Wikileaks in the Crosshairs
Wikileaks has provided all manner of scoops in its short life – but why would the US government spend tax dollars spying on it?
As far as "national security threats" go, real or imagined, it's likely that few Americans lose much sleep over Wilkileaks, the website that publishes anonymously sourced documents which governments, corporations, and other private or powerful organisations would rather you not see. It would appear the US security apparatus does not feel the same way.
On Friday of last week, editor and co-founder Julian Assange posted a letter to the site detailing a laundry list of rather Keystone Kop-like instances of surveillance of himself and other members of the Wikileaks team, likely carried out at least in part by members of the US intelligence or law enforcement community:
"We have discovered half a dozen attempts at covert surveillance in Reykjavik both by native English speakers and Icelanders. On the occasions where these individuals were approached, they ran away."
Ironic if it were not so creepy, much of the observable surveillance took place while Assange and others were in Iceland advising the parliament on a groundbreaking set of laws ... designed to protect investigative journalists and web service providers from spying and censorship. Assange also described being tailed on a flight en route to an investigative journalism conference in Norway, by "two individuals, recorded as brandishing diplomatic credentials ... under the name of US State Department".
So why are US tax dollars being spent spying on a bunch of volunteer journalists, human rights activists and web geeks, as appears to be the case? There are a few obvious motives, but the smoking gun might be a classified film Wikileaks claims to have in its possession that shows evidence of a US massacre of civilians. Images have power - think Abu Ghraib, think Mi Lai - and efforts at "perception management" by the department of defence will be much complicated by documentary evidence that leaves little to interpretation or "perception" of a human rights crime committed by US forces. Wikileaks plans to show the video at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on 5 April.
"In my opinion, the operation points not to the CIA, but to the US Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), which (among other things) is tasked with tracing information leaks believed to be originating from US diplomatic staff," Dr Joseph Fistanakis tells me, founder of Intelnews.org and an expert in the politics and history of intelligence and espionage. "If the US suspected that Wikileaks acquired restricted or classified documents through a US embassy official or staff member (which Julian alludes to in his editorial), then the DSS would get involved."
As a target for surveillance Wikileaks is hardly the Kremlin - the mostly volunteer run site was temporarily shut down a few months ago due to lack of funds. Yet it has provided all manner of scoops in its short life - documented corruption in Kenya, evidence of potentially criminal bank fraud in Iceland, and classified US army documents about the treatment of Guantánamo detainees. And while its list of critics is long, openness and transparency are not chief characteristics regularly attributed to them. North Korea, China, Russia, and Zimbabwe have all blocked access to the site at one time or another in response to controversial leaks.
It's not a very heartening sign that the US government has joined such an illustrious roster. Yet in an ironic twist one of the conclusions of a report prepared by the department of defence intelligence analysis programme (DIAP), and published by Wikileaks earlier this month contains a surprising defence of the workings of a functioning, responsive democracy:
"It must be presumed that Wikileaks.org has or will receive sensitive or classified DoD documents in the future. This information will be published and analysed over time by a variety of personnel and organisations with the goal of influencing US policy."
If the video Wikileaks plans to screen at the National Press Club on April 5 does indeed include scenes of a US massacre of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan, as is purported, perhaps the "goal of influencing US policy" becomes a little easier to identify. National security is better served by promoting a just and accountable foreign policy. For starters, stop massacring civilians in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and investigate and prosecute those responsible for past massacres and cover-ups when and where the burden of proof calls for it.
If the US army and the defence apparatus still need help from the muckrakers at Wikileaks to remind them of this fact, then let the leaks continue. And if you think the work that Wikileaks is doing is important, then consider leaking them some money.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited