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Monday, 13 December 2010 12:23

Wikileaks: a morality play in several acts (and a couple of bedroom scenes)


Just because someone has a secret, doesn't mean that others agree to keep it.  Far from it.  And conversely just because you know someone's secret doesn't necessarily mean you're obliged to spread it around.

Eight months ago, few people outside of legal and IT circles had heard of Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange.

That all changed with the release of the "Collateral Murder" video in April this year, followed by several tranches of military information related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Perhaps that should that be 'occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan' for at no time that I recall was war ever formally declared against either country and particularly in the case of Afghanistan, the United States' issue is with a group of people who may or may not actually live in that country.

A couple of weeks ago, Wikileaks commenced the slow trickle release of 250,000 US State Department communications that addressed a wide variety of topics.

There are widely-held beliefs that these were part of the huge tranche of material obtained by Pfc Bradley Manning (which started with the Collateral Murder video) and in fact the chat logs published by Adrian Lamo, who dobbed Manning into authorities, show Manning bragging of 260,000 State Department cables being passed to Wikileaks. 

In fact Lamo has been kind enough to publish a log of all correspondence and writings on his participation in these events.  Amusingly, it seems that Manning was able to bring as much material as he could find out of his secure facility in Baghdad by simply re-burning it onto a CD-RW which came into the building with Lady Gaga music and left with something totally different.

It has been widely reported that as many as 3 million people had unfettered access to material graded as 'secret.'  This was a direct result of criticisms over the lack of information sharing after 9-11.

Browsing the logs suggests a few topics that will soon be aired, including "The Gitmo Papers" and an insight into the Vatican's view on their internal sexual assault 'issues.'

Commencing Sunday 28th November, the 'cables' slowly started to trickle out of the Wikileaks special sub-site.  Around the same time, we learned that a small number of press outlets were receiving the material in advance and were able to provide deeper commentary as it appeared.

Which, of course led to a media feeding frenzy as we learned of both the petty and the serious sides of US State Department correspondence.

US authorities were less than impressed, for instance Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton's comment last week: "This disclosure is not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community."  Um, no, I think it's simply a disclosure of communications the US would have preferred remained secret; the international community is far more 'bemused' than 'attacked.'

Unfortunately, in the rush to wallow in the salacious joy of watching the US squirm, we have tended to set aside the moral issues of the whole affair.

It would be fair to say that every piece of correspondence in the on-going release was written in the expectation that it would remain internal to the US Government.  And in that expectation, words were frequently used that would not normally be shared with an unsuspecting public.

From the moral perspective, we have heard the disparaging words of everyone from Frank Furedi Professor of Sociology at University of Kent who dismisses any claims of journalism and simply labels the whole thing voyeurism, "This idea that the publication of private conversations and communications is in the public interest - whether it's done by tabloids or by sanctimonious candidates for the next Pulitzer Prize - is a self-serving attempt to present voyeurism as an important public duty." through to Neil James, Executive Director, Australian Defence Association.

James asserts "Put bluntly, WikiLeaks is not authorised in international or Australian law, nor equipped morally or operationally, to judge whether open publication of such material risks the safety, security, morale and legitimate objectives of Australian and allied troops fighting in a UN-endorsed military operation. Nor should and can groups such as WikiLeaks be so authorised or equipped respectively, especially when they are unaccountable to any responsible authority or international humanitarian law (IHL) in a legal or moral sense."

Clearly, Neil James neglected to speak with anyone with legal skills as we are hearing from many sources that there is no crime with which to charge Assange.

On the other hand, we hear from Australian author and close friend of Assange, John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman, "The case of the Afghanistan war logs and the hounding of Julian Assange prove that there's never been greater need to speak truth to power than today."

With the slow and steady drip feed of information, there is a near salacious interest in whatever comes next.  Certainly many people are setting aside their moral concerns in order to stay abreast of the leaks.

Before attempting some kind of moral evaluation, let's firstly take a look at some of the factors that might be considered.

Firstly, we have the expectation of privacy.  Every contributor to the body of cables being released had a reasonable expectation of some level of privacy - reading the news we hear of many comments / reports / tales that made their way into State Department cables where there was a very obvious expectation that the comments would not become public knowledge. 

This is particularly true when the private statement differed markedly from the public position (Kevin Rudd on Afghanistan) or where the mere fact of being a source was in itself embarrassing (Mark Arbib's situation).

Many observers have also cast some doubt on the morality of passing on information stolen from its rightful owner; however it is very clear that this is information collected by people employed by their government and thus could be considered publicly owned. 

Of course there are situations that suggest some level of discussion, which reflects the process of arriving at some position, might be of some morbid interest, but not necessarily rightfully in the public eye.  For instance, it is highly likely that opinions expressed during a debate might represent AN opinion, but might not be the actual opinion of anyone involved in the discussion.  So-called straw-man arguments are a perfect example of this.

However, even with all of this in mind, it has long been the case that Governments of the world have lost sight of the fact that their primary role is to represent their people; instead they seem to have evolved into some self-serving entity that exists in spite of their populations; often treating the people as little note than an irritant on their collective behinds.

Many casual observers of the Wikileaks releases have attempted to describe some arbitrary "right to know" as a means to justify access to the information being revealed.  This is probably the weakest argument being offered and clearly falls into the category of "special pleading."

So, what of the legal position of Assange and Wikileaks? 

In all of the discussion of the legality if these leaks, every informed observer has noted that whoever 'liberated' the information has the weight of the law upon them, but beyond that, it appears there is no "downstream liability" for those to whom the information was passed.

