welcome to realpolitik. and no, it won’t be pretty

November 30, 2010

Sometimes, a topic comes along that I really, really would rather prefer not deal with because it just isn’t worth the hassle with which it comes. But when one of these topics is everywhere you look and on everyone’s lips, it has to be at least acknowledged. I’m talking of course about the latest WikiLeaks stunt which released some confidential diplomatic cables Assange got from the same military officer who sent him the Afghan war log archives he so eagerly published. The web’s reaction seems to oscillate from those who worship the ground that Assange walks on and demand that the American government suddenly act like a naive child, disclosing anything and everything it does, lest it be branded a collection of tyrants and murderers, and those who holler that WikiLeaks should be declared a terrorist group without noticing that what the organization leaks tends to end up in politicians’ memoirs and current events retrospectives anyway. Perhaps the most disturbing issue to me in this brouhaha is how many people seem shocked and amazed that their government, and those of a myriad of nations with which it deals, lie to each other, spy on each other, and play dirty, elaborate games.

I mean really, how many concerned undergrads with a newfound political cause, or idealistic web crusaders could possibly be shocked that realpolitik isn’t exactly fair or pristine and that wars are very messy and always harm innocent people? They’re adults, not kindergartners who have to be shielded from reality because they need to have a childhood. Sure, a jolly, big fat guy in a suit with a luxurious white beard delivering presents is nice, and so is a floating little woman who gives you money when you loose your teeth, but eventually, those fairy tales have to be put to rest. Governments are in the business of advancing their strategic interests and if they didn’t, you would be very, very upset. Just like companies competing for market share, they have secrets, confidential memos, internal e-mails, and meetings in which they say things they’d never say in public as not to give their competition an edge, or offend people with who they have to work by giving frank opinions about them. And they need a certain level of confidentiality to actually get things done. These are the facts of life, and if you’ve managed to grow up and don’t know that behind every formal government press release there tends to be some cold, wonkish calculation, or when wars are fought, there’s always collateral damage and always will be as long as there’s war, I truly envy you and the kind of blissful sheltering you received.

Now, if you aren’t in a cozy cocoon of soothing naiveté, very few things that come from WikiLeaks will actually be new to you. As much as I have a distaste for Assange and people like him (which I’ll explain in a moment and in detail), I have to say that WkiLeaks doesn’t actually leak anything terrifyingly reckless, like say, source code to missile guidance software or plans for the ignition mechanisms in nuclear weapons. But what it will trumpet as grand revelations are usually anything but. Are you telling me that the army is bogged down in the remote villages of Afghanistan? And that there was a full blown sectarian war in Iraq with Iraqi police abuses that generals thought would be far too difficult to investigate and stop while fighting a war? And that Israel has issues with the current leadership of Iran? And that Russia backed out on the S-300 missile deal because it got weapons from Israel and didn’t want to sabotage its working relationship with the U.S.? Really? How can mere mortals like me possibly know this? Oh yeah, by reading news and military blogs once in a while. If the perpetually pissed off Assange wasn’t out there telling everyone he’s being hunted by the Pentagon because he’s such an awesome whistleblower and has all their secret stuff, there would be no outcries about how the media doesn’t cover "the real story" because actually, they do. They just don’t publish the raw sources.

And speaking of raw sources, have you ever noticed that this is all Assange does? Just throw out cables and logs with ominous remarks about what they contain and threats that someone’s next? WikiLeaks was once a place where really interesting whistleblowing once went on. Now, it’s a publicity vehicle for St. Assange. When someone tried a feeble, barely noticeable denial of service attack on his site, he hammed it up on Twitter to an extent that makes me question why parts of it weren’t available. Just 2 GB more bandwidth than usual will not bring a massive, well-oiled site down. Hell, this blog survives bigger traffic spikes just fine. When officials whose classified information he’s leaking complain about the release as per their script, he snidely says that he’s just holding governments accountable. But should anyone leak something about him, he starts a mini- crusade to find the leaker and blasts the blog to which the information was leaked as a tabloid in bed with the governments trying to stop him while he saves the world. In other words, everyone should be held to the highest standards of transparency. Just not him and his organization. Because, you know, he has things that have to be held confidential so he can keep his site running and because he’s good and everyone else is bad this double standard is justifiable. Or something like that. I wonder, how would he react if someone from his organization published WikiLeaks’ financial information and private e-mails for the last few years just to "hold his group accountable" the way he does with governments and banks. After all, transparency is a virtue…

I will admit that the government often classifies too many things and that revealing abuses and failures or big problems in organizations on which we rely can be a good thing and is necessary. But contrary to the cries of Assange’s ardent fans, it does get done. Maybe they missed the 6,000 word story of how politicians crushed the USAF’s attempt to buy a new generation refueling tankers it really needed, or all those articles about a chain of secret overseas prisons ran by the CIA and detailing abuse in Iraqi prisons. Also, come to think of it, the next big target for WikiLeaks is a major bank. And oh, by the way, Matt Taibbi already has an article in his magazine about widespread loan fraud and robo-signers, a topic also covered by business magazines. I’m just on the edge of my seat about those secret bank memos. What do you think they’ll be about? Refusing to work with customers and robo-signing? Gee, we’ve never heard about that before anywhere else! Thank you so much oh St. Assange, without you, we’d never know this was happening. Unless, of course, we just read a few front page stories in all the major publications. So forgive me if I don’t get excited if a hypocrite who hypes news most of us who have a daily reading regimen are usually quite well aware of, posts a file with a random chain of e-mails and documents and then tells everyone he’s being hunted by the CIA, FSB and the Pentagon for his pure awesomeness. Armchair generals with huge egos don’t impress me in the least.

