The international debate engendered by WikiLeaks’ ongoing publication of classified US diplomatic cables has sent most American liberals into hiding. Gone AWOL when it comes to the Obama administration’s escalation of the federal government’s war on civil liberties, mainstream liberal defenders of WikiLeaks are few and far between.
On the cable news circuit, Rachel Maddow, the supposed “foreign policy wonk,” devoted a brief segment to the issue, echoing the MSM’s party line that There’s Nothing New Here. (Earth to Rachel: Since only a small percentage of the cables have so far been published, isn’t it a little premature for such a pronouncement? Just asking .) Her fellow MSNBCer, Chris Matthews, confined himself to a few snarling comments about Julian Assange – “a rapist” – with only Keith Olbermann (who can hardly be called “mainstream,” in any event) openly defending the last remaining symbol of what had once been a free society.
By far the most consistent and effective champion of WikiLeaks on what passes for the “left” these days has been the heroic Glenn Greenwald: not only in his widely-read columns for Salon.com, but in numerous media appearances in which he has taken on the worst of the very worst – and, yes, I do indeed mean John F. Burns, of the New York Times. Glenn has been everywhere, a libertarian gladiator up against the Empire’s pundit warrior-slaves, and winning every time.
News programs which would normally interview only regimist “experts” and commentators have been forced, by the very nature of a contentious subject, to bring in someone who doesn’t toe Washington’s line, and Glenn – with his legal training and calm, reasoned demeanor – is almost singlehandedly taking on the Powers That Be in this important fight.
Now, however, a challenger has arisen from within the ranks of the Salon.com limousine liberal set to take on our Spartacus: Michael Lind, who has staked out a position as a “new nationalist” on the Obama-friendly left, has entered the arena, outlining the case against Assange and WikiLeaks that Eric Holder’s Justice Department will make in court if US goons succeed in netting him from the Swedes, or perhaps even the Brits. (If only we could read those diplomatic cables going to and fro between Washington, Stockholm, and London!)
“This controversy,” avers Lind, “has nothing to do with views of current U.S. foreign policy.” It’s time to reel out his lefty, antiwar credentials, and he does so:
“I denounced the Iraq War in advance in print, on the radio and on TV, and after it began in two books. I favor rapid disengagement from Afghanistan and a far more modest American military role in the world.”
Yes, but what has Lind done to advance the cause of downsizing America’s overseas presence lately? These cables are a treasure trove for advocates of military modesty: we’ll be poring over them for years extracting the lessons of the rampant immodesty that has so far dominated the minds of US policymakers.
For revealing the true face of America’s overseas empire, Assange should be hailed as a hero by anti-interventionists of every stripe, much as opponents of the Vietnam war supported and continue to honor Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. So why is the allegedly anti-interventionist – or, perhaps, modestly interventionist – Lind coming out against WikiLeaks? “I agree with the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that much, perhaps most, government secrecy is unnecessary and counterproductive,” he writes,
“But everyone other than anarchists who oppose government of any kind must acknowledge the need for diplomats and military officers, as well as civilian officials, to be able to engage in confidential communications among themselves and with foreign governments without fear of unauthorized publicity. Even the government of an isolationist America would insist on that prerogative.”
The government of a country that was “isolationist” (i.e. intent on minding its own business) and also authoritarian would undoubtedly prosecute WikiLeaks, and any American or foreign national on American soil who gave it aid and comfort. It would most certainly insist that PayPal, Bank of America, Amazon.com, and all “private” companies cease doing business with WikiLeaks. This could indeed happen in an “isolationist” America in which the Constitution never existed, or in which the anti-Federalists didn’t succeed in inserting those essential Amendments to the final document – notably the first, which protects WikiLeaks and the media in general from government censorship and prosecution.
As to whether such a regime would do everything in its power to capture Assange, and drag him, in chains, into a US court, is highly doubtful. Not being an American citizen, the WikiLeaks founder is not subject to our various laws regulating the release of classified information, nor do we have the legal authority to prosecute him – unless one assumes the US government has legal sovereignty over the entire globe. This, however, is a doubtful legal premise for an “isolationist” administration, of any stripe, to uphold. Only the government of an isolationist America with Lind in the White House would make such a legal argument shortly before being laughed out of court.
In an isolationist America, the jury would certainly take a dim view of the government’s claim to supra-national sovereignty, but most of all they’d wonder what all the fuss was about. After all, the content of the cables would be far different: details of peaceful, non-invasive, non-threatening cultural and educational activities, blow-by-blow accounts of cocktail party conversations, etc. We certainly wouldn’t be hearing about secret bombing raids, how we’re dragged into conflicts by reckless allies, and how our diplomats are directly intervening in the legal affairs of other nations. And I very much doubt we’d be reading about our “isolationist” secretary of state ordering US diplomats to collect credit card numbers and computer passwords of their foreign counterparts.
