be transparent.

    What if there was a ticking time bomb that would go off and kill hundreds of kids if governments lied to their people?  We can't take that chance either.

    •  This is completely unresponsive to my point. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have provided several examples of how complete governmental transparency is a ludicrous proposition. While it is hard to imagine circumstances where your hypothetical could actually occur.

      Government secrecy is necessary. It has to be curbed to apply only to the information that really needs to remain secret, but it is nonetheless necessary.

      Have a flagon and discuss the news of the day at the sign of the Green Dragon

      by Dracowyrm on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 10:32:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  And, actually: gov't and corps have rights, too. (0+ / 0-)

      Just not the same ones people do. Some of the rights of government are more powerful than those of individuals, others less so. But your blanket statement is simply false.

      Have a flagon and discuss the news of the day at the sign of the Green Dragon

      by Dracowyrm on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 10:33:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Agreed. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    They wouldn't be in this situation if they weren't confronted with a fanatic bearing a powerful weapon to which he should never have had access. Ideal, meet real.
    I posted this link to a Foreign Policy article in another diary, yesterday: How WikiLeaks Blew It. According to this article, Assange's mistakes included making WikiLeaks his own political soapbox, and promising more than he could deliver in terms of information damaging to various entities.

    The sh*t those people [republicans] say just makes me weep for humanity! - Woody Harrelson

    by SoCalSal on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 10:39:14 AM PDT

  •  well, technically... (0+ / 0-)
    Do you want your boss to know your sexual proclivities? You want your neighbors to have access to every detail of your private life? Would you wear a t-shirt that read, "my credit card number is..."?
    The only problem with #1 is if my boss knows about me and I don't know about him. If I know that my boss is going to be inappropriate with that knowledge, then I won't work there, and a lot of people won't either, and he probably won't get to be anybody's boss in the first place.

    Before around 1850 #2 is how it worked everywhere in the world. That's why we have so many words and phrases to insult somebody for getting up in other people's business.

    And credit cards operate on security-through-obscurity because they were invented 50 years ago and they're gradually trying to improve an insecure system without breaking it. Also if I know every detail of my neighbors' private lives then I already know who ordered the $800 TV before it shows up on my bill.

    Radical openness is like any revolution: you have about a 80% chance of getting Nazis rather than any improvement. But in theory it's entirely possible to have a free, happy society that VALUES privacy without actually restricting the flow of information, as long as there's no asymmetry.

    •  I'm sorry, but I do not believe that. (0+ / 0-)

      You may have no problem with not having any privacy, but I do, actually. It isn't about lack of reciprocity: there is private information I don't want known by others whether or not I know corresponding information about them.

      And no: before 1850, there WAS privacy. Not as much of it, granted, for most individuals, but the reason we have all those words like "busybody" is because that activity was viewed as excessively invasive and wrong.

      Full transparency is a weak competitive strategy, and therefore will not prevail in nature. All it takes is one person--or country--leaping to the obvious conclusion that there is advantage to be found in keeping some information to yourself, and there's the end of your utopia.

      Secrecy isn't just a human phenomenon. Like deception, it is found throughout nature. Did you know that self-program robots quickly learn to lie when placed in interaction with one another?

      Have a flagon and discuss the news of the day at the sign of the Green Dragon

      by Dracowyrm on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 02:56:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I find this to be muddled (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Mainly, because governments and corporations and any other institutions do not have rights.

    The poisonous doctrine of institutional rights leads to such absurd arguments as we heard By FCC Commisioner Abernathy, when she testified before the US Senate that the "free speech rights" of licensees (of the mass media) have to be balanced with the free speech rights of the citizens!

    In other words, the "free speech rights" of the people who lease the infrastrucure of the mass media are an interest equal to the whole rest of society--who can be denied access to the mass media!

    Governments, corporations, associations, institutions have powers, not rights, and in a democratic society, those powers are subject to the consent of the people.

    Governments do not have a right to privacy. Governments are granted the power to act in secrecy, if needed.

    When the abuse of that authority is so corrupt that the government adopts policies to systematically commit crimes and then compounds that criminality by abusing it's authority to act in secret in order to provide immunity for criminals, and then compounds that criminality by prosecuting anyone who exposes these compounded criminal abuses, the solution is not to argue that the government has privacy rights!

    If we conflate personal rights with institutional powers, then we are creating a system of noble titles. I challenge anyone to characterize it in any other way.

    As for what Assange has done: It doesn't seem to me that the author of this article is aware of the numerous abuses of authority and criminal actions, even war crimes! that have been exposed by wikileaks.

    How much more are any of us at risk if war criminals (to name just one category of the criminals) are allowed to act with impunity and instigate wars and social upheavals to pursue profitable goals for themselves at the expense of the people?

    Are we more at risk with that state of affairs than we are if we expose the infrastructure of perpetual war and carnage? I think we are. If we know and understand that there is a problem then we can address it. The alternative is to creep further and further into social paranoia and helplessness under tyranny.

    Free speech and freedom of the press are countervailing checks on the powers granted to government. It makes no sense to argue that government possesses those checks to countervail the power of the people! The government is not a separate entity whose interests must be balanced against the people who are it's sovereign.

    •  Governments DO have a right to necessary secrecy. (0+ / 0-)

      Governments do have rights. We just usually call them "powers". Territorial sovereignty, for example. Also many capacities to act such as the right to tax the citizenry in order to perform the public benefit functions with which it is charged.

      You ask rhetorical questions, but these are not critiques.

      Governmental secrecy power is not absolute, and cannot be in a free society. Neither is governmental transparency...and cannot be, in a free society. Your rhetoric here is theoretical and impractical. The reality is that all governments have always practiced secrecy to a greater or lesser degree, and part of the exercise of that power is a valid and necessary component of performing the function of government.

      This is not the pretty world in our minds. It is Earth, with humans, and nothing is black and white.

      Have a flagon and discuss the news of the day at the sign of the Green Dragon

      by Dracowyrm on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 06:35:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The confusion of definitions (0+ / 0-)

        between rights and powers is a deliberate strategy and technique in public relations.

        The two are not interchangeable terms. Confusing the distinction is a propaganda technique, and since the terms symbolize significant legal parameters, an ideological public relations campaign to equate the terms is a trojan horse for substituting an anti-democratic paradigm for a democratic one.

        First the blurring of the distinction happens in language and discourse, then the acceptance of the interchangeability of the terms becomes "customary" among the educated ideological  leaders associated with the desired legal outcome.

        Second "academic" position papers are generated to support policies by administrative bodies that reflect the interchangeability of the terms. (Note my citation of the FCC Commisioner Abernathy's argument)

        Third, Through customary usage and official appointments of those with the "customary" view, policies are adopted that become the framework of debate, rather than being understood as propositions that are contrary to law.

        Fourth, through careful choice of case and court, legal precedents are won that adopt the "customary" view rather than the actual, consttiutional and legal view.

        At that point, the radical revolution that turns rights into powers of the people that are checked to preserve the rights of the government is nearly complete.

        Rights are inalienable and inherent. Powers are not. Powers are granted and can be revoked.

        There is of course a much more detailed explanation that I could give, but if you do not understand the implications of what I have already said, then you are already living in an anti-democratic state in your own mind.

        Governments do not have a "right" to tax, for example. Only absolute rulers have those kinds of rights! You can find plenty of debates about this around 240 years ago.

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