‘You’re either with us, or you’re WikiLeaks’. So ran a headline in the Washington Post earlier this month. Marc Thiessen, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, accused WikiLeak’s Julian Assange of ‘threatening America with the cyber equivalent of thermonuclear war’. America, he said, should ‘rally a coalition of the willing’ to engage in ‘a war in cyberspace’ by ‘shutting down [WikiLeaks’] servers and cutting off its finances.’ Where countries refuse that join in the war, ‘action should be taken to drive WikiLeaks from those safe havens.’ Presumably with a drone strike against a server.
What has been extraordinary about the whole WikiLeaks saga are not so much the revelations as the rhetoric it has aroused and the illiberalism it has unleashed. Some of information gleaned from US diplomatic cables, for instance about US operations in Pakistan and Yemen, has been revelatory, though much of the material has been of the ‘Did you know that the Pope was a Catholic?’ variety. The mass disclosure of the diplomatic cables has, however, turned Assange, in some people’s eyes, into the Osama bin Laden of cyberspace. Not only have senior US politicians declared Assange a ‘terrorist’, a term that,as lawyer and writer Glenn Greenwald puts it, often means nothing more than ‘those who impede or defy the will of the US Government with any degree of efficacy’, but many have also demanded the most extreme of retaliatory measures. Mike Huckabee, a former Republican presidential candidate and a possible future one, called for the execution of whoever leaked the information to Assange. Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, demanded Assange's assassination, telling Barack Obama to ‘put out a contract'. The same politicians that berate China for locking up human rights activists such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo want not simply to imprison but to eliminate America’s dissidents.
Such hypocrisy and lack of self-reflexivity reveals itself at the highest levels. Back in January, in a major speech at Washington’s Newseum, Hillary Clinton, insisted that America was at the forefront on defending Internet freedom. The State Department, she boasted, was ‘supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.’ Clinton added that ‘censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand.’
Ten months later, without any hint of irony, that same State Department is putting pressure on companies to do the very opposite, bullying them to break links with WikiLeaks. Amazon kicked WikiLieaks off its servers, Paypal suspended WikiLeaks’ account, Visa and Mastercard stopped processing payments to the organization. WikiLeaks has committed no crime under American law. Weeks of intense legal searches by top government lawyers has unearthed not a single offence with which they could charge the organization. US government action amounts, in Greenwald’s words, to the law of ‘the lawless, Wild Western World: political leaders punishing whomever they want without any limits, certainly without regard to bothersome concepts of law.’
But if WikiLeaks’ critics have been guilty of illiberalism, incitement and worse, its supporters have also all too often painted themselves in a less than flattering light. No one has, of course, called for the assassination of Hillary Clinton or the execution of Mastercard’s CEO. But coming from supposed supporters of freedom and liberty, many of the arguments in defence of WikiLeaks make for uncomfortable reading.
The arrest of Assange on rape charges in Sweden has unleashed all manner of conspiracy theories. Some claimed that one of the rape complainants was a CIA agent, others that Sweden was, in the words of Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens, a ‘lickspittle state’ that always did American’s bidding. From arch-feminist Naomi Wolf to radical film maker Michael Moore, Assange’s prominent supporters insisted that the rape claims were, in Moore’s words, ‘hooey’ and demanded the dropping of all charges. An internet campaign has set out to harass the complainants, revealing their identities and attempting to unearth as much dirt as possible.
You don’t, of course, have to be a conspiracy theorist to find the timing of Assange’s arrest odd, to say the least, nor a male dinosaur to regard the case against Assange as flimsy. Nevertheless, the factual support for some kind of CIA-orchestrated grand conspiracy is flimsier still. And the idea that rape charges, however insubstantial the case may seem, should be dropped simply because the defendant is a warrior for freedom of information is surely no more palatable than the idea that US law should be changed so that Assange can be charged with doing something that the American government does not like. The hero-worship afforded Assange by many of his supporters (Jemima Khan went as far as wondering whether Assange was the 'new Jason Bourne') seems to have created a blindness about such issues.
