WikiLeaks: The Touchstone

Your reaction speaks volumes

by , December 17, 2010

WikiLeaks is a touchstone. Amid all the brouhaha and legal shenanigans engaged in by various governments – the Brits, the Swedes, the Americans – the prospect of having a web site devoted to spilling the secrets of the elites has brought out everyone’s true colors. To those truly devoted to liberty, it has evoked cheers; for those with other agendas, it has provided a target for their polemical arrows.  

The cheers, sad to say, have been few and far between: the jeers, however, have been deafening.  The legacy media, which has led the pack in denouncing WikiLeaks, is intent on keeping its gatekeeper role, no matter what price is to be paid. Our "journalists" are even ready to sacrifice the First Amendment, just as long as they’re assured the Information Police won’t be coming for them anytime soon. 

Aside from the few cheers, the WikiLeaks case has inspired three responses from its critics: hypocrisy, vitriol, and outright weirdness. 

None are more hypocritical than former New York Sun chess columned turned "national security expert" Gabriel Schoenfeld, a neocon who spent a great many months some years ago defending Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman from accusations of having committed espionage on behalf of Israel.  

Charged with violating the Espionage Act – the same legal weapon the administration is said to be preparing to prosecute Julian Assange – Rosen and Weissman engaged in a two-year long effort to procure highly classified US secrets from  Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin. Successful in their quest, they summarily handed over the stolen information to top officials at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., with whom they regularly met. Unbeknownst to them, the FBI was on their trail, and they were arrested and prosecuted.  

The AIPAC defendants had no more energetic defender than Mr. Schoenfeld: if the two traitors were convicted, he averred, then every journalist in Washington, whose job it is to collect information, would be imperiled. In high dudgeon, he wrote

"The Justice Department has irresponsibly confused the distinction between spying and lobbying. Keith Weissman and Steven J. Rosen, two former employees of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, are charged with unlawfully receiving and transmitting classified national-defense information. The stakes are high." 

He then approvingly noted the judge in the case had "decided a pivotal preliminary issue in the Weissman-Rosen case. The defense has subpoenaed 20 present and former administration officials to appear as witnesses for its side, including Elliott Abrams, Richard Armitage, Douglas Feith, Dennis Ross, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Hadley and Condoleezza Rice. The idea is to use their testimony to demonstrate that their clients had every reason to believe that what Mr. Franklin told them in conversation — no classified documents ever changed hands in this case — was part and parcel of the normal back-channel method by which the U.S. government sometimes conveys information to the media and/or to allied countries, in this case, to Israel." 

Move along, nothing to see here… 

In spite of the fact that Rosen and Weissman had been caught red-handed turning over highly classified information regarding al-Qaeda, nuclear secrets, and Iran to Israeli government officials – and thus were clearly acting as agents of a foreign power – Schoenfeld demanded their release and cried "Persecution!": 

"Under the circumstances, this is a case that should never have been brought. No  fair-minded jury could conclude that Mr. Weissman and Mr. Rosen acted with criminal intent. Jurors will see only two lobbyists going about their jobs, interacting with government officials in an ordinary fashion as other lobbyists do all the time. Yes, protecting classified information is crucial to our national defense. But the law is narrowly and properly tailored to protect innocent people from becoming ensnared by it." 

Ah, but WikiLeaks is a horse of a different color, according to Schoenfeld. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he avers

"WikiLeaks is something else. It is not informing our democracy but waging war on its ability to conduct diplomacy and defend itself. If Mr. Assange were tried before a jury and sent to jail, our security would be enhanced and our cherished freedoms not abridged one whit." 

According to Schoenfeld and the War Street Journal, if WikiLeaks had obtained those classified documents and then duly turned them over to the Israeli government, Assange would be one of the Good Guys, a mere "lobbyist" on behalf of transparency, and engaged in doing what journalists in Washington do "all the time." Unfortunately, he took those classified cables and put them on the web, for all to see: therefore, he is "waging war" on the US government and ought to be prosecuted. 

How’s that for hypocrisy?  

Turning to vitriol, we have the example of Michael Moynihan, and Reason magazine: both have taken the lead, among ostensibly "libertarian" publications, in going after WikiLeaks and  Assange, hammer and  tongs. Moynihan, a senior editor at Reason, has written a number of pieces for the magazine smearing WikiLeaks. In one article, he avers that Assange is not a journalist but a "political activist" – precisely the formulation used by the Obama administration to lay the groundwork for prosecuting WikiLeaks under the Espionage Act.  

In a recent press briefing, State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley made the Obama administration’s case. In answer to a question, Crowley said: 

"Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist. 

"QUESTION: What is his political objective? 

MR. CROWLEY: Well, his – I mean he could be considered a political actor. I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist. 

QUESTION: So his objective is to sow chaos, you mean? 

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, you all come here prepared to objectively report the activities of the United States Government. I think that Mr. Assange doesn’t meet that particular standard. 

QUESTION: But just so I understand, P.J., what – I mean you just said the – that you thought he was – 

MR. CROWLEY: Well, but I mean – let me – he’s not a journalist. He’s not a whistleblower. And there – he is a political actor. He has a political agenda. He is trying to undermine the international system of — that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and to work in multilateral settings and on a bilateral basis to help solve regional and international issues." 

The Obama administration is reportedly getting ready to indict Assange under the terms of the Espionage Act, or some other hastily-passed legislation now being prepared by Senators Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein, and this distinction between journalism and espionage is quite important: without it, the New York Times (which has led the pack in smearing Assange, by the way) would also be open to prosecution, since they published the cables after their release. Moynihan echoes – or, rather, prefigures – the case for the prosecution in Reason:  

"If Assange wants to be a journalist—and he consistently identifies himself as one—he would be advised to cease referring to WikiLeaks as an ‘activist organization’ attempting to make a ‘political impact’ and ‘achieve justice.’" 

