We steal secrets. The story of Wikileaks: It all started with an unexpected WANK
WANK was the name of the worm which NASA detected in their system and which was most likely created by the young, white-haired one - Julian Assange. It foxed the Americans and he’s been foxing them, and other sovereign states, ever since. I’ve read several books on Wikileaks, follow the story, even spoken to Julian Assange, albeit by video link, when he was locked up in his country refuge. So does this film tell us anything new? Well, no.
First, Assange and Wikileaks lie in another land, which the newspapers, books and films don’t, and perhaps can’t, fully grasp and capture. So keen are the old media to characterise, nay caricature, the players that they fail to report on the game. They slip all too easily into celebrity narrative, with Assange, Manning and Snowden. So keen are they to come to some simplistic conclusion (every film needs an ending) that they paint Assange as the rapist with ‘bllod on his hands’ and Manning as a sexually confused miscreant. This is storytelling, not journalism. Even worse it’s re-storytelling by lazy journalists, as it’s largely manipulated by the US Governments PR machine.
What the film does is follow biographical plotlines and fails miserably to tackle the issues and these are big issues. Assange is well read and a sophisticated thinker on the moral philosophy and arguments behind freedom of speech. He knows his Mill a good deal better than his inquisitors, who wouldn’t know the ‘harm principle’ if they found it in their inkwells. Assange doesn’t fit the dominant liberal ‘groupthink’ that pervades old print, radio and TV media. He is a libertarian, who knows what the variants of the ‘harm principle’ are and understands the nuances of the free-speech argument. At times the film puts words in his mouth or relies on people who don’t agree with him to state his position, so I’m not surprised that he refused to participate.
In focusing on Assange’s character we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We need to examine what Wikileaks has achieved, which is considerable. It set the ball rolling in exposing Julian Bar and Kaupthing Bank fraud. It has exposed the corrupt and criminal behaviour of dictators, helping oust them from power. It exposed the brutality of asymmetric war in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘We steal secrets’ is an altogether misleading title. The US and other governments STEAL secrets, Wikileaks publishes leaks from whistleblowers.
Assange escapes capture
Ultimately Assange escapes capture, as he is not a ‘rock star’, ‘lothario’, ‘hacker’ or ‘madman’. He looks unique and is unique as he moves through an uncharted world where old-school journalists simply never leave port. He’s a navigator in the virtual underworld, uncovering places we never even knew existed, dark parallel continents of information where morality is sometimes abandoned and dark deeds suppressed. Assange inhabits this world and moves through it undetected. He knows how to keep himself hidden and uncover its secrets and they hate him for it.
Wikileaks escapes capture
Wikileaks also escapes capture, as it is not of their world. Traditional journalists just don’t get it. The web has scale on its side, scale in several senses of the word. Scalable content – it can handle huge amounts of searchable data – traditional, linear media cannot. Scalable production – digital copies are infinitely and perfectly copyable. Scalable reach – Wikileaks is immediately available everywhere in all time zones. Scalable presence – it doesn’t exists in a country even continent, as it is mirrored on servers across the globe in a transnational space. On the bright side the film does make the following, often overlooked point. Why is the US pursuing him with such venom and vigour? All he did was publish the same material as The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel? Don’t see them hunting down those journos? This is a telling point – they fear Wikileaks, they no longer fear embedded and emasculated journalists.
In this increasingly emasculated paper and TV world, the world of print, radio, TV and film, he is admittedly clumsier and has been a victim of its clumsy media mechanics. It explains his reluctance to give interviews or play along with biographies and documentaries that start to play too traditional a game. This may be an unpopular view but I really do think the two Swedish women were in fact internet ‘groupies’ who willingly slept with Assange at the height of his manufactured ‘rock star’ fame, got jealous of each other and started a media-driven process they couldn’t stop (there is no CIA conspiracy). Once again the seedy (sic) details of a couple of one-night stands have become the story, not the corruption, connivance and carnage that Wikileaks exposes.
Assange, Manning, Snowden – they’ll keep on coming. Good people, smart people, talented people, principled people, who expose what they think is evil to public scrutiny. It is a little known fact that Assange had asked the Pentagon to help with the redaction of the documents, to prevent identity leaks – they refused. The hypocrisy of Obama over the torture of Bradley Manning, and it was unnecessary torture, an unworthy act of revenge, demeans him and the US. The hypocrisy of VISA, MASTERCARD and PAYPAL in stopping payments, under orders from the US government, to Wikileaks is astounding.
Big story is the big picture
The big story is the big picture, that these are two tectonic plates hitting each other and causing lots of friction and small eruptions. As the world creates more information, shares more information and sovereign states gather more information, and overreach themselves, there’s bound to be reactions and leaks. That’s real progress. More importantly, there needs to be a serious debate about the limits of the state as well as the limits of free speech. Assange knows his Mill and understands, in detail, the arguments in this area. I think the state founded on free-speech, the US, has forgotten these principles and resorted to intimidation, torture, bizarre legal cases (even a dirty tricks ‘blood on his hands’ campaign) instead of debate. Their policy is not prosecution, it is persecution.
This position has been strengthened recently by Snowden who claims that, “The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. “ This, I fear, is correct. The US has gone feral on information. Snowden makes another point which Assange has held to for a long time, the need for individuals to hold principles that transcend national interests. They can isolate Assange, torture and lock-up Manning, pursue Snowden, but there will be a long line of people willing to step into their place, until the debate is done. Wikileaks is alive and kicking.