He is irritating, but WikiLeaks founder is no enemy of the state

WITH his leather jackets and messy, bleached hair, Julian Assange could be the edgy one in a fashionable indie band. In more ways than one, the WikiLeaks founder is the poster boy for today’s unthinking, whistleblowing brand of newsmaking, which is what currently passes for investigative reporting.

True to his adolescent spirit, Assange is never happier than when making comments like, “Privacy is a western luxury” and, in response to why he doesn’t apply the same demands of transparency to himself as he demanded of other organisations, “Transparency should be in proportion to power”.

This makes him irritating but does it make him a terrorist as US Congressman, Peter King, has suggested? (Yes, I know it’s the same Peter King who flirted with the IRA for decades but I refuse to waste my pen on such an obvious hypocrite).

It’s true, the revelations from the WikiLeaks release of cable traffic between US embassies and the State Department in Washington have embarrassed the US in a number of ways. Many world leaders will be offended at the ways in which they are described by American diplomats. But will they be entirely surprised?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is, for example, is described as “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts, but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him”. Italy’s Berlusconi is labelled “feckless” and “vain”. Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu can’t keep his promises. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy is “thin-skinned and authoritarian“; Angela Merkel lacks creativity. Brian Cowen likes to party.

No, I made the last one up: as far as I know, at the time of writing, the 251,287 cables have nothing to say about the Taoiseach. But you will understand the point: there isn’t a whole lot that is actually new in these supposedly earth-shattering revelations. So we “learn” that the Saudis are urging the US to stop Iran’s nuclear programme by any means necessary? But you read that in this column months ago.

So, thinking about an eventual collapse of North Korea: American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, have they? Well, blow me down. And it was China’s Politburo which directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country, according to a Chinese contact of the American Embassy in Beijing. Well, who else calls the shots in China, for heaven’s sake? It is important to remember that none of the cables are labelled “top secret”, so we were never likely to find out the most sensitive aspects of American diplomacy. Instead, all we are getting is public confirmation of things we have long suspected. The New York Times reports that, “The voluminous traffic of more recent years … show American officials struggling with events whose outcomes are far from sure.” But wasn’t it always thus?

Of course, that doesn’t mean the cables don’t contain interesting nuggets. Press reports had already detailed the unhappiness of the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, when he was not permitted to pitch tent (literally) in Manhattan or to visit Ground Zero during a United Nations session in 2009.

But the leaked cables do add a whiff of scandal to the tale. They describe the volatile Libyan leader as rarely without the companionship of “his senior Ukrainian nurse”, described as “a voluptuous blonde”.

So the leaks provide “colour”. They provide details. They help reinforce existing biases. They give newspapers a chance to pretend they’ve got scoops. The documents might even help bring in advertising revenue. But without more investigation, more work, more journalism, these documents just don’t matter that much. To argue that they are significant because they will inform an ignorant public is ludicrous. If you don’t know by now that Israel is trying to drive a wedge between Iran and its allies, for example, all that means is that you don’t read the mainstream media. Which means that you don’t really want to know.

No doubt some of the facts and claims in the documents can be useful, but only as part of a broader understanding of the dynamics of American foreign policy. And that kind of understanding can only come from asking questions and thinking hard, not waiting around for some disgruntled suit to hand over some internal documents.

Yes the WikiLeaks documents contain some juicy stuff. But is it shocking that diplomats have opinions on the politicians of their host country — not always flattering ones — and report them back to base?

The fact that these cables have been leaked is not shocking either. America’s reputation for competence has taken plenty of hits in recent years — the bungled early liberation of Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill and now this. But if it isn’t shocking, it is certainly depressing. How could it have been so easy for one renegade individual to have downloaded all of this sensitive information and passed it to WikiLeaks on a USB stick?

Today’s information incontinence among the powers-that-be in much of the Western world — which is now so bad that a couple of years ago an internal US government document about the problem of leaking was later leaked — springs from institutional incoherence amongst the political class. Their lack of any overarching strategy means personal disgruntlements can easily come to the fore, as one section of the elite uses the media to score points against another section.

By embracing these leakers, these whistle-blowers, the media are in danger of unwittingly make themselves into pawns for power spats. The widespread cult of leaking implicitly makes journalists into passive creatures who wait for internal information rather than being active agents who are part of an awkward squad asking difficult questions of the powers-that-be and the status quo.

Truth becomes, not something we find out through critical study and investigation, but something we are handed by external forces that apparently have always pure, unimpeachable motives. As if…

For all the blog-based claims that Assange is being morally throttled by behind-the-scenes, Pentagon-paid accusers, the truth is that WikiLeaks is not so much a great enemy of the American state as an embarrassment to the state, exposing Washington’s already-existing internal disarray for all to see. WikiLeaks has merely exploited this state of affairs by playing the role of willing communicator of elite disgruntlement. So Assange is not really the dangerous rebel he imagines he is — he is more a parasite on a decaying American government. Do we really want the definition of what constitutes the public interest resting in the hands of a highly politicised neo-anarchist like Assange, some ask? Possibly not, but Assange continually highlights WikiLeaks’ innate weakness. The notion that the internet can replace traditional newsgathering has been revealed as a myth. Eventually, historians or good investigative reporters will make sense of these leaks, but that will take time, money and possibly the support of the mainstream media.

Moreover, the widespread notion that WikiLeaks poses such a mortal threat to Washington’s integrity that the Assange must be crushed by any means necessary is a paranoid fantasy.

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