In any case, Lind, undeterred by the illogic of his position, is here merely echoing Obama administration spokesmen who claim WikiLeaks is an “anarchist” cabal. Discussing the various “legal” options open to the Obama administration, and their origin during the Wilson era, Lind again raises a point of personal privilege:
“I’m no defender of World War I-era paranoia, as my German-born great-grandfather was a victim of it. However, if the Espionage Act did not exist, I would favor passage of some sort of reasonable act to protect legitimate government secrets, because democratic republics have a right to protect themselves from genuine spies and real traitors, as well as vengeful employees. If the perennial presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Eugene Debs, whom the Wilson administration imprisoned for opposing the draft, had been elected president, I doubt that America’s socialist commander in chief and chief diplomat would have looked kindly on unauthorized publication of classified government secrets.’
President Debs would undoubtedly have released the secret unpublished protocols of the Versailles Treaty – although they leaked out anyway, and soured a whole generation of progressives on the idea of wars to “make the world safe for democracy.” And surely there would be no Espionage Act, and scant legal means to prosecute either WikiLeaks or Assange – although, with extensive control over the economy, government officials could simply order companies like Amazon.com to sever their links to WikiLeaks. And I find it difficult to reconcile Debs the person, who saw himself as a challenger to authority and not its enabler, ordering Assange’s imprisonment.
Debs, however, was an old-fashioned leftist, who would certainly disdain the sort of “new nationalism” preached by Lind and similar would-be renovators of the progressive vision. Exchanging his historian hat for that of a legal expert, Lind then tries to claim WikiLeaks is trying to wriggle out of prosecution by “rewriting its own history” because of text changes on its submissions page. “WikiLeaks accepts a wide range of materials,” the new text reads, “but we do not solicit it.” Which is no doubt true: after all, they’ve already got a huge backlog, what with 250,000 diplomatic cables to publish, not to mention all the other material they’ve received. They don’t have to solicit material: their mere existence is in itself a solicitation, like the office Suggestion Box.
Lind doesn’t seem to understand either this concept, or indeed anything to do with computer technology and anonymity on the web: for example, he claims that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could be used to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks. But the Act criminalizes the practice known as “cracking,” i.e. remotely accessing computer files electronically, and “hacking” into the system. This is not what WikiLeaks does, or is involved in: instead, it is merely an electronic drop box in which whistleblowers can store and transmit documents and other evidence of governmental or corporate wrongdoing in complete anonymity. There is no conspiracy between WikiLeaks and whoever leaked those cables because there is no need of one: the technology is itself the subversive element that compromises and exposes the system.
As an attorney for the prosecution, Lind is eager to debunk WikiLeaks’ journalistic credentials, but instead reveals more about himself than he does about the issue:
“There is little resemblance between a media organization that summarizes leaked information from a Pentagon or State Department official, following elaborate precautions and internal discussions among the publisher and the editors, and a sect of anarchists who dump stolen documents from more than a hundred countries into cyberspace.”
He goes on to rant that the WikiLeakers are akin to “criminal lunatics and terrorists” plotting to collect “hush money” from their “victims.” Whatever relationship to reality these accusations may have is not clear, but, then again, at this point, Lind’s hold on reality seems increasingly tenuous as his tirade proceeds on its cyclonic, scattershot course. Lind, by the way, claims to know what is in the encrypted “insurance” file:
“The ‘doomsday files’ which have been downloaded from the WikiLeaks website by tens of thousands of supporters are understood to include information on Guantanamo Bay, and aerial video of a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan that killed civilians, BP reports and Bank of America documents.”
How does he know this? He says the files “are understood to include” this information: understood by whom? The Bank of America files are a separate question, not necessarily related to the “insurance” file. The aerial video is in the same category, and as for information on Guantanamo Bay, the expectation – my expectation – is that this will come out in the many thousands of cables yet to be published.
Well, then, says Lind, how do we know WikiLeaks isn’t using this information to shake down institutions – like banks. “We would never know,” he avers. But of course the argument can be turned around, and we can ask the same question about what the US government is doing with this vast database: is it conceivable that US government officials could use this information to shake down or otherwise intimidate foreign or domestic politically players into more cooperative behavior? Indeed, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t.
The unspoken premise behind this unasked question is that governments have this prerogative, which no private citizen must take it upon themselves to exercise. Lind, being a dyed-in-the-wool statist, and incipient authoritarian, is furious that this cardinal rule has been violated, and by an “anarchist sect” to boot. He can hardly contain his spittle-flecked fury: “If Assange sincerely believes that he needs to blackmail the U.S. government into refraining from assassinating him,” he bellows, “he is delusional as well as conceited.”
There are many more ways for the US to take out a high profile thorn in its side, and assassination is perhaps the least effective. The most effective, it seems to me, is to do what they have been doing: running a well-coordinated smear campaign and reel him in, initially, on a lesser charges, using proxies like the Brits and the Swedes. Lind is right about one thing, though: the prospect of facing ever-darker spilled secrets is unlikely to deter the number one criminal organization on earth, otherwise known as the US federal government, from closing in on its prey. We see this in every day’s headlines, in which the smear campaign and the legal campaign against WikiLeaks take on more hysterical overtones, of which Lind’s essay represents a new low point.
