Good Leak, Bad Leak: Why Wikileaks Matters
1971 - The New York Times publishes a leaked study commissioned by the United States Department of Defense. Within its pages lies a comprehensive history of U.S. military involvement overseas. Not only does it contain a series of incredibly cynical assessments of a war then consuming thousands of human lives; it also reveals a systematic history of deceit as regards the origins, aims, and long-term goals of the war. The Nixon White House responds by seeking a court injunction against the release of the documents, and further engages in clandestine efforts, using government resources, to discredit and even criminally charge the man responsible for leaking the papers.
Not only do these efforts fail, but they directly lead to the death of public support for the war, as well as indirectly to the abolishment of military conscription in the US and larger allegations of wrongdoing that would ultimately bring down a President.
The war is Vietnam. The study is "The Pentagon Papers." The man responsible is Daniel Ellsberg.
2003 - Following the March invasion of Iraq, a former U.S. diplomat pens a NYT op-ed in which he questions the factual basis of claims regarding the war's justification. In response, another journalist, acting on information from a high-level source, attempts to discredit Wilson by making a scandal of his personal connections to the matter. In the process, Wilson's wife is publicly named as a CIA operative, compromising both her personal safety and her mission at large.
The journalist was Bob Novak. The diplomat was Joseph Wilson. The office that reportedly leaked the info was that of U.S. VIce President Dick Cheney.
2004 - A journalist publishes an article in the New Yorker detailing evidence of rape, torture, and even murder in a U.S. - run prison in Iraq. The story, leaked previously by 60 Minutes II, has received little attention in the media, but gains more notice after it is revealed that the Army has previously investigated the issues raised at the prison, found systematic abuse, and tried to cover it up. Despite numerous attempts to pursue suggestions that the scandal goes all the way up to the Pentagon itself, no criminal investigation of government officials ever takes place. Instead, a Brigadier General overseeing the prison is demoted one rank, and the matter otherwise quietly suppressed. The only criminal charges ever brought are levied against the low-ranking Guardsmen that staffed the prison.
The prison was Abu Ghraib. The journalist was Seymour Hersh. The allegations of torture, as it turns out, were very real.
The political landscape of the United States has been defined in the last fifty years by leaks. These leaks have called into question the fundamental assumptions of American democracy, and forced Americans to take a hard look at the information fed them by those in power. Sometimes these leaks have been in response to systematic suppression of information. Other times, they have been conducted as political vendettas, aimed at those who embarrassed authority. Now, where leaks have been shown to compromise personal safety of our military and intelligence personnel, we are right to demand full accountability. But where said leaks put no lives at risk, take great care to redact information harmful to the individual, and reveal mass corruption on the part of the establishment, we owe the leakers a great debt, for theirs is the courage that keeps our government truly OF, BY, and FOR the people.
There is more to fighting for freedom than simply picking up a gun.
Our entire democracy is built on several freedoms; key among these are Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. The freedoms exist for a reason -- not merely to give everyone a voice, but to allow for the expression of dissent, the cultivation of dialogue, and even the exposition of corruption or abuse. These freedoms are not static, and they are always under attack. Not just by terrorists or "socialists," if one can call them that, but by people in power who find these freedoms personally inconvenient. From Anthony Comstock to Joseph McCarthy to Joe Lieberman, there will always be someone who wants to tell us what we can think, what we can say, what causes we can support, and what information we have a right to know.
In the face of such attacks, the ability to distinguish between good and bad leaks is absolutely essential. And unfortunately, recent efforts have shown that America's abilities in this regard are woefully underdeveloped.
The reason I bring all this up has to do with current events: today Julian Assange was arrested in the U.K., on charges that stem from sexual assault. In reality, however, his arrest coincides with his organization's release of thousands of war-logs and diplomatic cables, many of which are highly embarrassing to the U.S. and highlight both the ugly side of our war-efforts as well as massive corruption in our brokerings internationally.
While the charges themselves are potentially serious, their timing is highly suspect, and it is worth noting that this investigation marks the first time that Interpol has issued a Red Notice for individual sex crimes. Whatever one thinks about the charges levied against Mr. Assange, the importance of these releases, and his organization's contribution to global democracy, cannot be overstated. The dark secrets behind American liberty have been laid bare, and they raise some very disturbing questions about the direction of our country. Torture, spying, extrajudicial assassinations and regime change -- these are far more have all been revealed by Wikileaks and its partner news organizations. Even if you disagree with Assange, even if you believe the charges leveled against him hold water, that does not diminish the importance of what he and his supporters have done.
As a veteran, I know that the task of defending freedom is often a thankless one. Time and time again, we're shown hollow appreciation for our service, all while basic freedoms are torn from the populace and millions of taxpayer dollars go to funding failed wars. In the face of such superficial displays, I find it ironic that the greatest patriotism of the last decade has been wrought by a stateless Australian and a disaffected Army intelligence analyst. Their work in exposing the corrupt acts of adminstrations both past and present deserves to be commended, for they have forced us to look ourselves in the mirror.
But have we given them the thanks they deserve? No. Instead, the response both here and abroad has been to cut off Wikileaks' funding, demonize Julian Assange, and incarcerate the analyst allegedly responsible for the leak, one Pfc. Bradley Manning. The casual disregard for free speech, coupled with the anti-democratic invectives leveled by American pundits, are truly stunning. Never did I believe I would see journalists calling for the imprisonment of those who do their job for them. If one has followed these responses, then truly one has witnessed the largest concerted assault on freedoms-of-speech and -press in the last fifty years.
What sort of society is this where those who expose corruption are made the targets of international manhunts? What sort of society is it where soldiers who expose wrongdoing are put in prison? Should we rather remain ignorant to these abuses? Is this the America you want to live in? Is that freedom? Is that an ideal worth defending?
In the film "District 9," a scandal erupts over South Africa's mistreatment of a community of oppressed extraterrestrials. The man who first discovers the truth is made the target of a nationwide manhunt, accused of having sex with aliens and said to be contagious. Later, a young contractor who exposes said truths to the public is arrested and thrown into prison. While that film is known for its sci-fi backdrop, the portrayal of justice and power it provides is eerily contemporary. Julian Assange is accused of sex without a condom, and at least one of his accusers suspected to have CIA ties. Bradley Manning, on the other hand, is awaiting court-martial and faces up to 52 years in prison. As an enlisted soldier, he will be tried not by a jury of his peers, but by a jury of officers, thereby giving him a far slimmer chance of receiving a fair trial.
It is chilling to consider that, if we in America had reacted to pro-accountability leaks in the past the way we do today, Daniel Ellsberg would likely be in prison. So might those who reported the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Do we want to be the country that promises free-speech, except for those who speak uncomfortable truths? Do we truly want to be the Land of the Free (with Caveats)? Do we want to send the message that those who reveal high-level malfeasance are not heroes to be lauded, but criminals to be hunted down and punished?
For my country's sake, and the sake of all who would speak truth to power, I hope not.
Seth S. Marlin is an Iraq veteran and former author of Iraq warblog "Calm Before the Sand."