Breathing heavily, Moynihan accuses Assange of having an "agenda" – and that’s not allowed, at least in Moynihan’s conception of what journalism is supposed to be.  

So, what is Moynihan’s agenda? It seems remarkably similar to that of the US government – odd for a self-described "libertarian" but, after all, we are living in Bizarro World, where up is down and a "libertarian" is a cheerleader for authoritarianism and a defender of the CIA.  

Moynihan’s latest is a Reason screed that is supposed to show Assange associates with anti-Semites and Holocaust-deniers. Up in arms over a recent article in Counterpunch co-authored by Israel Shamir, which reports Assange’s accuser in the Swedish "rape" case has some pretty loathsome associations with known Cuban terrorists linked to the CIA, Moynihan disdains the claim that the trumped-up "sex by surprise" charges have anything to do with the American intelligence community – after all, our government  just doesn’t do things like that, do they? In yet another piece, Moynihan  tries to claim that Shamir – a militant opponent of Israel who has said some wacky things about the Holocaust – is an employee of WikiLeaks, in charge of retailing the leaks to the Russian media. He writes: 

"It is worrying enough when journalists, either by accident or design, consort with vulgar figures like Shamir. But it has now been revealed that Israel Shamir, when he is not accusing Assange’s accusers of setting CIA honey traps, works with WikiLeaks in an official capacity. 

"According to reports in the Swedish and Russian media, the broad strokes of which have been confirmed by a WikiLeaks spokesman, Shamir serves as the group’s content aggregator in Russia, the man who "selects and distributes" the cables to Russian news organizations, according to an investigation by Swedish public radio. In the newspaper Expressen, Magnus Ljunggren, an emeritus professor of Russian literature at Gothenburg University, outlined Shamir’s close ties to WikiLeaks and his position "spreading the documents in Russia." (The article is illustrated with a picture of Assange and Shamir in an unidentified office.)" (emphasis in original) 

The problem with putting links in dishonest hit pieces is that someone may actually follow the link – and here is where Moynihan gets into trouble. For the link that purports to show Shamir is the Russian "content aggregator," whatever that title may mean, reveals only this: 

"Shamir said by phone that he was a freelancer who was ‘accredited’ to WikiLeaks. ‘This means I have working relations with them but does not mean going to the banya together, he said." 

That is the only mention of Shamir in the Moscow Times piece Moynihan links to. The Expressen article is likewise unconducive to making Moynihan’s case: it offers no evidence that Shamir, or his son – also accused of anti-Semitism by Moynihan – has any official connection with WikiLeaks: only that they are enthusiastic fans of the site. Big deal.  

Moynihan cites an "investigation" by government-owned Swedish "public radio," which quotes Kristinn Hrafnsson, who filled in for Assange while the latter was in jail, as saying he knows of Shamir. Asked to comment on Shamir’s official capacity, Hrafnsson answers: 

"Well, I mean, we have a lot of journalists that are working with us all around the world. And they have different roles in working on this project. I won’t go into specifics into what each and everybody’s role is." 

The title of the Reason piece – no doubt thought up by the magazine’s editors – is "Assange’s Extremist Employees." Yet Moynihan hasn’t come up with a single shred of solid evidence that Shamir, or his son, are part of the WikiLeaks team, let alone paid employees. But lies are not beyond Assange’s enemies, be they government agents or free-lancers like Moynihan. Not that there’s much difference, in this case.  

You would think that  Reason magazine, with its tech-savvy audience of geeked-out libertarians, would be the prime example of a pro-WikiLeaks constituency, and a great opportunity for the financially-strapped magazine to please their rapidly-deserting readers (after the magazine’s vicious assault on Ron Paul, they lost readers and credibility among that crowd). But Reason‘s loyalty is apparently to a higher power: the US government and the sanctity of its secrets. 

Weird, eh? Not any weirder than Glenn Beck’s defense of Assange

"Everybody is freaked out about this man. They’re terrified of the mere thought of what secrets he might expose about them on the Internet. The truth shall set you free. But it will make you miserable first. We’re about to hit the misery part. 

"Many people would rather have slave chains to secrecy than endure the misery required to live in the truth. And so, they will fight, oh, they will fight – which puts Assange straight in the crosshairs. But who is aiming at him? 

"I want you to come with me and hear this tale. I don’t think anybody has really told the tale of Julian Assange in an explainable way. We’re going to try tonight. Something is not right here. 

Beck goes on to detail the multiple absurdities involved in the "rape" case against Assange – which I detailed here – and concludes: 

"I want you to understand, I don’t support this guy. I don’t support what he’s doing, but I’m really torn on this story. He is exposing the fact that our governments all around the world have been lying to us. It’s been a job we’ve been trying to do but been pilloried over and over for doing it." 

Damning secrets held by the elites, exposed to the light of day by a fearless crusader for truth and transparency – hey, that’s supposed to be Beck’s shtick! Assange is horning in on his act, but Beck, to his credit, is calling out Assange’s accusers — while still pleasing his bosses at Fox News by calling Assange an "anti-American dirt bag." I know Beck is supposed to be a right-wing warmongering blowhard, but it looks to me like he recognizes a kindred spirit when he sees one. Unlike Moynihan, the alleged "libertarian," he at least has enough integrity to say "something is not right here."  

One’s response to WikiLeaks and its charismatic founder tells us more about the respondent than it does about the subject of transparency in government. Like a work of art, WikiLeaks evokes visceral emotions and brings out our true selves: "libertarians" (some of them) are outed as closet authoritarians, right-wing blowhards are exposed as libertarians at heart, and shameless hypocrites are impaled on a sword of their own making.

Read more by Justin Raimondo