The Disruptive Drip of WikiLeaks and the Public's Right to Know

This week I've been haunted by an AP Photo by Muhammed Muheisen in the Akron Beacon Journal (1/3/11 -- print edition only) showing a road in Pakistan just outside Islamabad. On pavement on the left are a fairly modern bus (maybe 1970s) and a rubber-tired two-wheeled cart pulled by a donkey; in the background a few pedestrians, a truck, tall light poles; in the foreground two small girls, one barefoot, walk on packed dirt past some rubble and another donkey. The accompanying news story was about the difficulties of President Zardari in holding his government together, and the threat to U.S. efforts to battle al-Qaida despite spending billions of dollars on Pakistan.

In 2010 the CIA (not the military) killed over 900 Pakistanis (of which 90 percent of the dead were civilians) in 132 drone attacks.

It defies comprehension. Our CIA is using expensive, high-tech, high-energy, no-risk devices for the extra-legal assassination of a handful of alleged terrorists, and in the process mostly killing poor people who use donkey carts and can't afford shoes for their children.

Last April WikiLeaks released a 2007 video in which U.S. soldiers in a helicopter opened fire on a group of civilians in Iraq, wounding two children and killing 12 people including two Reuters photographers.

This week Reuters reported that U.S. diplomatic cables released by Aftenposten (the Norwegian newspaper that has all the WikiLeaks documents) included the statement "As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge"

The Republican Party, now in control of the U.S. House, is planning a Congressional inquiry into WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Rep. Darrell Issa said that if Assange can't be seen as a terrorist, "therefore he must be a criminal -- "Otherwise the world is laughing at this paper tiger we've become."

This week we learned further that U.S. intelligence officers, in response to the threat of WikiLeaks, are urging all government agencies to find ways to "detect behavioral changes" among federal employees with access to secret documents, suggesting the use of psychiatrists and sociologists assess the trustworthiness of workers by measuring their "relative happiness" or "despondence and grumpiness

But federal employees have already been deemed untrustworthy. They've already been forbidden to read WikiLeaks -- and thus kept from information that might be helpful or crucial to their effectiveness.

Traditional journalism is using WikiLeaks widely as a source, even though journalists can't make up their minds (individually or collectively) about whether Julian Assange is a journalist and WikiLeaks is journalism and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Like investigative journalism, WikiLeaks is based on the premise that the public has right to know what their governments are doing on their behalf with their tax money in their communities and worldwide.

Efforts by U. S. government agencies and commercial interests to convince the public that WikiLeaks is engaged in criminal espionage against the U.S. have fallen flat -- spying for whom? spying for what cause, what purpose or mission?

There has been no suggestion that WikiLeaks is turning a profit, or that it is supported by any government or corporation. Indeed, the fact that corporations are trying to suppress it and silence Assange should give us pause: why are big corporations trying to bring down WikiLeaks unless they are trying to hide something? When Assange's new book comes out, do we imagine that will refuse to sell it?

Ben Adler, writing in Newsweek, proposes that Assange does have an advocacy mission for WikiLeaks: " ... to disrupt the functioning of governments"

Hold on: I thought that was the advocacy mission of Grover Norquist, of the Tea Party, of the new Republican majority in the House, and of the military-industrial complex and the mainstream media, though clearly for different purposes.

Yet perhaps it's time to disrupt the functioning of our government, when its leadership is trying to restrict our access to information, to spy on us, to kill or detain persons without due process, to privatize public services, to fund unwinnable wars, to support Israel's suppression of Palestinians, to provide tax breaks and bonuses for the very rich, and to underwrite big banks and health insurance companies as they gamble with citizens' homes and health.

My personal take on WikiLeaks: It's the drip before the deluge. If anyone can hack into any computerized system, thousands will. There are already copycat systems out there, though so far most of them are more tightly targeted and less well constructed than WikiLeaks. Assange himself has expressed grave reservations about a "GovernmentLeaks" project launched by Chinese experts, noting that "... they'd set up had no meaningful security. They have no reputation you can trust. It's very easy and very dangerous to do it wrong."

WikiLeaks can show us how dysfunctional our government is: how our government is spying on us, keeping Palestinians in poverty, measuring the "trustworthiness" of our neighbors, and investing in drones to slaughter barefoot children and old men in donkey carts.

But in democracy, dysfunctional government isn't just our problem. It's our responsibility.

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