by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
December 3, 2010
WIKILEAKS: THE ANTIDOTE TO GOVERNMENT LIES
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Dec. 3, 2010 -- Over the past few months, Julian Assange and his team at WikiLeaks.org have done more to expose the mendacity of U.S. foreign policy than anyone since Daniel Ellsberg.
Technology made all the difference. It took months for Ellsberg to make copies of more than 7,000 pages of classified documents that exposed the official lies about Vietnam of every U.S. Administration from from Truman to Johnson. It took many more months, and many legal battles, before any American newspaper published what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Four decades later, thanks to computers and the Internet, it's easier for a whistleblower to leak information detailing government and corporate corruption. It's easier to copy and disseminate the data, and easier for citizens and journalists to access it. And, as a stateless, office-less, nonprofit organization operating online, it is nearly impossible to shut down WikiLeaks.
Given that the default position for governments is secrecy and obfuscation, and that the default position for the news media is blind obedience to official authority, we need organizations like WikiLeaks to peak behind the curtain and see what's being done in our names. Their work serves as an illustration of independent journalist I.F. Stone's famous adage: "Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed."
The corollary to Stone's First Commandment of Journalism might be this - in the digital age, there is no such thing as a electronic secret. There is no truly secure digital form of communication.
If there is a fear about WikiLeaks, it's that putting out so much information so fast may mean it gets swallowed up by the bottomless maw of the 24/7 news cycle.
The release of 91,000 U.S. military documents on the Afghan war caused a brief sensation and then faded from view. Congress voted to authorize more funding for the U.S. war effort without even blinking an eye, and the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops is getting pushed back.
The release of 400,000 secret U.S. files on the Iraq war in late October was even more damning, with reports of abuse of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody and widespread human rights violations and atrocities committed by Iraqi security forces. But, since it came out a week before a contentious midterm Congressional election, it was mostly ignored by the U.S. news media.
This week, a cache of more than 250,000 classified U.S. State Department documents has been released. There is plenty of disturbing stuff in these documents, from the Saudis continuing to aid al-Qaida, to the Chinese waging a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage against the U.S. and its allies, to the extent of how U.S. embassies are part of a global espionage network, to lots of backstage gossip detailing what U.S. officials really think of their allies.
Taken together, the information that WikiLeaks has put out over the past few months is unprecedented. Usually, we have to wait until years after a war has ended to learn the revelations these documents contain. Now, we're seeing this data while it is still fresh and while it can still make a difference.
With each document dump, we've heard government and military officials say that releasing classified information will endanger countless lives, jeopardize American military operations and hurt international cooperation on global security issues.
I would counter that the actions detailed in these documents have already led to countless lives being lost, and that the world would be a much more safer and secure place if we stop doing these things and actually engaged in international cooperation on global security issues.
Assange has rejected the suggestion that the publication of these memos would endanger lives, a charge that is baseless when one considers the extent that WikiLeaks redacted the names of informants it believes might be persecuted.
"As far as we are aware, and as far as anyone has ever alleged in any credible manner whatsoever, no single individual has ever come to harm as a result of anything we have ever published," he said.
The succession of disclosures by WikiLeaks was not, as some have called it, a deliberate attack on U.S. national security. Instead, it is a rare opportunity to see the gap between the fairy tales spun by our government and the reality on the ground - a reality that's harder to explain away when hundreds of thousands of documents show the extent of the lies.
Democracy demands facts, as my friend George Seldes once said. But governments fear facts and transparency, for truth and openness are the mortal enemies of regimes that have things to hide from their citizens.
We can expect to hear plenty of huffing and puffing and outrage from U.S. politicians over WikiLeaks in the coming weeks. I say these blowhards should be ignored. Assange and his team are providing a vital public service. This is what democracy, and freedom of information, look like in the Digital Age, and we need more of it.
AR Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.