30 November, 2010

Wee-Wee Leaks

In a world defined by a 24 hour news cycle, Julian Assange is getting a few extra days. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, a site dedicated to humiliating large governments, primarily the American government, who saw fit to herald the vast amounts of sewerage he wished to dump on the globe with this tweet: “The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.” That is probably overstating the case. Much of the details contained within the released documents are unclassified. In the course of their analysis of documents pertaining to Sri Lanka, the website Groundviews, demonstrates with a colorful graph the relatively tiny amount of documents actually labeled ‘secret’ for a selection of countries whose cities include Beijing, Moscow, Madrid, Amman, Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo, Paris, Baghdad, Colombo, New York, Tel Aviv and, in her own bar, the Secretary of State. Not surprisingly, the largest portion of those ‘secret’ documents belong to the office of Hillary Clinton and to the American embassy in Baghdad, followed by the embassies in Kuwait, Amman and Tel Aviv. Had there been a graph, say, for Cancun or Puerto Rico, now that would be mind-boggling.

Most of the references are, as Anne Applebaum describes in a piece on Slate titled ‘Watch Your Mouth: How WikiLeaks’ new release will increase secrecy and damage democratic governments,’ the bulk of the documents divulge the mildly offensive things people say to each other about each other behind each others backs. It is no vast American conspiracy to destroy the universe, it is simply human nature and, as Applebaum puts it, the true fall out seems to be “that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech.” She writes:

In fact, the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

Reading through the many cables linked via a superbly user-friendly guide on the UK Guardian website, what becomes clear is that there is a monumental pile of rubbish that no intelligent person could take seriously; comments such as “Iran is always stirring trouble” (Egypitian President, Hosni Mubarak) and “they cannot be trusted” (King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) and “I cannot trust Ahmadinejad…he is young and aggressive” (Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed). Seriously? This is what Assange thinks is going to change the universe?

Perhaps some of what is revealed is shocking to people who have been living under a mossy rock for the last decade or so. Over at The Raw Story, John Byrne announces ‘Shocking Cable: US says Saudi donors are chief financiers of al Quaeda.’ To whom, exactly, is this breaking news?

In an overview of the Alexander Bolton article on what happened with the Bin Ladens who were in the US during 9/11, SourceWatch provides clear evidence – substantiated by the FAA – that the Saudi nationals were not merely transported, met with and secretly spirited out of the country, but that they were allowed to take to the air when airspace was closed for everybody else including all Americans.

And if anybody is interested in the nitty gritty of the exact financial alliances between American royalty of a certain intellectual flavor, the Bushes, and the Bin Ladens, check out Michael Moore’s Fahrenhite 911. What is surprising then is not that the Bin Ladens are funding the Bin Ladens, but that we are missing evidence of how American investments also fund the Bin Ladens. If we want to worry about the Saudis, the more interesting, albeit far less sexy lead would be to discuss how the Saudi Royals are pressuring the US to bomb Iran in an attempt to prevent that country’s – possible, not proven – nuclear weapons program, and the repeated statements from Israel that it is willing to unilaterally strike Iran.

Of all the documents that have been leaked, perhaps the only one which is of any imagination is the directive signed first by Condoleeza Rice and, subsequently, by Hillary Clinton, that authorizes the foreign service which is, currently, 11,500 members strong, and all of the nation’s defense agencies including the FBI, the CIA and the US Secret Service, to obtain sensitive and intimate information about leaders within their host-countries (in the case of the embassies), and, in the case of the other services, to spy on high ranking officials within the United Nations. That the American embassies have always fronted for the CIA is old hat to those of us who grew up in other countries. Perhaps it is news to Americans.

It is in this particular section, however, that the real question crops up: when does the end justify the means? For buried in the dozens of documents linked to this cable are instances where the “spying” or the directive to obtain information supports a purpose that is related to the management or easing of conflict or to preventive interventions. In the case of Sub Saharan West African countries, for instance, the request was for information about fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan where there were “indications that international terrorist groups are seeking to take advantage of political, ethnic, tribal or religious conflict.” In the case of Central Africa, officials were asked to gather information about military relations with a list of countries including Libya, North Korea and Iran, particularly with regard to the movement of uranium and the acquisitions of arms. To be forewarned, in this case, is to be forearmed and surely nobody begrudges the nation that is attempting to gathering what information it can, particularly when it is the nation most frequently invited/asked and subsequently and reliably berated for intervening.

But then we get to the United Nations and to wording like this:

B. (S/NF) Reporting officers should include as much of the following information as possible when they have information relating to persons linked to : office and
STATE 00080163 002 OF 024

organizational titles; names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cell phones, pagers and faxes; compendia of contact information, such as telephone directories (in compact disc or electronic format if available) and e-mail listings; internet and intranet “handles”, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.

It is an order that violates the very foundation of the world body whose members join and serve in trust. Of course there are politics, of course there are back-room deals alongside, inevitably, back-stabbing. But the very preamble of the United Nations aspires, among other things,”to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours,” a neighborliness that is sorely lacking in a State Department policy that is based on such deep and unshakable suspicions.

And, set against the backdrop of a full-tilt effort that strives to gather personal information about America’s partners and the sole international body that remains to argue the case of the dispossessed of the world, we come to the State Department’s cables pertaining to Palestine. In that case, the directive sent to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh apparently asked for the “exact travel plans and vehicles used by leading members of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, without explaining why.” A request that becomes even more sinister when one considers the number of occasions on which Israel has managed to target Palestinian leaders traveling within and outside the country, including, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, a founder of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who was murdered in Dubai earlier this year or Mohammed Namnam whose vehicle was bombed just this month.

