Monday, November 29, 2010

The site that kicked the hornet's nest

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 5:37 PM

Information wants to be free, it just needs a little help.
  • Photo by New Media Days/Peter Erichsen
  • Information wants to be free, it just needs a little help.

Sarah Palin never fails to grasp upon the most moronic position in any conversation and run with it.

In a desperate attempt to make political hay from the recent WikiLeaks leak, the half-term Alaska governor asked Facebook why isn't the Obama administration hunting down Aussie hacker Julian Assange "with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?"

If Palin were president, you see, WikiLeaks would be no more, nonexistent, purged from the Internet, and Assange would have long ago been rendered off to some deep dark black hole somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Watch as Palin masterfully entangles self-promotion with an allegiance to that idiots' notion that Assange and his team committed treason by publishing documents classified by a foreign country. "Inexplicable: I recently won in court to stop my book 'America by Heart' from being leaked, but US Govt can't stop WikiLeaks' treasonous act?"

She is a thing of beauty.

And she isn't alone. New York Rep. Peter King has been busy making an ass out of himself calling for Assange's extradition. "Either we’re serious about this or we’re not. I know people may think this is a bit of a stretch, but I analogize it as the RICO statute, where they had a pretty narrow definition of criminal enterprise in the beginning, but now that’s been expanded quite a bit to deal with contemporary problems." Yep. King wants to expand the power of the government to deal with those who publish leaked government documents in much the same way that RICO was expanded to bust poor, black drug dealers.

Members of the Obama administration are, predictably, pissed off.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the Obama administration was taking "aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. would not rule out taking action against WikiLeaks. Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration would prosecute if violations of federal law are found in an ongoing criminal investigation of the incident.

Gibbs said President Barack Obama was briefed on the impending massive leak last week and was "not pleased" about the breach of classified documents. "This is a serious violation of the law," Gibbs said. "This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist in our foreign policy."

World leaders are lining up to condemn the leaks for undermining delicate diplomatic conversations, and for making public the embarrassing squabbles and back-stabbing that is just a part of politics. Even the conspiracy types have found reason to hyperventilate. Yet of all the predictable backlash against WikiLeaks, the most amusing has come from members of the establishment media. These well-connected opinion-makers are desperate to downplay the value of WikiLeaks while simultaneously chastising the odd hackers for failing to observe the heuristics of how a gentleman makes government secrets public.

The Economist published this within less than a day after only a small percentage of the quarter-million diplomatic cables became public.

At this point, what WikiLeaks is doing seems like tattling: telling Sally what Billy said to Jane. It's sometimes possible that Sally really ought to know what Billy said to Jane, if Billy were engaged in some morally culpable deception. But in general, we frown on gossips. If there's something particularly damning in the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks has gotten a hold of, the organisation should bring together a board of experienced people with different perspectives to review the merits of releasing that particular cable. But simply grabbing as many diplomatic cables as you can get your hands on and making them public is not a socially worthy activity...

Maybe it's something about tech geeks, or maybe it's just related to the self-interest of people and organisations whose particular strength lies in an ability to get a hold of other people's information. But it definitely seems like we're learning a lesson here: while information may want to be free, human beings are usually better off when it's on a leash.

Benedict Brogan took a more bemused, schoolteacher-ish sort of stance:

... the fact remains that [the Wikileaks documents are] a collection of little substance that will do nothing to reshape geo-politics. The Saudis would like someone to whack Iran? No kidding. Afghanistan is run by crooks? Really? Hillary Clinton would like to know a lot more about the diplomats she is negotiating against? You surprise me. The Russian government may have links to organised crime? Pass the smelling salts, Petunia. The Americans are secretly whacking al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen? What, you thought the Yemenis were doing it?

Hardy-har, Petunia. You see, he's a serious journalist. You don't need to confirm the clandestine American bombing in Yemen—any intelligent observer should just be able to assume it's happening.

On this side of the pond, The Washington Post's Marc Theissen gave voice to the more dangerous faction of media, as he falls in lockstep with King and Palin and continues in his quest to see Assange prosecuted under the Espionage Act:

The very existence of WikiLeaks is a threat to national security. Unless something is done, WikiLeaks will only grow more brazen - and our unwillingness to stop it will embolden others to reveal classified information using the unlawful medium Assange has built.

I wonder if Theissen feels the same way about his colleague Dana Priest? After all, the government accused her of using illegally obtained classified documents to report on the CIA's alleged black sites program. She was accused of damaging national security. What's the difference between WikiLeaks and Priest? Priest is a Pulitizer Prize winner, and she did it the old-fashioned way: received her classified info, chased it down and reported what she found.

The difference is that in WikiLeaks' world the newspapers are no longer the sole arbiters of what the public ought to know. The editors and reporters are no longer the pretty ones; they now come to the trough of classified information to feed at the same time, from the same slop. What we are seeing in the media isn't an ethical stance taken against the reporting leaked classified information, or the high-minded refusal to deal in "gossip" (what reporter wouldn't have loved to get her hands on the cable detailing Kadafi's "nurse" before anyone else? Or the cable that alleges that Hillary Clinton orders her staff to spy on United Nations delegates? That shit's gold!). No, what we are seeing is a medium overrun by technology — again. Nobody in a newsroom wants to play second fiddle to a competitor, especially when that competitor comes straight out of the future, and is as irritating and smug as Julian Assange.

What we are hearing from my betters in the media world is something that amounts to one giant, flaccid harrumph.

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