Our own Prime Minister Julia Gillard was very quick to describe the release as illegal yet others have been much less sure of this assessment.  For instance, Senator George Brandis SC, Shadow Attorney General observed, "As far as I can see he hasn't broken any Australian law, nor does it appear he has broken any American laws."

In addition, any punishment meted out to Assange and Wikileaks MUST be visited upon every other media outlet that has published the material - those very same media outlets that Governments around the world rely upon to echo their well-crafted messages. 

Fat chance of anyone going after the major press; WikiLeaks is too easy a target and other outlets far too problematic.

Ever since the start of the material's release, it would seem that battle has been joined by Governments around the world.  Leaders have branded the leaking 'illegal' without any attempt to identify what laws have been broken and many attempts have been made to discredit or silence the entire operation.

Some of the more strident opponents in the US have been (how can I say this nicely) totally bat-shit crazy.

Sarah Palin, sometimes referred to as "Bible Spice" offers us this: "What, if any, diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on NATO, EU, and other allies to disrupt Wikileaks' technical infrastructure? Did we use all the cyber tools at our disposal to permanently dismantle Wikileaks? Were individuals working for Wikileaks on these document leaks investigated? Shouldn't they at least have had their financial assets frozen just as we do to individuals who provide material support for terrorist organizations?"

Does she have no concept of just where the borders of the US lie and what it actually means to live in a civilised society?

Sen. Joe Lieberman is no different and has been credited with forcing Amazon to stop hosting the WikiLeaks material.

"WikiLeaks' illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world," said Sen Joe Lieberman.  "No responsible company - whether American or foreign - should assist WikiLeaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials."

"I will be asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with WikiLeaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information,
" he added.

Indeed, soon after he made that statement, Amazon did indeed stop hosting, forcing WikiLeaks to find servers elsewhere.

Similarly, PayPal, MasterCard and then Visa also refused to process transactions involving WikiLeaks.  In addition Assange's bank in Switzerland, citing a rather flimsy loophole, also terminated his account.

Of course there have been plenty of other overreactions, wanting more, one simply has to seek using one's favourite search engine loaded up with a couple of emotive terms.

To all of these service providers, the question really needs to be asked, what exactly was illegal in the WikiLeaks offering, compared to, say, the Ku Klux Klan (who are happily supported by many of those organisations named above)?

Following this very successful application of blithe declarations of illegality by a variety of American politicians, WikiLeaks was forced to retreat from Amazon (as a service provider) and has also been disconnected from the web with the cancelling of DNS services by EveryDNS (who claimed that the DDoS attacks were disadvantaging the many other sites they managed).

The combination of disconnections by both providers left WikiLeaks off the air for about 6 hours on Thursday 2nd December.  Since then, WikiLeaks has found a new home and an extensive number of mirror sites, 1,885 at the time of writing and increasing all the time.

Much has been made of the recent Swedish 'incident.'  It seems from a variety of reports that Assange had sexual relations with at least two women while on a recent speaking trip to Sweden.  However, there are two rather strange aspects to this.

Firstly, there is the timing of the event.  A complaint was made to the Swedish authorities in the days after these incidents by both women and their claims seem to have been investigated quite thoroughly.  Assange was made aware of the complaint and on numerous times offered to make himself available for questioning; being rebuffed on every occasion.  Eventually he left the country and at around the same time, Swedish prosecutors announced that they would not be pursuing the case.

Soon after the initial opening of CableGate, Swedish Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny (the same person who announced the case had been closed) re-opened the case and issued a world-wide arrest warrant for Assange.  All this for a crime which, if convicted would land Assange with a $700 fine.

Which leads us to the second strange aspect.  The addition of Assange's name to Interpol's "most wanted" list. 

WTF?  For what is essentially a misdemeanour (to use US legal jargon) that would attract a small fine, if convicted?  There is something very wrong here. 

What next?  My next local parking fine will have me extradited from some overseas holiday?

Many commenters have already expressed the expectation that Assange will, if extradited to Sweden, be ushered into a revolving door, next stop some dingy CIA cell in some far-off land.

So, where does this leave our arguments of morality? 

As I stated earlier, there have been strong words written on both sides of the argument and I commend my readers to not only read the linked articles but also the huge numbers of comments posted by readers.  The depth and breadth of opinion on this matter is quite breathtaking.

A few days ago, I took a quick straw-poll amongst the iTWire writers via our private chat channel (no, I'm not about to release the contents!) and it seemed the general consensus was that we supported the release of the materials, but some (myself included) were nervous of the morality of it all.  This comment, from one of our team is reasonably typical: "I for one feel safer when I know what is actually going in the world and as I said, I love all these wonderful stories finally coming to the surface."

Much of the material released thus far has, according to many commentators knowledgeable of the events, been unsurprising.  Some have even suggested that they would have been considerably more surprised if the cables hadn't said what they did.

However, we have still seen less than 1% of the material - there is much to await.

Which leaves us with the motives and the morality.  It would seem a parallel question is: "should we consider Julian Assange a criminal, a hero or just a misguided fool."  Governments favour the first option, people of some conscience the second and the already down-trodden 'sheeple' will look up from their metaphorical kool-aide and would vote for the third, if they could be bothered.

The motive of WikiLeaks and Assange is clearly an attempt to move the third category of respondent into the second; and the morality is entirely up to each and every person to decide for themselves - who am I to judge?



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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.



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