The illiberalism of some WikiLeak supporters has been expressed in other ways too. When Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and other corporations moved against WikiLeaks, a group of ad hoc hackers, naming themselves Anonymous, struck back by attacking the companies’ websites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting freedom of speech on the internet, protested that ‘all cyber-vigilantism, be it against Mastercard or Wikilieaks’ should be condemned. Anonymous responded by threatening EFF itself with a cyber-attack. ‘Wanna be next, wise guy?’, it asked on Twitter. To which the tech writer and free speech activist Cory Doctorow replied, ‘Defending free speech means people get to disagree with you’. If Anonymous is going to launch cyber-attacks on their critics, he added, ‘they're not for free speech’.
There are also questions to be asked about WikiLeaks itself. The organization has been indespensible in allowing whistleblowers to publish safely documents that the authorities would rather have kept hushed up, from the truth about commodity trader Trafigura’s devastating dumping of chemical waste in the Ivory Coast to videos of US helicopter attacks on Iraqi civilians. It has become an important tool in cutting down to size those in power who would abuse their power.
WikiLeaks is not, however, simply about leaking specific information to combat a specific injustice. It is also about the belief that transparency is a good in itself and that the world would be a better place without secrets. According to State and Terrorist Conspiracies, the 2006 manifesto with which Assange launched WikiLeaks, the modern state is akin to a terrorist organization whose power is maintained by ‘conspiratorial interactions among the political elite’. ‘Mass leaking’, Assange believes, makes states ‘exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance’.
Leaving aside Assange’s conspiracy-driven view of the world, would total transparency really lead to better governance? All institutions require a degree of opaqueness. That’s what makes them institutions, organizations distinct and separate from the rest of the world. No diplomatic service, no government, could exist as a diplomatic service, as a government, if every thought, anxiety or possibility raised by its officials was constantly monitored. Total transparency would undermine the very possibility of governance. Insofar as we accept that government, and a diplomatic service, is a good, or at least a necessary evil, then we must accept the need for a degree of opaqueness even within elite institutions. There is a balance to be struck, in other words, between laying bare the truth about Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War or the illegal practices of corporations, truths that should never have been hidden away, and allowing institutions to keep the degree of privacy necessary for their function as institutions.
Holding authorities accountable, exposing their lies, defending the right to free speech – all are fundamental in protecting our liberties. But once we insist that transparency is a good in itself and that secrecy an unadulterated bad, then the line between liberty and unfreedom can become dangerously blurred.
In a recent essay, the writer and comedian Frank Skinner suggested that WikiLeaks is an expression of ‘the slow but unavoidable death of privacy’. And this, he thought, was a good thing because ‘privacy is overrated’. Smashing down the walls of privacy was necessary to make people behave better. Just as CCTV cameras ensure that speed limits are not broken or old ladies mugged because people know that their every indiscretion and misbehaviour is being monitored, so WikiLeaks performs a similar job upon the elite, ensuring not simply that past misdeeds are exposed but that in the future politicians will not dare to launch unjust wars or pursue immoral policies. ‘People used to behave well because they thought God was watching’, Skinner observed. ‘Now the secular world has come up with its own hidden observers.’
This is the Big Brother defence of WikiLeaks: if everyone had a camera upon them, society would be a better place. It is not only a profoundly cynical view of human behaviour, it is also one that is deeply corrosive of both social trust and political democracy. It is also one that fails to distinguish between the need to control those who possess power, and the need to prevent those who possess power from controlling us. Most WikiLeaks supporters will, no doubt, oppose calls for such invasion of personal privacy. But Skinner’s argument reveals the ease with which the argument for transparency can become a demand for surveillance.
What we need is not more intrusive policing but greater political accountability. WikiLeaks has been invaluable in allowing lies to be exposed, and those in power to be held accountable, and it is imperative to resist all attempts to squeeze it out of existence. But the WikiLeaks approach also raises profound questions about the meaning of transparency, democracy and free speech. Unfortunately the ‘You’re with us or you’re with them’ attitude that has infected both sides of the argument is not a useful starting point for a rational debate around such questions. Just because they blindly hunt witches doesn't mean we have to unquestioningly worship heroes.