Attacks on Wikileaks are really an attack on free speech says its founder, Julian Assange.
Scheduled for release in the next few weeks in concert with international and American media outlets, Wikileaks’ data dump on Iraq could prove to be just as explosive as its download on Afghanistan.
According to Newsweek, the Iraq collection is already three times larger than the 92,000 Afghan field reports made public in Wikileaks’ last release, and perhaps the largest in history. It predictably details American military participation in bloody conflicts as well as detainee abuse conducted by Iraqi security forces. It’s unclear at this point if its documents were submitted by Private First Class Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old U.S. military intelligence analyst who was charged in July with leaking the chilling Collateral Murder video to Wikileaks. Manning is already looking at over 50 years in prison for Uniform Code of Military Justice violations of “transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system” and “communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source.”
After Collateral Murder went viral online and in real-time, Manning’s whistle-blowing dominated the news cycle and even prompted U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen to clumsily claim that Wikileaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier.” Although he may have been speaking only of Manning, Mullen’s damning statement has yet to be fortified with hard evidence. The move swamped the American government and military with further shame, compounding the shame of pursuing two simultaneous wars that retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright argued “have violated domestic and international law, violations that have been fully exposed in the WikiLeaks documents.”
But the details, as always, are bedeviling. Mullen and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates openly admitted that Wikileaks’ Afghanistan revelations had no strategic bearing on the war’s prosecution. That added firepower to founder Julian Assange’s claims that the military’s beef with his organization has nothing to do with data at all. It has only to do with free speech, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
That pulls the case against Wikileaks into the less sexy orbit of mundane censorship, rather than glamorous tactical compromises or even subconscious desires to bloody young soldiers for no good reason. Which, like Iraq, is a quagmire. Because in a century dominated by the Internet and its light-speed exchanges of information, the concept much less the enforcement of keeping the world in the dark about exorbitantly expensive wars — over a conservative $1 trillion and counting! — makes zero sense. In fact, it is costing us more than we can afford. It could cost us the First Amendment altogether.
Recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor predicted that the Wikileaks controversy will inevitably lead the high court to once again weigh in on the problematic tightrope between national security and the First Amendment. The last momentous clash came in 1971, after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in New York Times Co. v. United States that the Nixon administration didn’t have sufficient burden of proof to suspend publication of the Pentagon Papers, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War compiled by the Rand Corporation. Leaked by Rand employee and ex-Marine Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times and others, the Pentagon Papers proved without much doubt that the American government had zero problem with purposefully lying to its people for the sake of a doomed war that greatly enriched only a few while destroying the lives of millions.
But our temporal dislocation is alarming. Back then, it took a major newspaper like the the New York Times to both publish and defend the Pentagon Papers in the Supreme Court. These days, the New York Times is better known for allowing politically compromised reporters like Judith Miller to manufacture lies to sway public approval for Vietnam 2.0 in Iraq. Miller’s most egregious transgression — helping to out intelligence agent Valerie Plame to discredit due criticism of the Bush administration’s foregone conclusion — fits our post-ironic epoch like a bulletproof vest. Instead of unpacking government’s criminal element and protecting whistle-blowing in the public interest, mainstream media in the 21st century are content to betray that public interest for the benefit of those whose hands really are drowning in the blood and capital of innocents.
It is left to online outlets like Wikileaks to not only reboot journalism by informing a vastly uninformed American public, but also fortify that public’s homegrown First Amendment with every data dump. The fact that Wikileaks, and its inevitably replicating clones, might have to defend freedom of speech in front of Sotomayor and the Supreme Court is alarming when you consider that Assange isn’t even American. He’s Australian, and his affiliated transparency champions are a global group armed with information-stuffed servers stashed across the planet. Through their essential leaks and international makeup, they understand that safeguarding so-called national security at the expense of international truth and transparency is a loser’s game in this still-new century.
Which is not to say that the Supreme Court might not disagree, given the chance. It’s not radical to suggest that judges like Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts might be partial to protecting national security at the expense of the First Amendment. Sotomayor can legally give no indication where she stands on the issue until it arises before the Supreme Court, and good luck getting anything out of Elena Kagan. Like the New York Times, the Supreme Court could side with the transitory powers-that-be over what should be immutable American constitutional rights. But for how long?
Millennia of human culture have weighed in on the issue and the verdict is pretty clear: Information is contagious, and cannot be contained with any credible strength for long. Mash in a globally networked Internet, whose design and purpose — military in origin — expressly mandates extensive information transmission. You’re not going to stop data dumps by Wikileaks, or anyone else, from occurring forever. Unless of course, you shut everything down and pull the plug on democracy.
Like us, information wants to be free, and mostly because we need it to survive as a species. Without it today, we’re drones on autopilot, until we’re arbitrarily activated to wreak collateral damage on digital abstractions we once considered fellow humans. We shouldn’t cross that technocultural line; we should reinscribe it. We can start by defending those, like Wikileaks, who are redefining both journalism and free speech in an internetworked age.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.