Sunday, December 5, 2010


Julian Assange.

What am I going to do with you?

Anyone who doesn't know the name Julian Assange by now is hiding under a rock. He's the Wikileaks guy, for the two of you that applies to. He takes leaks provided by a range of whistleblowers, and after a period of time spent X-ing out the informant's name, releases the leaks to the general public. For a while, this worked out pretty well. The leaks had a place to go, once in a while they'd get major media airtime, Wikileaks got a free plug, everyone ends up happy (aside from whoever's information got leaked.)

Recently, though, it's all gone wrong. Half the world's governments would love nothing more than to see a bullet through Assange's head, with much of the general public none to fond of him either, generally those from countries Assange has targeted. Interpol knows where he is and is one order away from moving on him. Sweden wants him on (disputed) sexual charges. Some Americans want to try him as a spy. Ecuador offered, then rescinded, an offer of safe haven. Wikileaks is losing places to host a server, as well as sources of financial support.

Things began to fall apart, at least from my vantage point, right around the time of the leak of the 2007 "Collateral Murder" video, obviously NSFW, which was leaked back in April. Wikileaks, at this point, went from an in-the-background place to do your leaking to a news item in and of itself, placing its own practices in the spotlight. They came to a head just recently, when the first of the 251,287 diplomatic cables began to see light. So what of it all? What can we learn from all this?

Not all that much, actually. At least, not much that Assange has been intending to teach.

You see, a lot of his previous leaks never really drew much attention. Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the sheer size of the information dump being conducted. Remember the healthcare debate? Remember how many teeth had to be pulled to get people to read a 2,000-page bill? Remember how much hay was made of the size of said bill? People often made it onto the news simply for having read the entire bill front to back. 2,000 pages is a tiny, pint-sized Wikileak. Again, the diplomatic cables number 251,287. Assange himself has readily admitted that he receives more material than he can sift through on his own. Which is the thing. If he can't do it, the average person has no chance. No matter how much info is presented, one person can only get through so much. If the important bits are hidden among pages and pages of detritus, the important bits tend to go unnoticed, as if they were never leaked at all. In journalism, this is called 'burying the lede', and considering that Assange believes himself to at some level be a journalist, he ought to know this. When the important information is easily findable by a visitor, things run smoothly. When not, it has less impact.

With the diplomatic cables, he has reversed this and resolved not to bury the lede. However, he has gone too far in the other direction. He has made everything a lede. News cycle after news cycle sees only a small easily-digestible handful of the quarter-million cables released, with each and every one devoured. So far, only about 1,100 have seen air.

But there's a problem. 251,287 cables does not mean 251,287 bombshell revelations. Far from it. There is the assorted useful piece of information. There almost has to be. You take any random group of 251,287 diplomatic cables, there's bound to be something new and interesting. The knowledge that China is not as warm towards North Korea as originally thought, the plan by Hillary Clinton concerning spying at UN headquarters, these can be of use. But other things Assange may have intended as bombshells are really nothing that someone paying sufficient attention to the news might already have figured out independently. China's cavalier attitude and hacking of Google shouldn't come as a large shock if you had been paying attention to Google's early adventures in China, where they came perilously close to pulling out of the country entirely. Google had suspected as much. Corruption in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not big surprises if you had been paying attention to previous reports on same that did not require Assange's assistance to find out. Vladimir Putin knew of the death of Aleksander Litvinenko, we've learned, but then, this was merely a confirmation of something just about everybody had reckoned from day one. The cables show China as flexing their muscle in diplomacy to the point of irritation by much of the rest of the world, but then, this is about as easily seen as the sun. The part about China's irritation with Norway was already found out when the Norwegian-based Nobel committee awarded Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, to where people came away knowing that if China wasn't aggressive towards Norway before, they certainly are now. We learn from the cables that the United States is doubtful of Mexico's ability to fight the drug cartels, but then, who isn't? Any news value is merely concerning tone and scale. Even the China/North Korea leak is seen as some as overstating the case.

And then there's the chatter behind each other's backs. The insults. The gossip, as it's been so frequently called. These are functionally worthless. Less than worthless, even. Sure. Diplomats are catty behind each other's backs. So are workers in just about any field of employment ever. This is nothing compared to what often happens in the diplomatic world. Spies are frequently sent into that field; it's easy to spy and easy to pull the spy out if something goes wrong. Duplicity is a grand, time-honored tradition in the diplomatic universe, of which you can find examples all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome; the Bible; the time of Hammurabi. People talking derisively about other people in the State Department? Well, I never! All that is likely to happen by releasing these is that it makes people less likely to talk to these diplomats, and go to other methods, potentially war, to achieve their goals concerning the countries involved. Diplomats also engage in diplomacy- trying to get along with each other. Why engage in conversation with another country if this is going to be the result of discussing things in their country (these are all cables from embassies in the US)? Forget talk. Might as well take the more direct and forceful route. And in moments of particularly high tension, one wrong word can sometimes be all it takes to light the powder keg. Go and look at all the duplicity that went on over the course of the Cold War, spying, name-calling and everything. How much of it that was not public at the time of its occurrence do you think could have been leaked without either the Americans or Soviets pushing the button in response? Not a whole lot, really.

That is, if it's only one target. A curious thing about blame is that when everybody is guilty, frequently, nobody is. Governmental investigations of lobbyists and corporations and such more frequently claim a scalp when someone is singled out for blame. When someone wants people not to 'play the blame game', this is what they're trying to do: make everybody guilty so that individuals- or, more to the usual point, they themselves- don't actually suffer consequences.

