#WarLogs: the beginning of the end for nation-state secrecy?

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2010

Well, now I understand why I was seeing Julian Assange and Wikileaks everywhere last week. Unless you’ve been under our oft-referred-to yet hypothetical news-proof rock for the last 48 hours, you’ll be aware that The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are busily publishing the contents of a massive batch of classified documents about the conflict in Afghanistan, which were apparently released to them by Wikileaks about a month back. It’s decidedly unpretty and embarrassing reading for the US government and other members of the “coalition of the willing”, but I think the saddest thing is how little of what’s being reported surprises me in the least. I think we all suspected it was happening that way, deep down; the only difference now is that denial and spin are weak options. The collective bluff has been called, and rather spectacularly.

As usual, I’m less interested in the leak itself than the larger implications. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of the political world to come, because Wikileaks have suddenly brought radical and deep transparency to the geopolitical process, and that cloak and dagger world has always thrived on the comparative ease with which it could obscure distant truths from the sight of its electorates. If Wikileaks and similar organisations cannot be squelched, and squelched quickly, dirty wars with hidden agendas are going to become much more politically risky… and it’s those wars and agendas that are the mainstay of the nation-state as power unit. I’m rather intrigued to see a pro-interventionist commentator like Thomas P M Barnett cautiously welcoming this new and uninvited transparency, even if not entirely approving of its source; either I’ve spectacularly misread his political stance – which is more than possible, I’ll grant you – or he’s seeing the same writing on the wall that I am. Other commentators seem to have been concluding that interventionism is all over bar the shouting, and that was before the leak; it’ll be interesting to watch the public approval ratings for overseas operations over the next few months.

I read somewhere (though I’ve lost the link) that Julian Assange is making a point of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row; I suspect he’ll be spending as much time being publicly visible as possible, too, because he’s now the figurehead of something that is scaring the shit out of people whose long-term modus operandi has been the disappearing (or unvarnished assassination) of obstacles to their agendas. If they can bump him off and not get caught, the warning will have been sent: don’t lift the curtain, or the puppetmaster will rap your knuckles. If he stays free and alive, the warning goes in the other direction: we’re watching, and you can’t reliably stop us from doing so any more.That’s one hell of a responsibility to be walking around with – whatever you may think of Assange’s personal politics and motives, I think it’s safe to say the guy has solid brass balls.

It’s worth noting the language of the White House statement in response to the leak, with its talk of “threatening national security”. “National security” isn’t about the security of the nation’s population, it’s about the security of the nation-state as a political entity… and that is profoundly threatened by Wikileaks and the radical transparency it represents. This isn’t the end of the road for the nation-state, but it could well be the beginning of the end.

I can’t say I’m too sad about that, either.


Wikileaks making the news rather than breaking it

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

Everywhere I look, I seem to see Wikileaks. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, appears at The Guardian and delivers a cautious guess at the shape of world media after another decade:

Is WikiLeaks the journalistic model for the future? He gives a characteristically lateral answer. “All over the world the barriers between what is inside an organisation and outside an organisation are being smoothed out. In the military, the use of contractors means that what is the military and what is not the military is smoothed out. Newswise, you see the same trend – what is the newspaper and what is not the newspaper? Comments on websites from the general public and supporters . . . ” His point trails away, so I press him to make a prediction about the shape of the media in a decade or so from now. “For the financial and specialist press, it’ll still look mostly the same – your daily briefing about what you need to know to run your business. But for political and social analysis, that’s going to be movements and networks. You can already see this happening.”

An insight into his stated political stance (or lack thereof):

In his talk, Assange had said that he is neither of the right nor the left – his enemies are forever trying to pin labels on him in order to undermine his organisation. What matters first and foremost is getting the information out. “First the facts, ma’am,” is how he summarises his philosophy to me. “Then we’ll get down to what we want to do about it. You can’t do anything sensible until you know what the situation is that you’re in.” But while he rejects political labels, he says WikiLeaks does have its own ethical code. “We have values. I am an information activist. You get the information out to the people. We believe a richer intellectual and historical record that is fuller and more accurate is in itself intrinsically good, and gives people the tools to make intelligent decisions.” He says an explicit part of their purpose is to highlight human rights abuses, no matter where they are carried out or who perpetrates them.

And some sidebar from Wired UKWikileaks runs pretty frugal for what is, in some respects, a new media non-profit startup:

Wikileaks has received 400,000 euros (£333,000) through PayPal or bank money transfers since late December, and spent only 30,000 euros (£25,000) from that funding, says Hendrik Fulda, vice president of the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation.

[…]

The money has gone to pay the travel expenses of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and spokesman Daniel Schmitt, as well as to cover the costs of computer hardware, such as servers, and leasing data lines, says Fulda. Wikileaks does not currently pay a salary to Assange or other volunteers from this funding, though there have been discussions about doing so in the future, Fulda adds. The details have not yet been worked out.

“If you are drawing from volunteers who are basically doing stuff for free and if you start paying money, the question is to whom, and to whom not, do you pay, and how much?” Fulda said. “It’s almost a moral question: How much money do you pay?”

The big question here is whether the organisation can keep itself small enough to stay free of spook infiltration, and keep close enough to its core ethics that they don’t suffer a serious case of mission slippage or internal fraud. It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

That Assange is a real character, though; wonder how much he’s playing on the Warhol similarities deliberately? Strikes me as the sort canny enough to play the media on the symbolic level, that’s for sure. Definitely a name to watch out for.