Linking the position of the United States toward these two – the UN (and therefore its members) and Palestine – together is the directive on the Middle East Peace Process and the Road Map. It is too long to quote in full, but can be found here. The highlights, i.e. the matters that should take up headspace include:

1. The management and allocation of water rights (a method of control over the disenfranchised detailed in the young adult book, The Shephard’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter, which is now banned in parts of Canada in a move criticized eloquently by Marjorie Ingall in Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life).

2. The right of return (no longer the cornerstone of negotiations, it seems, a mere acknowledgement of invasion might suffice) and final-status.

3. The position of regional neighbors including Syria’s position vis-à-vis Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)

4. Plans on the part of member states to pressure the US on the peace process

5. Plans of the PA to gain support within the Security Council, the General Assembly or the UNHRC or from Russia and EU countries, particularly France, Germany and the UK (for where else could Palestinians go?)

6. The matter of the Shab’a Farms (which Lebanon claims as part of its own territory and which Israel maintains belongs to Syria and therefore part of the Golan Heights which it intends to retain and which the UN declared was, indeed, Lebanese and should be returned to Lebanon, and, most interestingly,

7. The perception of ordinary Palestinians on a whole host of issues including American efforts to negotiate peace, Palestinian leaders and their efforts to negotiate water, transport and land issues, the importance of Palestinian institutions, the assistance of regional powers in setting up or blocking those institutions etc., all of which point to an effort to understand the Palestinian people in greater detail than any administration has done before

In the section (4) on Human Rights and War Crimes, there are directives to mind the alleged human rights violations within Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, but when it comes to the United States, the request is only in terms of obtaining information on perceptions of the US on the part of member states as it tries (nobly, one imagines), to reform “the Muslim World,” and avoid “Plans and intentions of member states or UN Special Rapporteurs to press for resolutions or investigations into US counterterrorism strategies and treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo.”

These are troubling maneuvers, and much of what the United States Secretary of State has authorized is illegal. But it is not new. These documents aren’t photographs of Iraqi prisoners being sodomized and electrocuted. They are not the cry-making sight of Colin Powell pointing to flat roofed buildings and identifying the sites of weapons of mass destruction that would lead to over 100,000 dead American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and civilians. They are not the American drone strikes that killed more than 700 non-combatants in Pakistan.

In what constructive way do these documents lead us to (a) new knowledge (b) a better understanding to the conduct of foreign policy? or (c) the securing of – yes, you are free to guffaw – a lasting peace? Once there was a world that might have looked like the one described in Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist Utopia. It is measured thus in the translation by Ursula K. le Guin:

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear the cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

We do not live in that world. We live in one removed, perhaps forever, from one where to live was enough. But in this world, still, we strive, right along with the United Nations, “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Perhaps Assange is right in describing the impact of his hacking – for this is no investigative journalism – upon the world. This is perhaps the lowest to which any single human being has sunk with the intention of destroying the fragility of the bonds we all know rarely exist, but must believe are possible to build and keep if we are to co-exist. I suppose, though, in this day of digital pontifications, and tucked away in his Australian hidey-hole, such things are immaterial.

2 Responses to “Wee-Wee Leaks”

  1. Wikileaks has always seemed a bloated, internet-driven National Enquirer rather than something mounted to use truth for change. Can anything with ‘Wiki” in front of it be anything but a waste of time? Love the LeGuin translation. Sadly, to live is no longer enough, not individually or nationally. It’s a strange, strange world of primitive folks with technological stones we live on.

  2. Evan Heimlich says:

    Ru, I like your blog post, and even more, on Alex Chee’s FB page, your follow-up post that addresses the deepening of social mistrust. But I see Joseph Best’s rhetoric of truth–as expressed there in his post that begins with his mistrust of Assange’s motives—not as agreement, but as anathema to yours. Let’s say we agree that the problem with our ailing societies is that their members are failing to find enough trust for the society to function suitably (or even to cohere notionally as a society), and that the failure comes from the incentivized propensity to violate the trust on which the broader society depends. So then, how is it helpful when leftists diagnose that rightist fools are the cause of all a society’s mistrust–including the generalized mistrust we ourselves share?

    Is it not worth considering–for the sake of advancing liberty, or our leftism itself–that between left and right, the meaning of a good life is actually, seriously in dispute?

    Why do people follow their conventions? Does a social convention not (as Malinowski held) always have a function? So therefore a convention is never merely mistaken? Was Durkheim incorrect when he held that it is unhelpful to suppose that, if only other people had our information, then they would drop their mistaken beliefs and act properly like us?

    When the goal is understand or explain what people do—a useful goal to help make political strategy—then isn’t it counterproductive to frame other peoples as if they were inferior versions of us? They are not versions of us, are they? I expect to hear such rhetoric from the right, but what are we to make of how often we hear recently from fellow leftists who allow no room for dissent, and who seem to eschew political organizing, in favor of speaking to allies as if our truth should be able to correct or vanquish the rightists?

    I realize that everyone needs to vent, and to commiserate over the atrocities that outrage us, and to find ways to explain our world. So I don’t treat every venting/commiserating conversation as if it were a crucial attempt to understand how our world works. And even if every conversation potentially matters, I realize that I’m unlikely to make a big diff.

    But I’ll keep trying occasionally, just in case, because I feel that people really do want to understand, and trust that I can help. Is it not plain that if one begins from the premise that we have truth and their beliefs are wrong (or vice versa), then one cannot get further in understanding how our conflicted society ever works, nor what ails it?

    Ru, I find you’ve echoed a point Annie Dillard used to make: innocense is better than cynicism. So: should we trust our impressions of friendship/camaraderie because these impressions are true? Or because to trust is better than to mistrust?

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.