In this article, Ian Anderson, a member of the Wellington branch of the Workers Party, looks back on the breaking of state secrets – including with regard to NZ’s role in Iraq – and how WikiLeaks has helped shape recent international events.
By now everyone with access to mainstream media has heard of WikiLeaks. Whether it’s the latest head-line from a leaked diplomatic cable, or a development in the Assange rape allegation drama, WikiLeaks is a centre-piece in media coverage. This article aims to give some background and analysis, to put the headlines in context.
Launched in March 2006, WikiLeaks relies on donations through the non-profit sector. Donations are processed by the Wau Holland Foundation in Germany, a non-profit organisation named after a “data philosopher” who developed notions such as hacker ethics. WikiLeaks is also registered through various other organisations internationally, many with only covert affiliations.
Like so many NGO-ist operations, WikiLeaks strives for political neutrality and does not have an explicitly anti-imperialist mandate. Until recently they used the following mission statement: “Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their own governments and corporations.”
In its early days WikiLeaks exposed corruption in Kenya, and found itself in conflict with censorious Chinese authorities. However, the website ultimately shot to fame by exposing the machinations of Western imperialism. In April 2010, WikiLeaks released the first file from PFC Bradley Manning, a video nicknamed “Collateral Murder.” This video depicted the US army murdering Iraqi civilians and firing upon reporters in a 2007 airstrike. In the weeks following this leak “WikiLeaks” was the search-term with the most significant growth on Google.
In his position as Intelligence Analyst for the US military, Manning had leaked two videos of airstrikes and about 260,000 diplomatic cables – many still unreleased by WikiLeaks. After former hacker Adrian Lamo blew the whistle, Manning was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. WikiLeaks continues to release the cables in batches, despite various attempts to shoot the messenger.
Who is Julian Assange?
With the increased popularity of WikiLeaks, and its infamy in imperialist circles, co-founder and spokesperson Julian Assange has come under intense personal scrutiny. Not only WikiLeaks’ enemies, but also commentators across the political spectrum have placed Assange under the microscope.
Bruce Sterling, a cyberpunk author with a keen interest in hacker culture, commented in an article that: “As major political players go, Julian Assange seems remarkably deprived of sympathetic qualities. Most saintly leaders of the oppressed masses, most wannabe martyrs, are all keen to kiss-up to the public… [Assange is] the kind of guy who gets depressed by the happiness of the stupid.”
Conservative demagogue Sarah Palin has called for his assassination and described the Australian citizen as “un-American.” In fact, he has inspired such personal venom that a website has been dedicated solely to collecting the names of public figures “OK with murdering Assange.” International authorities have sought to charge the individuals involved in WikiLeaks, without any legal reason to attack it as an organisation. This is easily done with Bradley Manning, with charges of treason pending. But Assange is not a US citizen, and is hard to pin-down with his regular nation-hopping. On the 7th of December 2010, Julian Assange was arrested in London, pending extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for charges of rape and sexual assault.
The charges against Assange have sparked a debate on rape myths. Progressive commentators including Naomi Wolf, John Pilger, Michael Moore and Gordon Campbell criticised the charges, many calling the women’s testimony into question. Feminists responded that progressives should not have to deny rape in order to defend WikiLeaks, and pointed out some myths perpetuated by those defending Assange: that Swedish law has an unusual definition of rape, that if a woman continues to be friends with a man it demonstrates she has not been raped, and various misrepresentations of their testimony. These criticisms haven’t fallen entirely on deaf ears, with Michael Moore retracting his statements on the subject.
Community media program Democracy Now provided a public forum for this debate, hosting feminists Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman. This demonstrated different interpretations of the accounts given by the women, particularly his holding one down and ignoring her request for a condom. Naomi Wolf asserted that since the woman did not explicitly say “no,” it was consensual; Jaclyn Friedman responded that the onus was on Assange to ensure affirmative consent. Significantly, Friedman and Wolf agreed that the Swedish authorities do not usually handle charges of sexual assault in this fashion, and that their actions were intended to undermine WikiLeaks. In fact, Assange’s personal life is largely irrelevant to the nature of WikiLeaks. The cables leaked by Bradley Manning have been encrypted and sent out to hackers world-wide. Recent actions against Assange clearly have nothing to do with justice for rape survivors, and are only aimed at undermining this wider project. We do not have to assume Assange is innocent, or perpetuate rape myths, to oppose all attacks on him by the state.
What does WikiLeaks tell us?
WikiLeaks is an invaluable toolbox for the international left, exposing the machinations of the bourgeoisie in every country. Often the leaks make explicit what many already knew: disregard for civilian life in the siege of Baghdad, or US worries about Chinese “authoritarian capitalism” expanding.
In Tunisia, this confirmation helped galvanise a mass movement. Students and workers have long considered the US-backed state corrupt, with President Ben Ali putting smaller local expenses scandals to shame by buying yachts as the nation starved. Protests in rural regions of Tunisia were spurred by rising prices and unemployment, but did not spread. However, when a leaked cable by the US Ambassador confirmed the corruption everyone had previously whispered about, the Tunisian state chose to ban WikiLeaks and clamp down on online activism in general – catalysing mass protest, involving students and trade unions, throughout the country. President Ben Ali has now fled Tunisia and a regional rebellion has taken hold.
Cables on NZ illuminate our relationship to the US, as sections of the left argue for ‘national sovereignty.’ The cables do show a fair amount of imperialist meddling by the US, particularly relating to the ban on nuclear ships. In particular, they further confirm Nicky Hager’s argument in The Hollow Men that US diplomats, including former ambassador Charles Swindell, got heavily involved in Don Brash’ 2005 election campaign, attempting to secure nuclear access in exchange for trade agreements. US diplomats also extensively analyse the position of various NZ politicians on the anti-nuclear legislation, and the best tactical approach to rolling back the nuclear laws. New Zealand does not emerge as an innocent victim however, but more as a junior imperialist playing tit for tat. In a particularly revealing cable, it emerged that Labour Party Prime Minister Helen Clark sent troops to Iraq in order to secure Oil For Food contracts for Fonterra. This demonstrates how New Zealand capitalists benefit from imperialist pillaging of the Third World, and why we should not see them as our allies in the fight against imperialism.
Abolish secret diplomacy!
As many leftists have noted, WikiLeaks is not without precedent. In the lead-up of the October revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded the release of all secret treaties. After seizing state power, they released these treaties both to Russian newspapers and the British Guardian. In the daily newspaper, Izvestia, on October 25th, Lenin declared, “All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat.” We’ve again seen this strengthened confidence in Tunisia.
While in 2011 New Zealand we’re a long way from seizing power, Lenin’s words do have some resonance here too. Watching Hillary Clinton and various functionaries go into damage control, it’s a small comfort to be reminded that the emperor has no clothes. Ruling-class bureaucrats carry out these secret actions not because they have any democratic mandate, but because such actions are necessary to an ultimately unsustainable system. A system nobody wants, that must lie to survive. Emerging social movements draw both information and inspiration from this project. In addition to Lenin’s writings and speeches, Trotsky published a statement on the release of documents in his position as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, which offers a useful historical analysis: “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests… The abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition for an honest, popular, truly democratic foreign policy.”
In fighting for a classless, stateless society, we must demand the abolition of secret diplomacy and the release of all state secrets. WikiLeaks is an important ally for the international left.