This controversy raises fundamental questions which I will attempt to answer below. I feel the three questions raised are
- Does a State have the right to do anything in the name of sovereign power? And then cover it up?
- Can media truly exercise extreme transparency without upsetting human civil values?
- What is the nature of truth itself? Are there permanent truths for us to hang on to?
Death by a thousand cuts!
It's rather easy to be killed by a single bullet. The mind will not get enough time to feel the pain. Getting stabbed is painful but it ends quickly. The real torture is when someone inflicts countless minor lacerations on your body, and death arrives of blood-loss, slowly and steadily. WikiLeaks does precisely that - putting entire legions of foreign service-men, diplomats, ambassadors, bureaucrats and politicians on tenterhooks - awaiting the next cut to their reputation, the next blow to the carefully built facade that's been holding the reputations for long. On the face of it, the whole business of doing business with foreign nations comes to a halt, as suspicions build up. It's the classic spy-vs-spy story, with WikiLeaks as the huge catalyst for aggravated suspicions.
A simple analogy, anyone?
Imagine that someone puts a secret camera and microphone inside your bedroom or living room, and records everything you do. And then promises to release stuff bit by bit, on some website (SharmaLeaks, for example!!), over a long period of time. The intolerable pain of having to wait for what's coming next can tear the family (or marriage) and the reputation apart. Our lives are like scratch-books - some incidents are scribbles, others deep-etched memories of things really important. When voyeurism prevails, both categories get mixed up in dangerous and avoidable ways.. and it's never good for anyone. There's no husband in the world who will want to live with his wife any longer if the complete history of every single conversation that the wife has ever done is made transparent. That's how humans are. We accept our partners, friends and colleagues on "averages". On an average, things work out just fine as the pluses outweigh the minuses. Try finding someone, any one, who has never spoken ill about you, and you'll end up searching forever. (the husband-wife example quoted was intentional; the reverse order is 100% certain!).
The State as the Big Brother
What's wrong with someone who tells you the truth? A lot, if the truth trespasses the thick line that separates concepts underlying individual liberty from those representing State's sovereignty.
The State is all powerful. The State is not to be played around with. The State can get you, anyday, on any pretext. The State knows it all, and there's no escape. And to live happy ever after, it is necessary for everyone to pay a rent to the State. In nations like India, rent-seeking assumes multiple forms, most of them illegal and unconstitutional, yet unavoidable (unless you are willing to learn the basics of law, human rights, and are willing to fight for the same). In developed nations of the West, high levels of media scrutiny keeps raw power of state under check.
So what is this "State"? The term represents the whole concept around which modern civilisation stands. Independent, powerful and supposedly benign national powers that take care of their citizens, provide for them and create an environment of peace and prosperity. Rule of law governs everyone, thereby levelling off any specific advantage a group may command. Everyone is equal before the law.
Who is this "State"? What's the permanence of people who make it up? Well, certainly the people who make up the State's machinery are not permanent. They come, they go. Some of them stay on for 30 or 40 years, making up the bureaucracies that we all so love to hate. But ultimately even they have to retire. No one stays on forever. Everyone has to die some day! But even though men (and women) come and go, the system keeps grinding, as the policies are documented, positions established and dogmas fertilised and kept alive. It never stops. It's the system that overrides all individual identities. Corporates like McDonalds may revel in their magnificent systems-and-process culture but no one comes close to the predictable repetitiveness of a State's bureaucratic machinery - cold, calculated, selfish, and always inward-looking.
Limits to tolerance - the empire strikes back
For centuries, kings, princes and authoritarian regimes have tried to carry a heavy pretense of looking democratic, open-minded and transparent. But history teaches us that limits to all these do exist. As long as peripheral and harmless issues are raised the State may pretend to actually get affected and take corrective action (on its own agents). But the moment someone points a finger at any core aspect of the State, the empire prepares to strikes back. And that can be pretty nasty. Agents of the empire (the police, the military, the administrators, and the judicial system) can cause harm that may take years to repair. And since the process of revenge-seeking is orchestrated by a body that's amorphous, foggy and amoeba like, hitting back (by an individual) is a very difficult and uncertain process. Countless examples exist. In fast moving systems like Singapore (a rich, developed State), the State precludes a lot of civilian retaliation possibilities by creating a vast array of repressive policies covering a wide gamut of civilian life en (no chewing-gum, for instance). Caning is a frequently used punishment (sounds medieval, right!). In complex and slow moving States like India's, most citizens are under-informed about their own basic legal rights, and can be taken to task almost without any effort by agents of the State (fear of loss of reputation if the police merely reaches one's home, for example).
