Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Brave New World of Wikileaks

It has been the season for disclosures, in India and in the west. Secrets which lie concealed in official papers and conversations are now suddenly exposed to the harsh sunlight of public examination. And it appears that under the heat of all this exposure, even the mightiest empire on earth is wilting. Wikileaks started in 2006 as an online repository for holding and publishing secret documents by whistle-blowers and journalists. As the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, himself has said, it was primarily meant for whistle-blowers from China, west Asia, Africa and the former Soviet bloc countries. The idea was that those in the possession of confidential documents of public interest, which their governments or institutions wanted to hide from public scrutiny, would be able to upload them anonymously on the website for worldwide circulation and publicity.

Starting with the release of secret Chinese government documents, in the first three years of its work Wikileaks largely stayed with this mandate which did seem to have a somewhat patronising attitude of the liberal west helping the oppressed people of the authoritarian countries fight their dictators. During this period, the website was also lauded by the western establishment for its work.

In 2008, it received an award from the Economist, while in 2009 it was Amnesty International’s turn to praise its work for exposing human rights violations in Kenya

However, as the site started collecting documents from western governments and institutions, it came under attack. The first serious challenge to Wikileaks was in 2008 when the Swiss private bank, Julius Baer, initiated legal measures against the website and its administrators for publishing internal documents that showed illegal money transfers via its branch in the Cayman Islands. Wikileaks was taken off servers based in the United States, but internet activists quickly “mirrored” this site in other servers and the documents remained public, while the bank was eventually forced to withdraw its legal proceedings. Since then, and perhaps because of this incident, Wikileaks has become well known in the west and has become a magnet for those who want to expose the wrongdoings of their governments and institutions. It has published Guantanamo Bay prison procedures, private emails of US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin showing her to be avoiding public disclosure norms, the membership list of the racist British National Party, emails of climate scientists which indicated a possible exaggeration of climate change claims, reports of an accident at a nuclear site in Iran and the report of a toxic dumping “incident” off Ivory Coast by the multinational corporation Trafigura. This is just a small representative list of the documents that Wikileaks has hosted and published. All this earned for Wikileaks the reputation of being an irritant, but it was a different matter when the website published a video taken from a US helicopter over Baghdad, showing the cold-blooded killing of unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists, by machine gun fire and the shooting of those who came to rescue them. This caused an uproar, as for the first time, official Pentagon videos had shown a snippet of an event during an invasion and subsequent occupation by the US in which up to 1.4 million civilians are believed to have been killed.

Typically, the US authorities went about hunting for the person who had leaked this video, rather than taking action against those who had killed civilians. Other similar videos emerged from Afghanistan and were followed by the release of 92,000 documents from the US and allied armies in Afghanistan. This was an unprecedented act and it was after this that Wikileaks became the target of concerted attack by the US, Britain, Australia and other countries. Since then it has published the Iraq war logs and has now been releasing cables sent by US diplomats from various embassies, including New Delhi. The total number of cables with Wikileaks is in excess of 2,50,000, though they have only released about 1,000 through five designated newspapers – New York Times, Guardian, Le Monde, El PaĆ­s and Der Spiegel. The manner in which the leading “democracies” of Europe and North America have responded to these revelations has been acutely revelatory about these regimes themselves.

Despite there being not a single criminal case against Wikileaks it has had its website shut down, its payment gateways with Paypal have been closed, Visa and Mastercard have refused to transfer funds, its bank accounts have been frozen (including the one meant for its Julian Assange’s legal defence) and, worst of all, elected representatives have called for the murder of Assange. And there is no certainty that he will not meet an untimely end as various people have, whenever they have crossed Uncle Sam’s path. Unfortunately for the US and its allies, this is a war they cannot win.

The nature of the internet is such that it will be impossible to suppress the information which is already out. Wikileaks has been a “proof of concept” and it is merely a matter of time before a hundred similar leaks perforate the plumbing of the global axis of power. As Bradley Manning, the junior US intelligence officer who is the likely source of these leaks said when asked why he had not handed over this data to Russia or China for large sums of money, “... because it is public data... [and] because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”. For decades globalisation has meant the seamless flow of capital and commodities, strengthening the axis of the powerful. Now it appears that, for the first time, globalisation of information has struck its first blow and the powerful and corrupt do not know “whence”!

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