04 December 2010

Secrecy, Democracy, and WikiLeaks

Julian Assange
Adapted from flickr image by Espen Moe
used under a Creative Commons licence 

In the aftermath of the WikiLeaks document dump, the most important thing to realize is that it is not the leaks, nor the leakers, that are the problem, here. The problem is the secrecy and the US State Department’s haughty attitude, which is only encouraged by the institutionalized system of spies and infiltrators in the ranks of the US “diplomatic” corps.

Blaming the leakers is like blaming the bucket for wearing holes in itself. The fact is that the apparatus that conducts US foreign policy is so obsessed with information-gathering, whether this information is useful or not, that this climate of deceit has undermined the integrity of the entire operation. The leaks show us that the system is broken and is in dire need of fixing.

The content of the leaks, the revelations about what the State Department really thinks about the leaders of other nations, is being trumpeted as the reason why the leakers should be shot at dawn without a cigarette, but all this noise only drowns out the fact that the United States spends so much energy and resources on finding out such banal details and belittling world leaders. I am reminded of the declassified CIA report on Che Guevara that describes the man who had filled notebooks with his thoughts and analysis on everything from the most prominent Latin American writers and intellectuals to Buddha and Aristotle, Bertrand Russell and Jack London, Nietzsche and Freud, as “quite well read,” adding, “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino.” Is this attitude really helpful to the security of the United States?

No wonder people are angry that these cables have become public knowledge. They are embarrassing on many levels. Do they harm national security? I would say no more than the world finding from news reports that so many citizens of the United States see the religion of Islam as inherently evil. No more than looking at the chaos in Haiti and seeing racism written all over the US response. No more than watching the United States destabilize Central Asia by waging an unwinnable war in Afghanistan that inevitably spilled over into neighboring Pakistan and then creating even bigger havoc by removing Sadam Hussein and allowing Iran’s influence to grow and upset the delicate balance of power in that region. No more than intuiting the consistently imperious attitude that the United States has exhibited toward all of its neighbors in the hemisphere, starting with the CIA’s first big success story in Guatemala, and extending to Battalion 3-16 in Honduras, the Reagan Death Squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Pinochet in Chile, Operation Condor in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, and more recently, the coup d’état that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti, the drug war in Colombia, attempted coups d’état in Venezuela and Ecuador, and in 2009, another successful coup d’état in Honduras.

Do the released cables harm diplomacy? My response is, “What diplomacy?” What has been revealed is that the United States does not engage in real diplomacy. It lies and spies and then lies some more, acting belligerently in the purported interest of national security. Granted, this behavior is, to some degree, the nature of international diplomacy, this posturing and putting on a show of civility and mutual respect, behind which distrust and enmity often lie. However, it is the degree to which the United States has been engaging in this behavior that should be troubling to nations with which the US is supposedly negotiating in good trust, as well as to the citizens of what is supposed to be a democracy.

As the editor of the Expat Daily News Latin America, where I have been compiling a weekly list of links to news stories from many different sources about Latin American issues, I am very aware of the responses of leaders from all over the region. Not surprisingly, Chávez and Morales expressed support for WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. Meanwhile, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos commiserated with the Obama administration over the leaks. Paraguay’s Foreign Minister voiced consternation about espionage in their country, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner remained mute in the face of denigrating remarks, and Uruguay’s José Mujica shrugged the matter off as “business as usual.” It seems that, for the most part, actual diplomacy has not been harmed by the cables, as those who already distrusted the United States simply have verification of the reasons for their distrust, while those who would like to maintain some level of relations with the United States will go about it with a great deal of cynicism. Perhaps getting all of this out in the open can be seen as a coming clean, a clearing of bad air, a sort of spiritual cleansing, like confession. Now, we can all move forward, knowing where we stand, and the United States will be forced to stop with the petty cattiness and take the business of diplomacy and the building of truly secure relations more seriously.

Beyond the matters of national security and diplomacy, this document dump speaks to the theme that I have written so much about, that democracy and secrecy are incompatible bedfellows. The progressive thinkers of the world are celebrating the bravery of Julian Assange and the person who fed his organization these cables, not because we “hate America,” but because we deplore undemocratic democracy. The inability to have any idea, up until now, of just what is being done all over the world with our tax dollars and in our names undermines the entire democratic process, as our votes for representation in Congress and in the White House seem to have very little bearing on the entity that carries out US foreign policy and national security. It has become a monster with no guidance, no limits, and no accountability.

These cables exhibit precisely the concern that so many voiced about Bush’s warrantless wiretapping of US citizens. While security hawks claimed that those not engaged in terrorist activities, having nothing to hide, could rest assured that such invasions of their privacy were necessary for the security of the nation, what we can now see is that spying and the ability to discover the minutest details about people is a strongly seductive and addictive power that is ripe for abuse. Just as the climate inside Abu Ghraib disintegrated into the deplorable state that it did because of the lack of direction combined with confusion and the desperation to show results in a bungled mess of a war, so, too has the culture of US security services brought out the human tendency toward derisiveness and cruelty in its constant thirst for more and more “information.” When “the more, the better” is the motto, quality goes out the door along with respect and human decency.

Sifting back up from the layer of content to that of the content’s secrecy, a parallel tendency rears its ugly head. As reported by one of my favorite correspondents at McClatchy Newspapers, Nancy A. Youssef at the Pentagon, reactionary over-classification of documents lumps trivia in with the “crown jewels,” giving those with clearances access to far more information than is necessary for their jobs. The report ends with these words from retired CIA analyst, Michael Scheuer in regard to how the government protects information:

“I think people drew the wrong lesson from the 9/11 commission,” he said. “It was not just about sharing information. It was about acting on the information you have.”

Likewise, it’s not just about having secrets. It’s about why they are secret and how the information is useful to act upon.

Further reading from Truthout.org:


Expat Daily News Latin America Editor said...

When will the light come on?

Tiffany said...

"Likewise, it’s not just about having secrets. It’s about why they are secret and how the information is useful to act upon."

Loudly heard and honestly understood.

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