Enter Julian Assange!
Well, to hell with the State, said Julian Assange. And he attacked where it genuinely hurt the most. The secretive communications that constituted the inner workings of the American State. Thus, he exposed not only the Americans, but also all those linked with them - other State-heads, informers, military generals, and so on. His WikiLeaks website, designed as a digital drop box, is a place where anyone can anonymously submit sensitive or secret materials to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. In April, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it fired on a group of men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. It continued in the same spirit thereafter "leaking" cables (communications) between the American embassies worldwide and their US Head Office.
WikiLeaks' commitment to what might be called extreme transparency means that it hasn't turned away documents of questionable news value or origin. According to WikiLeaks' credo, to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys. "We never censor," Assange declares. No doubt, mainstream media's limitations (due to commercial interests) also got exposed in this melee.
How did it gain prominence?
Here are some of Wikileaks' biggest hits, that apparently have helped it gain the weight it has.
- Video shot by an American attack copter as it mowed down a dozen men on a Baghdad street, including two Reuters journalists
- Detainee treatment manuals from Gitmo
- Inventories of US military matériel in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Stolen docs from the Swiss bank Julius Baer's Cayman Islands branch, allegedly showing tax evasion
- Confidential documents about sexual abuse by United Nations peacekeepers
- Deailed reports on corruption and political violence in Kenya
- Emails from Sarah Palin's Yahoo account
- Holocaust denier David Irving's emails
- Membership lists of the far-right British National Party
- An internal report from the oil trader Trafigura about its disposal of toxic cargo off the coast of West Africa
- Scientology manuals, including a list of URLs owned by the church, such as purehubbard.com and scientology-sucks.com
Basic assumption about WikiLeaks
That what it says is actually "true" - who knows that for sure? The governments are in a state of vehement denial, and there's never going to be an official proof of anything. Those who are benefitted by any specific leak will never deny it even if it's false! So the truth, alas, is based on a fundamental assumption that Julian is not making a fool of everyone :)
Also, the whole story of WikiLeaks has strangely accorded a certain reputation and status to Julian's credibility, and people tend to speak of him with a certain level of respect. That's interesting.
The leaked cables!
Now the really juicy stuff started about a month ago when Julian Assange started exposing "cables" that contained intimate details of foreign policy of the US. This is perhaps the biggest expose in the diplomatic history of modern world. It proves just how vulnerable everyone is, in this age of nano-second IT connectivity and mass rapid media consumption.
Three critical aspects of the "leaked cables" -
- How nations interact - It becomes apparent that most of what we study in the erudite tomes on "Political Science" is actually correct (what a relief!). It is true that "in international politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests". The way the US diplomats have described the various heads of states is telltale. Who would argue with the descriptions accorded to the North Korean dictator, or the French president. And frankly, there seems to be nothing wrong in the way it's been done. What's wrong is that is that it got leaked, thereby becoming scandalous. Otherwise it may have gone on for years without any potential impact.
- How nations will interact - If you really reflect on this, it becomes clear that one of the two things will happen (the second one has a higher probability)
- breakdown in relations
- a big hearty laugh, and move-on!
- Immediate potential damage - Yes, heads will roll. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers who have been shamed brutally will find scapegoats. The diplomats who uttered the most honest observations will be removed! But ultimately, the needs and necessities of international politics are such that everyone will have to move on. They will take a deep breath, and move on.
Do you hear that Mr Anderson?
Like the detestable Agent Smith in the memorable Matrix movie trilogy, the State - for now - seems to be holding Neo (Julian Assange) in its grip uttering menacingly "Do you hear the sound of that train, Mr Anderson? That's the sound of inevitability.. the sound of your death".
Margaret Mead made her memorable quote thinking of a small group of committed individuals. The debate rages over truthfulness of motives, the limits of media transparency and the rational of extreme disclosure.