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Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks: Separating the Truth from the Irrelevant and the Fiction

I saw VP Biden say on MSNBC earlier today that the WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic communications which were supposed to stay out of public view was "embarrassing" but posed no threat to national security.    That's what our Secretary of Defense had stated clearly a few weeks ago, and it has been my impression from the outset.  So here is where I think we now stand on this controversial - to say the least - issue.

First, I think we need to separate three facets of the WikiLeaks controversy which are not really relevant to whether the release of US documents was/will be helpful, damaging, or of not much effect at all to America and our democracy.

1.  The most serious of the rape charges reported against Julian Assange, WikiLeaks Director, are worthy of his arrest if true (these charges are that he had non-consensual, unprotected sex with a sleeping woman).  But it's not at all clear that those charges are justified.   Michael Moore and others who have come to Assange's defense say the authorities think that all he did is have sex with a condom that broke, and he refused to later submit to being checked for HIV, etc.  Moore also said that he wouldn't be surprised if the governments involved overseas trumped up the charges against Assange as a way of smearing him after the release of the documents.    Recalling Nixon's "dirty tricks" brigade, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the charges were an attempt of one of more governments to bring Assange down.  But most important:  even if the worst of the charges were true, that would have no relevance to whether the release of the documents will ultimately help or hurt our democracy.

2.  Businesses and corporations - I'm talking about Amazon, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and whoever else ended their relationships with WikiLeaks and Assange - have every right to do business with whomever they please  (as they're not discriminating against a class of people).   But if any of those businesses were in the least bit pressured by our government to cut their services to WikiLeaks, then that would be an underhanded kind of censorship, and a violation of the First Amendment.  I'd like to see a little investigation into that.   But, again, this is not relevant to the question of whether the release of the documents was helpful or damaging.

3.  Denial of services to the general public, brought on cyber attacks, is morally wrong, because innocent people are hurt.   I therefore cannot support the cyber attacks on Mastercard and Visa, even if they were made in the name of free speech.  And, again, this has no relevance as to whether the release of the documents were in the interests of our democracy, or against.

So where does that leave us?

a - If the Vice President and Secretary of Defense of the United States say no national security interests were jeopardized, and the only impact was "embarrassment," that's good enough for me.  Clearly, that also means that no lives of people in the military - or people anywhere - were jeopardized, for no sane person would use the word "embarrassment" if any lives were jeopardized.

b - The lies and errors that led to our unleashing of the Vietnam and the Iraqi Wars - lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, errors (at the very least) in reporting the presence of WMDs in Iraq - show that, in the past, our democracy would have been better served by more not less information about what our government is doing and claiming.

c - The Internet, as I pointed out at length in my book New New Media in 2009, has changed forever the way everything in the world, including governmental diplomatic operations, are conducted.  An individual or organization with information can instantly get that out to the world, with no one else's permission.   Since I've always agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the first defense people have against dangerous governments is maximum information,  I've got to think that this Internet revolution in general, and this WikiLeaks release of documents in particular, is helpful to our democracy.
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