As Julian Assange faces his extradition trial, James Supple takes a look at the role of information in the fight for social change
WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of US diplomatic cables has created an international sensation. The release has given us an insight into the US’s ruthless use of imperial power. It’s not hard to see why the White House is desperate to charge Julian Assange, or why Hillary Clinton condemned the release as “an attack on America”.
WikiLeaks’ work in enabling leakers to get secret government information public has done us all a great service. But can their aim of making secret information public alone fundamentally change the way governments work?
From its outset, WikiLeaks has defined its mission as forcing “transparency” from governments and corporations. Their mission statement, published on their web site, declares this is a way of bringing about “reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies”. In 2009, Julian Assange claimed information released by WikiLeaks has already, “led to substantial reforms, including the dissolution of two national governments, two new national constitutions, bills before the US Congress and many lawsuits”. Most famously, this included the exposure of corruption among members of the government in Kenya, which saw those implicated lose power in the following election.
But the impact on the US government due to the cablegate leaks has so far been modest. Of course, there has been plenty of embarrassment for administration officials. Hillary Clinton was forced to travel around the Middle East for meetings with world leaders in what she described as her “apology tour”.
Yet only one senior US diplomat has lost his job—the ambassador to Libya, who was recalled following the leak of his unflattering comments about Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The revelations about the war in Afghanistan, or the corrupt nature of Arab regimes such as those of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, have helped further delegitimise them. However, the sweeping claims about cablegate changing diplomacy forever have not come to pass.
One reason for this is that the decisions on what to publish and when were left in the hands of the mainstream media. WikiLeaks did a deal with a range media outlets including newspapers The Guardian, New York Times, Germany’s Der Spiegel and the Spanish El Pais. These papers chose which cables to publish and when. Some of the stories they focused on were the most trivial—like the gossip about Berlusconi and Putin’s parties and the escapades of other world leaders. WikiLeaks left the job of interpreting and explaining what was in the cables to the mainstream media, instead of releasing its own opinions on what was most explosive in the cables.
All too often, the mass media reproduces the rich and powerful’s view of what matters in the world. The vast majority of the media is run for profit, and so has an interest in painting a picture favourable to government and big business. One example of the result of this was the coverage of comments about the need to attack Iran made by various Arab leaders. These were widely used by the media to assist US efforts to demonise the regime, and justify its alliances with regimes in the region that are every bit as undemocratic, such as Saudia Arabia and Yemen.
But most importantly, there is a limit to what making public information about government secrets and lies can achieve. The exposure of scandals can sometimes destroy individual corrupt politicians—but to end brutal wars and truly “reshape the relationship between governments and their citizens”, as Wikileaks aims to do, we need to challenge the system that breeds corruption and war.
The recent events in Tunisia, which many are calling the first “WikiLeaks revolution”, are an example of how that can be done. The release of information from WikiLeaks that confirmed the grotesque corruption of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia was arguably one of the trigger events for their revolt. Many have argued that there were other, more important triggers, like the tragic self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi. But certainly it was the mass movement on the streets—strikes and protests and resistance to an attempted crackdown by the security police—that brought the regime to its knees. Political organisation, in particular that of the Tunisian union confederation the UGTT, played a very important role. Its decision to organise local strikes and then a national general strike on January 14 paralysed the economy and spelled the end for Ben Ali.
WikiLeaks has exposed similar scandals about other corrupt regimes. Leaked reports from US diplomats in Morocco described “the appalling greed” of those close to King Mohammed VI. US ambassador Richard Holbrooke elsewhere admitted Pakistan’s “bureaucracy has settled into third-world mediocrity, as demonstrated by corruption”. But without similar movements to those in Tunisia and Egypt, their leaders have emerged unscathed.
The release of the Pentagon Papers, a major leak of documents in 1971 on the Vietnam War, is also instructive. The Pentagon Papers contained 7000 pages of official documents and analysis on US involvement in Vietnam, and exposed that US Presidents had continually lied to the public. They had known from early on that the war was being lost, despite claiming there was “progress”. President Johnson had also lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, where the North Vietnamese fired on an American ship, to justify the first major escalation of the war.
These revelations were enlightening. But the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and other newspapers did not immediately end the war in Vietnam. It dragged on for another four years. The scandal did feed into a wider anti-war climate: the Papers were given to anti-war activist Howard Zinn, who co-wrote a book with Noam Chomsky on their significance as a tool to help build the movement. Ultimately, it was a combination of mass opposition to the war in the US, opposition among US troops and the determination of the Vietnamese resistance movement to keep fighting that forced the US to get out of Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers spurred people on, but the mass movement itself was the decisive factor.
Julian Assange, in an article written in 2006, “State and terrorist conspiracies”, argues that governments with something to hide operate like a conspiracy. He argues that they will respond to major leaks by reducing the number of people with access to information and therefore weaken their ability to operate. But while WikiLeaks might certainly make some things more difficult to keep secret—and has drawn the ire of politicians for that reason—it has not put any kind of stop to world leaders and diplomats from behaving in undemocratic and unaccountable ways. Barack Obama is still backing the corrupt US puppet in Afghanistan, Harmid Karzai, despite WikiLeaks’ revelations the US knows he is corrupt and that his brother is a drug lord.
That is because these kinds of policies are not the product of a lack of transparency or the work of a collection of corrupt individuals—but rather, they stem from the nature of the capitalist system itself. Even with the threat of exposure for doing so, world leaders act in the interests of the rich and powerful and not those who elected them. They will lie and kill to get their way.
They will do so because they are part of system governed by competition for profits. WikiLeaks shows the way that competition spills over from boardrooms into the battlefield. Governments will go to war to fight in the interests of corporations—sometimes to directly enrich themselves, like the US oil companies in Iraq, or to ensure they can bully other states to stop restrictions on US products. The “diplomacy” exposed in the WikiLeaks cables is an example of how state institutions through their weight around to protect the interests of business.
The real decisions in society are not made by the vast majority of people, or even in elections. Formal political democracy exists alongside entrenched class interests. Decisions are made by the small minority in the upper echelons of industry, banks and the state who control vast amounts of wealth.
These people are more than willing to impose their control in the face of opposed public opinion. John Howard, along with the British and US governments, defied overwhelming opposition to launch the war in Iraq. Opinion polls consistently record massive opposition to privatisation, yet successive governments continue the sell-off of public assets. The wishes of voters are subordinated to the need for profit and power.
WikiLeaks has released information that shows the corruption and brutality of the people that run the world. It is a tool for those who want to show the hollowness of our democracies and the need to oppose the wars waged by governments. But while opposition is passive or restricted to just information, governments can contain it.
Tunisia’s revolution, on the other hand, shook the foundations of the system. Workers’ strikes, alongside mass political revolt, prevented the system from functioning. The army was no longer willing to defend the regime and rulers were powerless to enforce their will. Here in Australia, the movement for refugee rights under the Howard government effected significant changes to policy by organising and mobilising the support in the community for refugees and waging an argument that they should be welcome. The popularity of WikiLeaks in Australia exposes the discontent with world leaders that simmers beneath the surface. When that discontent is organised into movements for change, it can turn into something very powerful.