The third batch of WikiLeaks reveals a lot. Just not so much what people think it does. Let's start with what it is not. So far, at least, it does not appear to be anything like its potential model, the Pentagon Papers.
Daniel Ellsberg's revelations were hugely significant, but not because they were government secrets revealed to the public. Rather, they were important because of the gap in government pronouncements they exposed. Which is a fancy way of saying the "lies." The reason the Pentagon Papers really matter is because, on the most crucial issue of state policy imaginable, the government was saying one thing to the public and Congress and something completely different to itself. Otherwise, the documents would have been interesting, but hardly consequential.
The gap that was so wide in the case of the Pentagon Papers is, in this case, rather small. Indeed, remarkably so. I have gotten so used to dishonesty out of Washington that my shock in this case is not that they've been lying to us so much as that they mostly have not been. The WikiLeaks trove does not, so far, expose massive disconnects between what the government has been telling us and what it actually believes. This is not Vietnam and the endless lies about that war.
This is not the Reagan administration demanding that the world embargo Iran even while secretly selling them missiles, or constantly invoking the great cause of democracy while even more constantly undermining it everywhere on the planet.
Parenthetically, by the way, it is also not clear that anybody in this country cares much about such outrages anymore. The government has gotten so expert at shielding people from the short-term, obvious consequences of its pernicious policies, that one has to wonder what the reaction would be to a genuine "bombshell" of a revelation.
One of the most astonishing experiences of my lifetime has been to watch the general (non-) reaction to the release of the Downing Street Memos, which conclusively prove most of the key lies the British and American governments were telling about Iraq in 2002 and 2003. For whatever reason, no one at the time seemed very interested in this smokingist of smoking guns, and they remain that way today.
I have to laugh (read: cry), by the way, at all the intense effort that the New York Times is putting into exposing the WikiLeaks documents, recalling how they handled the Downing Street Memos. The memos were minutes from meetings between the top British and American officials as they planned their war in Iraq and their war of lies to cover for it. They were leaked in Britain in 2005 in an effort to embarrass Tony Blair as he ran for reelection. The Times covered it in that context, in its back pages, never saying boo about the massive domestic implications in the U.S. It took the blogosphere to get the paper to pay any attention at all to the story's massive American angle. I remember reading their public editor's response to why the paper had not made this story front page news with screaming headlines. He said the foreign desk editors told him that it just never occurred to them to pass it along to the national desk team. Oh yeah, that seems likely.
In any case, pardon my cynicism, but I'm getting to the point where I don't know whether anything that doesn't take money out of peoples' pockets or interrupt their reality show lives would morally move them anymore. What is clear is that what has been released so far by WikiLeaks doesn't come close.
Which makes all the hub-bub and consternation surrounding the revealed documents a bit odd. You'd think that regressives would actually laud the release of these files, since they substantiate much of the war on terror riff, at least in so far as showing that the U.S. government more or less genuinely believes its own rhetoric.
But the scary monsters of the right have not reacted this way at all. Take Peter King, for example, who astonishingly represents a district in New York State—not, appearances to the contrary, 17th century Prussia. King is an ever-reliable source of the most jingoistic nastiness a human is capable of generating and he doesn't disappoint in this case. Giving new meaning to the concept of rank hyperbole, King avers that WikiLeaks "is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it's worse than a military attack," and it puts "American lives at risk all over the world." And, in words that ought to chill the remaining long-necked ostriches out there who still think Barack Obama is a liberal, "The Attorney General and I don't always agree on different issues. But I believe on this one, he and I strongly agree that there should be a criminal prosecution."
That's a fairly common example out there on the right, which, of course, includes the Obama administration, particularly Secretary of State Clinton who said that, "This disclosure is not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests—it is an attack on the international community," proving that Democrats can be just as regressive and just as disingenuous as the GOP. She goes on to dissemble even more, lecturing us that, "There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people. There is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations on which our common security depends." As if worrying about innocent people or peaceful relations is what American foreign policy is all about.
Or there's the reactionary opinion of columnist Charles Krauthammer, who writes that we should, "Throw the Espionage Act of 1917 at them…. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage—and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department? And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? [Funny you should ask about that.] Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can't sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I'm not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain."
And for what reason should Assange be murdered? Krauthammer gives three examples of the "major damage" done to the United States by the WikiLeaks. First, the exposed lies of the Yemeni president and deputy prime minister as to who has actually been bombing their country, a non-example which merely demonstrates Krauthammer's regressive arrogance and stupidity. Second, the purported lack of trust in the United States from this point forward, as if the government had leaked these documents, and as if most governments and most organizations don't also have to worry about leaks all the time. And, third, the supposed weakness the U.S. shows by not taking out the WikiLeaks people. He writes, "What's appalling is the helplessness of a superpower that not only cannot protect its own secrets but shows the world that if you violate its secrets—massively, wantonly and maliciously—there are no consequences."
This latter comment gives the truth to what regressives really hate about WikiLeaks. Since the organization has not yet actually released any evidence of serious major lies, what, then, gives with the over-the-top reaction on the right? What the WikiLeaks episode actually reveals is not any major juicy secrets (so far), but rather that the enemy of the right is truth. What they are defending—and what they are calling for murder to be used in order to defend here—is simply the privilege to lie and the right to keep their lies and hypocrisies from being exposed.
That's the true revelation of the last weeks, the fact that WikiLeaks has induced a visceral reaction so intense that it includes calls for murder and thereby reveals far more about the character of regressives than it does about anything else.
These are people who believe in entitlement. These are arrogant elites who believe the rest of us don't need to know what they're doing with our lives. These are people who see truth as a danger. These are people who not only actively undermine democracy at home and abroad, but who are fundamentally opposed to, and frightened of, democracy's very essence. They speak the word (endlessly), but the last thing in the world they want is rule by the people.
And they know that the people in a democracy just might not put up with their crimes and their lies and thus secrecy must be jealously guarded, even if that requires the murder of a truth-teller.
As Julian Assange has noted, "The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance."
Assange was asked by Time Magazine what his "moral calculus" was to justify publishing the leaks. Don't you love that? No one asked George Bush or Dick Cheney that question. No one would dare ask the liars of the century about their moral calculus, even today, as they run around the world hawking their books and making millions off of "memoirs" riddled with new lies covering up the old ones. No one even asks Barack Obama where he gets off tripling the forces in Afghanistan in support of a regime that—thanks to WikiLeaks—we now know that he knows is thoroughly corrupt and utterly undemocratic. But Assange, whose great crime is exposing truth, gets the dubious morality treatment from Time, that great bastion of hard-hitting independent journalism.
So, here's his moral calculus: "We are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction."
That's a dangerous thing. WikiLeaks is apparently about to go after Wall Street banks next, among others. That should be really amusing to watch. You start messing with the money, the oligarchs really get mean.
We live in a time where only a fool would not be despondent about the state of our country. Almost everything about our condition is ugly. There are a few reasons, however—if only just a few—to be a bit more hopeful. One is the power of the Internet. Another is the new generation of Dan Ellsbergs. Put them together and you get WikiLeaks.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.