[ illustration by CG artist Snitch ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    From my understanding, in most modern bureaucracies, a vast amount of paperwork is expended trying to post things in files to either undermine subordinates (who aren’t ‘politically acceptable’ for promotion) or sabotage co-workers. Or to prevent your co-workers from sabotaging you.

    The simplest answer (although one that always seems to elude the management staff) is: stop adding commentary! If all that’s available is the ‘raw facts’ and details, people get bored and stop reading. It’s the juicy details of in-fighting and the soap-opera commentary that keeps people interested.

    For me, the most interesting part of the affair is the hysterical over-reaction on both sides.

  • Of the 250,000 pages or 250,0000 documents, released, can’t seem to get consistent reporting on that issue, the banality of it clearly calls into question the whole system of classification. So far the ugliest innuendo and smear revealed is no news to anyone even remotely associated with current events. The only import is a bunch of catty faux-pas that would seem unnecessary as well as crass.

  • Paul

    “And that Israel has issues with the current leadership of Iran?”

    And Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and Jordan, and Kuwait… Also openly calling Hamas a terrorist group, and the primary impediment to peace in Palestine. And none of them saying so publicly. (Well, until now :) Instead, all the citizens in those countries hear is their leaders criticising Israel when it attacks an “aid convoy”, or allows settlements in Gaza.

    You might say, “Well, duh, I read this on some obscure mil-policy blog years ago, it’s just sunni vs shiite”, but the Arabs don’t read those blogs, and Arabic media won’t run anything against Iran/Hamas if their governments don’t say anything publicly, quotable, reportable.

    It’s one thing for some knowledgeable semi-insider to speculate in his blog or column, it’s quite another when a news service quotes the actual Arab leaders actual words.

    (And that’s why I defend Wikileaks, regardless of Assange’s excesses. It does make a difference when this stuff comes from the horse’s mouth, not from speculation or “deep background” sources. If it didn’t matter, all those diplomats wouldn’t be running around squealing.)

  • Paul

    Just thought of an example:

    Before Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar ponzi scheme collapsed, there was a guy running around trying to warn authorities (or anyone who’d listen) that it was all a scam. But no one would listen.

    Now imagine if some insider had a recording of Madoff and his sons discussing the scam, as a scam. Or emails, or something. And leaked them to Wikileaks, which published them, with all the preliminary media hype (“Wikileaks announces it will soon release over documents proving that a leading NY Financier is running a giant scam!”)

    That would have made people sit up and take notice. Not because someone made the accusation (someone was already doing that, people wouldn’t listen, didn’t want to know), but because it was in the scammers’ own words! That’s the difference.

  • Greg Fish

    “Now imagine if some insider had a recording of Madoff and his sons discussing the scam, as a scam. Or emails, or something. And leaked them to Wikileaks…”

    … which would have no interest in publishing them unless it was the hot thing to do at the time. The very same excesses despite which you say WikiLeaks is good actually drive how it uses its reach. And on the flip side of what you said, imagine that an Arab leader was supplying the U.S. with greal intel in private because he really didn’t want to create a public stir. Now, exposed by WikiLeaks, he’s going to have to stop and cut off a stream of important data.

    Just because something is being done out of public view doesn’t mean it’s nefarious. Plenty of really bad things happen in full view of the public as it is.

  • Paul

    (My example was trying to explain why “in their own words” is more significant, more real, to people that merely having the basic data is known to some. We have so much bullshit opinion and speculation spewed at us as “fact” that we mentally tune things out (unless it agrees with their pre-existing biases), but when something is in their own words, it breaks through that.)

    But on the subject of Wikileak’s (or Assange’s) supposed anti-US bias. Which I think you were referring to, and I’ve heard it quite a bit lately.

    They’ve had two significant leaks this year. One was the video of journalists being killed by an Apache gunship, the other was from Pvt Manning (spread over two releases). And that’s pretty much it. The perception has become that it’s their primary focus. But it’s really just two leaks, three releases.

    When they published the secret list of websites blocked by the Australian internet filter, being trialled at the time, no one accused them of having an anti-Australian bias. No one said they had an anti-UK bias when they leaked fraudulent spending by UK politicians.

    I think once they’ve exhausted Manning’s stuff, and go back to releasing whatever is passed on next, the perception will fade. (After all, they’re wholly dependent on what is leaked to them. I doubt they’ll get another Manning.)

  • Greg Fish

    “But on the subject of Wikileak’s (or Assange’s) supposed anti-US bias. Which I think you were referring to, and I’ve heard it quite a bit lately…”

    You know, I don’t think that Assange is anti-U.S. for the very same reasons you stated. I think he’s just an ambitious opportunist and he found a terrific and very buzz-worthy opportunity in Manning. But in light of some current events surrounding the site, I have another post coming up tomorrow which touches on this in far more detail…

  • Wikileak’s (Assange) doesn’t need to be anti-US, because you people here are so thin-skinned all he or anyone for that matter, outside the US, has to do criticize any little thing, like that shooting of the Journalists standing around minding their own business, when they were ruthlessly torn to pieces by 50 cal bullets. A cross-eyed donkey could see they weren’t combatants. Oh how BIG a story you made of that, one line I think. You never mentioned the van that stopped to help the few survivors. A FAMILY with children who’s father tried to drag a badly wounded Journalist into the van. Your brave gunners in the chopper opened up on them as well, badly wounding the children in the van…. Your article was so thick with sarcasm, you lost the plot. and that crack about the Australian Government testing a block of some sort, to screen the net, is pure poppy-cock… The reason for your story, is because your troupes were shown to be gun happy murderers. typical US response, attack the man, not the article, or whatever you feel the need to call it. If as you say, everything he releases is old hat. Then why is your Government doing it’s best to get Assange to America for trial. I can’t stand Assange But I’ll defend his right to free speech, something you Americans say you value. only when it suits you…