This Christmas, give the gift of...secret diplomatic cables?
There were several surprisingly slanted articles in the Holiday edition of “T,” the New York Times style magazine published 15 Sundays a year and put together by writers and reporters from outside the paper. Most newsworthy (if almost as shallow as the other pieces) was British writer Misha Glenny’s profile of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (arrested in a sex inquiry in London Tuesday morning), presenting his damaging, illegal leaks of secret diplomatic cables as a Christmas gift, treating the controversial figure as just another one of the hip icons celebrated in T Magazine in a story with the galling title “The Gift of Information.”
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been jettisoned to fame or notoriety (choose your noun, please) not because of a passing political battle but for reasons much deeper: the desire to possess, distribute and devour information. Ever since the release in July this year of some 92,000 documents relating to America’s involvement in Afghanistan, an old joke from Communist times keeps spinning around my head. "We cannot predict the future," announces the newsreader of Soviet radio reporting on the Politburo’s deliberations, "but the past is changing before our very eyes." Now our understanding of the nature of the intervention in Iraq has also changed radically with the publication of a still more astonishing collection of 391,832 secret United States military field reports from the kaleidoscopic theaters of battle.
It has been the eye-opening, game-changing year of WikiLeaks. It started in April, with the release of video shot in 2007 from an Apache helicopter as a group of men on open ground in Baghdad were fired upon. Two of the victims worked for Reuters, as a photographer and driver, and the tragic nature of their deaths was made all the more horrific by the robotic, almost desultory voices of the airmen narrating their actions. The impact was immense. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ mercurial and complicated founder, had the attention of the world.
Back then, Wikileaks claimed that footage “clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers.” But the Times left out the findings of a subsequent Pentagon report:
On Tuesday, the Pentagon made public a partially redacted report on the incident that concluded the Apache attackers had no way of knowing the journalists were among suspected insurgents on the street....From that perspective, the journalists' cameras looked like weapons carried by the suspected insurgents, including rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, according to the report. In addition, the journalists lacked any distinctive clothing or markings to distinguish themselves from the combatants, the report said.
Assange understands full well the significance of these documents and their surreptitious transmission, and that knowledge translates into power and influence. For most of history, government has enjoyed an easy superiority in adjusting the ebb and flow of information. Now the rules of the contest have changed. In contrast to the petabytes of data flotsam, half-truths and speculation that drift daily around the Internet, WikiLeaks spews forth unvarnished, sensitive truths. Assange’s extraordinary project provides transparency unbridled. Historians, journalists and civic activists will continue to fish in these rich informational waters for some time if the organization does not collapse.
For the world’s militaries it is, of course, a less welcome operation. The Defense Department’s official response to the Afghan documents thundered, "We deplore WikiLeaks....We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us." At the same time, the Pentagon suggested that "the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past." But if they do not bring new understanding to the past, why are they damaging at all? Is this not the curse of power, forever compelled to conceal and dissemble? In his recent memoir, Tony Blair berates himself for introducing a Freedom of Information Act. "You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop," he writes.
Glenny concluded with a throwaway line that's too dopey to even qualify as amoral:
Assange and his crusaders may be good. Perhaps they are bad. But they have taken everyone’s urge to tell a story to a new and almost wholly unfamiliar level.
The article is even accompanied online by a staggeringly pointless six-minute video of Times features and entertainment director Jacob Brown and photographer Max Vadukul pursuing Assange like he was a reclusive rocker, from London to Stockholm, in a quest for a portrait, and not even finding Assange. If you’re breathless with curiosity, a flattering black and white portrait of Assange as hipster icon accompanies the article.