Conflating the public pronouncements of “Anonymous” – the online hackers who have vowed to avenge the persecution of Assange by hacking into various government and corporate web sites – with those of Assange and the WikiLeaks leadership, Lind conjures a “contempt for the masses” and a messianic message that the people must be saved from themselves: “Like other illiberal sects, the cult of Assange rationalizes its contempt for law and ordinary politics by dismissing the ‘general public’ as passive fools brainwashed by the ‘media with a political agenda.’ So much for democracy.”
Yet Assange clearly does not believe any of this: his online manifesto, which Lind cites but seems not to have read, clearly is counting on public support in order to achieve its objective of a freer, more transparent society, and Assange has himself expressed optimism that support for his cause will increase as the crimes of the mighty are exposed. Yet Lind’s preferred narrative will not be denied by a few uncomfortable facts:
“As in other forms of anti-liberal thought, like anarchism and fascism and Marxism-Leninism and radical Islamism, the central idea of cyber-anarchism is that society must be saved by a self-appointed vanguard of vigilantes who themselves are above the law and whose motives are beyond question: ‘Anonymous is here to ensure punishment does not go unserved to those who deserve it.’ So much for liberalism, which dreads arbitrary power, fears hero worship and assumes that charismatic rebels as well as bureaucratic authorities are likely to be fallible, biased and corrupt.”
There are no links, or even footnotes, to validate Lind’s weird definition of what he calls “cyber-anarchism,” nor does he even try to prove his counterintuitive thesis that anarchism is a form of “anti-liberal thought,” akin to “radical Islamism”: he simply states it as a given. But, really, his attempt to give the persecution of WikiLeaks and the relentless pursuit of Assange a “liberal” coloration is a bit of overreaching: instead of convincing the reader, it merely gives the author a neoconservative coloration. And while charismatic rebels may have their downside, they are not in a position to inflict as much damage as their fallible, biased, and corrupt counterparts in government, who have access to the indispensable tool of tyrants everywhere: state power.
WikiLeaks isn’t a news media organization: in Lind’s view, it’s a “cult-like political and intellectual movement.” Critics of this dangerous new “illiberal” movement are supposedly being smeared by Assange, who – incredibly! – thinks moves by major credit card companies, Bank of America, et al., to disrupt WikiLeaks makes them “instruments of US foreign policy.” Oh, perish the thought! Governmental-corporate collusion? Not in Michael Lind’s America! And if you believe the US government had something of a hand in the awfully convenient “rape” charges thrown at Assange, why, then “the Birthers and Birchers and Truthers now have company.” See how that rhymes – Birther, Bircher? Clever, isn’t it? And conflating Assange with those terrible right-wing ogres so familiar to readers of Salon – using all-purpose smear words divorced from any real meaning and perfectly suited to Lind’s purposes, which dovetail nicely with those of the US Justice Department. Even cleverer still!
While Vice President Joe Biden’s description of WikiLeaks as “high tech terrorism” may have been overwrought, says Lind, WikiLeaks supporters are indeed akin to “terrorists,” in that they are hoping for an overreaction from the government, which will reduce the free flow of information within governmental organizations, and this will lead to their collapse. And who describes this similarity to al-Qaeda, asks Lind: why none other than Glenn Greenwald. Therefore, WikiLeaks is indeed a “terrorist” organization – so, Eric, the coast is clear, you can go ahead and prosecute now!
Except there’s just one tiny difference between al-Qaeda and WikiLeaks: the latter isn’t commandeering airliners and flying them into skyscrapers, nor is it murdering civilians indiscriminately all around the world. Oh, but in Lind’s world, which shares a solar system with Bizarro World, al-Qaeda and WikiLeaks are indistinguishable entities, two heads of the same creature.
Like apologists for the previous administration, the defenders of this one are eager to equate their enemies with terrorism, and the Obama-ites are just as prone to this as the Fox News crowd. This is their “argument” of last resort: when all else fails, bring out the “you’re-a-terrorist” guns and fire away. It works every time.
Lind’s “new nationalism,” is, I’m afraid, the same as the “old” nationalism: a flag-waving, hysterical, ingrown doctrine of delusion and rationale for unbridled militarism. It is an ideological instrument that makes repression easier to justify, even as the epitome of an enlightened “liberalism.” Like all statists, his is the idolatry of Authority, which requires secrecy as a matter of course. His socialistic vision of a highly centralized American state, which controls much of the economy and society, far from curtailing US intervention around the globe, would make it far easier for our government to marshal national resources around an aggressive foreign policy. Once they grab power, these sorts of “liberals” are usually the first to make the most of it. In Lind’s rabid ultra-nationalism, we are seeing the future of “liberalism” as it exists under President Obama – and what a discredited, foul creature it is!