WikiLeaks, Assange and the Perils of No Censorship

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Oh, ye gods. Enough already of WikiLeaks, or, more specifically, of Julian Assange, the Australian head (in more ways than one) of the organization dedicated to publishing leaked information considered “important news” for the public.

Now, the organization’s aim certainly sounds worthy: “We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices.”

Yep, suppressed and censored injustices definitely demand exposure. But the recently released secret U.S. diplomatic cables are curiously sparse in the suppressed and censored injustices category. For example, what injustice lies in the revelation that some Arab leaders would be privately delighted if the United States would obliterate Iran’s nuclear capabilities?

The antagonism between Arabs and Persians is old news, hence, not news. They have been at odds since long before any pasty-faced infidel entertained dreams of gushing oil wells while disdaining the volume of sugar in his turbaned host’s tea — along with his host.

Even WikiLeaks’ April release of a much sought after classified video of a 2007 U.S. Army attack on a group of men in New Baghdad, Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, fails the “suppressed and censored injustice” test — not because the video wasn’t a revelation, indeed the attack was devastating in human and political terms, but because WikiLeaks censored the video in its own special way. They bastardized the raw material, careening wildly around Pulitzer and barreling headlong into Machiavelli, editing the original footage, manipulating audio in segments and titling the already anguished footage “Collateral Murder,” thus producing an effective bit of propaganda, not the transparent reportage that is WikiLeak’s declared mission.

And of late, Assange seems less like a champion of “democracy and transparency” and more like a petulant adolescent, spoiled by his notoriety and lacking the leadership qualities that his risky pursuit demands, qualities such as the foresight, patience and sense of responsibility to effectively redact innocent peoples’ names from purloined Afghanistan and Iraq war documents before releasing them, a failure that caused some of his ranks to quit. Or the discernment to withhold those diplomatic cables that, rather than revealing suppressed and censored injustices, serve only to embarrass governments and interfere with diplomatic relations.

Perhaps Assange’s underlying and greatest failure, however, is his apparent inability to keep his ego in check. His news media interviews reflect a man who thinks very highly of himself, devoid of an editor. When challenged recently by a team member, he reportedly replied that he is WikiLeaks’ “heart and soul, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off.” And, he has threatened to release a mass of national and commercial secrets if his operations are shut down.

As much as I wanted to admire Assange, I don’t. His ego has overpowered my affinity for iconoclasts, just as the material he is leaking risks overpowering the good WikiLeaks could do. In the rarefied community of whistleblowers, Assange does not stand out as a dedicated and selfless advocate; he is not the Erin Brockovich of world polluters, the Deep Throat of international government corruption, the Sherron Watkins of global corporate malfeasance. These whistleblowers deserve admiration — and protection — for telling truths the public needed to know.

The public does not need to know the private encounters and analyses of our diplomatic corps, as titillating as some of the information might be.

Richard C. Matheron, a retired foreign service officer, said of the leaked cables:

It’s part of the evaluation of the people you’re dealing with. You have to back up your analysis of a situation by commenting upon the people who are involved in it. I don’t see whether [the released cables] are helpful and of course the worst thing that could happen is there are some sources who are compromised, whose lives might be endangered for cooperating with the U.S. … With modern technology, there is essentially nothing that is so sacrosanct that it can’t be discovered. It’s going to force diplomats to be more circumspect in their evaluations of people.

Just as the world is becoming more circumspect in its evaluation of WikiLeaks. As of Saturday, even PayPal has severed its ties to the organization:

PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We've notified the account holder of this action.

Interestingly, WikiLeaks topmost fundraising plea at the moment is for contributions to the Julian Assange Defence Fund. My response to that plea is “Piss off.”

Love, K-B

UPDATE: Since this post, WikiLeaks has removed the request for donations to the Julian Assange Defence Fund from it's Support page.

©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt