Fixing a Hole: The Importance of Wikileaks

December 7, 2010

I’m fixing a hole

where the rain gets in

and stops my mind from wandering

where it will go”

Paul McCartney

Critics of the Wikileaks organisation can celebrate. Julian Assange has been arrested and is to appear before magistrates in London, where he will learn whether he is to be extradited to Sweden to face trumped up rape charges. The critics will, perhaps, harbour hopes that Wikileaks will cease leaking. The precious treasure of diplomatic cables, military intelligence and other sundry gobbets of information from within the US state, will be safely stowed away again. Responsible government can resume.

Yet to those critics, we need to riposte. What, after all, is worse – arranging the publicisation of leaked diplomatic cables, thereby exposing how numerous governments had been conspiring to launch an attack on Iran, or actually arranging the delivery of millions of pounds of explosives, gases, bullets, into the bodies of people in Iran, or anywhere else for that matter? Is diplomatic confidentiality sacrosanct after the War in Iraq? Can it be safely allowed to operate with governments so willing to launch massive unprovoked attacks on nations in the name of phony disarmament, anti-terror or pro-democracy campaigns?

Most people would argue that Wikileaks has served a vital purpose in allowing anonymous leakers to distribute information across the world. That’s not to say that the cables themselves are revelatory. Most are not. Most are dull, not particularly elegant, confirming what we knew about official U.S.-government wisdom, intimations of what embassies wanted their superiors to hear, or what they sincerely believed.

We learn a bit about how slavishly loyal members of both the British Conservative and Labour party hierarchies are to the twisted totem of “Transatlanticism” – willing to override local dissent in the name of one hundred-percent Americanism. We learn that embassy staff around the world are tasked with identifying facilities that are of strategic importance to the United States, from cobalt mines in the Congo, to telecommunications uplinks in provincial England. This is all very useful for anyone who wants to assess the imperial ambitions of the U.S.A., again – hardly revelatory – but useful nonetheless. We are not told the deeper purpose behind the listing, nor what measures the CIA or other arms of the U.S. establishment have taken to cement control over such vital sites, but we are allowed a certain legitimacy to our speculations.

So Wikileaks has enriched our capacity to analyse both our domestic elites and the role of America in the world. This is all to the good, but we should not stop there. For it is not the release of diplomatic information itself that the Wikileaks case should revolve around. The information is important, but ephemeral. The principle, however, that journalistic sources must be protected against the recriminations of vengeful state machineriess, is not. Or it should not be. It is often forgotten (or so it seems) that Wikileaks is a journalistic organization. It takes source material from whistleblowers and publishes it. It doesn’t analyse the material, but then in an age of “churnalism” few newspaper journalists provide more than a restatement of the material that they depend upon. Yet it is one of the keystones of any notion of a free press, that whistleblowing be permitted and shielded.

If Wikileaks is crushed by the force of the American state, with Swedish and British, Swiss, French, and Australian, complicity, then a precedent will be set that will sharply limit the possibilities for digital disclosure  in the future. This is not a forgone conclusion by any means. Assange’s lawyers claim that they will fight the extradition order. They may yet succeed. And there are battalions of digital infantry right now waging war against websites that they see as complicit in the hounding of Wikileaks – from Amazon, to Paypal. Numerous Twitter postings affirm that their authors “are Julian Assange” – willing to take up the reins and mirror the Wikileaks site, keeping the information flowing. Perhaps the issue will take to the streets, as has happened to the once dowdy matter of corporate tax evasion and tuition fees in the UK.

There is tremendous force being exerted by governments and their lackeys to shut down the fissures that information activism is creating. There  is a similarly tremendous and volatile force of individuals committed to spreading the gospel of transparency and web freedom. In an historical moment in which protest is becoming ever more normalized, and supported, there looms the very real potential for resistance.

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