This is the phenomenon that Assange, in his zeal, has seemingly triggered. Though he may hate Hillary Clinton and want her to step down, he has created so many other guilty parties that few are in a moral position to press for her ouster, not that one would do so over such trifling things anyway, and the ones that have not been targeted have ample reason to believe they will be soon enough and any attempt to go after Clinton will end up blowing back on them. There will be a black eye for a while, yes, but eventually, all will be forgiven.

There is a debate that exists over whether we have a right to know about the content of these cables or whether they should remain secret. The first thing we must establish is that, either way, the debate does not apply to Assange. His informant, perhaps, who's surely in for a world of hurt because Assange's technique of simply X-ing out the informant's name is absolutely boneheaded, but not Assange. (Any interested party with a copy of the information can just look to see what got X'ed out, see what name is there, and go after that person; the informant would actually be better hidden if Assange didn't X out anything at all. It's the anonymity equivalent of giving the informant a large neon sign saying "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THIS MAN".) The cables originate in the United States. Assange is Australian and does not answer to American authority. (Not that he answers to Australian authority either, but you get the point.)

We've covered this particular mentality in a previous piece. Foreign nongovernmental entities don't really care what you think of them. And when an empire declines, as the piece exposits, everybody wants to get their licks in. Assange could, in a sense, be compared to the Visigoths sacking Rome, accelerating the empire's decline by making off with things of importance to the empire- in this case, the empire's secrets, privacy and reputation. An actual sacking of Washington DC, or any major world capital, would be unfeasible in this particular day and age, but what one can do is, instead of taking objects of value directly, take the ability to earn those objects or be able to afford to keep the objects they have. This being an age of information, every time a secret is divulged against one's will, every time one's dirty laundry is forced out into the open, it's like another gold coin, another gemstone, another crown jewel out the door.

Anyway. Do we have a right to know about these things? It's in the eye of the beholder as to the exact amount, really, but there is a line somewhere. You wouldn't divulge nuclear launch codes, for example. Obviously to suggest that you should is ridiculous, but that's just to establish the fact that a line exists somewhere- somewhere, anywhere. Any secret less important than that which you'd want to keep is merely helping to establish the location of the line. And the line, at least to me, does come well before that. Obviously there are things we need to know as well. I mean, look what I deal in around here. I want to know a whole bunch of stuff too. But I'm willing to wait if that knowledge is of the type where the downsides of having it be public knowledge outweigh the upsides. It's the political equivalent of a football playbook. You would not ask a football team to divulge, for public consumption, the contents of the playbook they are using this season. For them to do so would be to virtually guarantee that they lose their games. When a football player is called into the coach's office to be cut, they're told to take their playbook with them. You don't want them running off with it after they're no longer on the team.

However, the downsides diminish over time, as the information becomes outdated, so eventually just about everything becomes safe to release. Including playbooks. Any random fan can go out and find books containing diagrams of old plays. Most Packers fans will be able to tell you about a particular old play of Vince Lombardi's, the power sweep. Someone made a Broadway play to tell you all about it. It's a matter of what is okay to release and when, and it can be very tricky sometimes to establish the threshold.

As a whole, Assange has selected cables for which the downsides have been deemed by most to outweigh the upsides, in particular the catty insults. The questionability of the value of the leaked cables has done a strange thing: it's made this all less about the rights of the people to know, and more about Assange and his motives than is healthy for one who purports to engage in journalism. And his motives are plain as day: he describes himself as "a combative person" who enjoys "crushing bastards." Crushing bastards, as he puts it, is well and good, and a lot of people get into the industry with visions of the day they get to crush a bastard dancing in their head like sugar plums. But it is not something where you should be waking up and saying 'So which bastard am I going to crush today?' You try not to make the story about you. Sometimes you can't help but insert yourself into the story, but even so, you are trying to be merely a part of the story, not the story itself. And if you do become the story, you want to try to get the story off of you and back onto the original topic. Assange has become the story and is making no efforts to change that, and in the process a budding debate over how some governments are reacting to the content- the United States with warning people in an official government capacity away from reading the leaks, China opting for a straight blackout- has been to a degree choked out by stories about Assange. The debate here is peppered with frustration that while Wikileaks goes to considerable lengths to force out the information of others, they themselves remain deeply in the shadows. Considering the amount of people after them, this seems necessary if they want to remain able to do any leaking, but it smacks of hypocrisy to some who disagree to one degree or another.

He does, however, have an out. Maybe not out of his problems with the authorities, but out of his problems with the public. If there's one entity people tend to hate these days more than the government, it's banks. Assange has made note that among his cache of yet-to-be-released information is a "mega-leak" from a major American bank. Which one, he will not say. This fact has caused the ears of many to perk up, eager to find out what this leak contains. Arguably, there's more interest in the prospective bank leak than in the diplomatic cables. Assange, by releasing this, would get a significant segment of the public back on his side, carrying the dual advantage of being a popular and worthwhile target. The fact that he also has information on BP (he doesn't know if it's unique) helps his cause further. And if apprehended by Interpol or someone else, he has a contingency plan, namely, tens of thousands of other people who went to the Pirate Bay, a sympathetic site, and downloaded an 'insurance' file which includes, among other things, the remaining cables and the BP files, who will all recieve decryption codes in the event of his capture or death and put everything out in one gigantic tsunami of information dumping. This brings us back to the first problem of some important information flying under the radar, but at that point it can't really be avoided.

Assange has what is surely some extremely useful information, somewhere in all of that, and has taken great pains to ensure its eventual release. But he has no sense of what information is useful and what information is filler, or alternatively, he doesn't care. He has the potential to change the world in profoundly positive ways, and has provided a vehicle for this to be facilitated with an ease not previously seen anywhere, but has let it go to his head such that the vehicle has been damaged.

Julian Assange.

What am I going to do with you?

No comments: