Jesse-Justin Cuevas, Columnist
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
Nearly three weeks ago, the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division arrested SPC Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who allegedly turned over classified media—a U.S. combat video and thousands of State Department records—to whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Infamous hacker, Adrian Lamo, made the call to U.S. authorities that led to Manning’s arrest. The video footage, 39 minutes of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad air strikes, became one of WikiLeaks’ most notable releases, entitled “Collateral Murder.” Manning was arrested while stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer. On June 6th, Wired reported that he is held in custody in Kuwait, awaiting charges.
What a coincidence in timing! The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian wrote an article in last week’s edition covering Julian Assange, the founder and director of WikiLeaks. While the lengthy profile is thorough and fairly objective, Khatchadourian’s most interesting point arises in the piece’s last paragraphs.
Khatchadourian questions WikiLeaks’ eternal Catch-22, a contradiction that will pronounce itself more and more as the organization grows and solidifies its role in politics and journalism.
“The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment-make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA.”
Assange clearly is on a mission for total transparency, and the remarkable thing about WikiLeaks is its impunity. The organization has withstood legal attacks thanks to the freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of WikiLeaks, deciding that the Constitution guarantees anonymity, “at least in the area of political discourse.” The other parts of the world without such forgiving censorship laws are unable to prosecute leak sources, as of yet, thanks to WikiLeaks’ convoluted web security.
The organization itself can hardly be called an organization. It is amorphous, nomadic and almost completely anonymous. There are no paid staff, no equipment and no office. The infrastructure is beyond complicated; hundreds of volunteers around the world help maintain the site via servers in undisclosed locations, and the main contributors and movers are known to each other and to the website itself only by initials. All communication is conducted via encrypted online chat services, and the site keeps no logs. As Khatchadourian reports, the very crux of WikiLeaks is its mutually exclusive aim to hold governments accountable while never having to be accountable for its “journalistic” tactics by virtue of its (necessary) cryptology.
This inherent contradiction is what makes Manning’s arrest so interesting.
Obviously WikiLeaks is not held legally responsible for publishing the video footage because the crime committed was the leak itself. WikiLeaks didn’t break the law; Manning did. Both agents have the same intention—transparency and government accountability—but because of Manning’s uniform (and contract and oath), he is the one responsible.
“[Manning] didn’t want to do this just to cause a stir…He wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again,” tattletale, Lamo, told the Washington Post.
It is easy to say from a legal perspective that there is a huge difference between a mole and a moralist. One is an individual who volunteers to work for a national intelligence service and betrays his country while the other is a pedestrian who leaks to the media for the sake of ethics. But is this distinction so clear?
Khatchadourian’s probing of WikiLeaks’ internal paradox rings true so long as such insurgencies happen in authoritarian regimes as opposed to democratic governments. His statement’s assumption, of course, is that the United States is a “liberal society” with a democratic government who “hold[s] secrets largely because citizens agree that [it] should, in order to protect legitimate policy.” But in the case of Manning and Collateral Murder, there is video evidence of U.S. military malevolence that otherwise never would have aired.
As to be expected, WikiLeaks had little to say in or against Manning’s defense. They did, however, post this brief message shortly after his arrest:
“As WikiLeaks does not keep any information on its anonymous sources, we are not able to verify any of the claims made by Wired and Adrian Lamo. Nevertheless, a young man, described as ‘a good kid. Never been in trouble. Never been on drugs, alcohol, nothing’ is being investigated and held in custody in the light of federal and military investigations on the release of the Collateral Murder footage.”