Monday, December 27, 2010

Wikileaks, Pentagon Papers : A study in contrasts.

When wikileaks walloped America the one citation that popped up incessantly was "Pentagon Papers". As the Vietnam war ground on inexorably with American casualties in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians killed, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) commissioned a secret study to analyze the war comprehensively. The study was a secret. It completely laid bare how successive American administrations had lied to Americans and World at large.

Daniel Ellsberg a task force member wanted to bring the study out to the public and bring it he certainly did. The New York Times started publishing excerpts from the 43 volumes it had received but was soon muzzled by a court stay. Washington Post, under its newly minted publisher Katherine Graham, swung into action. Katherine was personally warned by Lyndon Johnson. The Post too came under attack from the courts.

Both the Times and Post approached the US Supreme Court in a landmark case. The verdict, in favor of the newspapers, under First Amendment, while not giving a carte blanche it protected them. Katherine Graham, in her Pulitzer winning autobiography, said the verdict was "not a ringing affirmation of first Amendment". The courts had agreed with the papers that the Government had "not met the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint". However the Court refused to invalidate the Espionage act nor did they give a carte-blanche to publish secrets.

Daniel Ellsberg went on TV shows recently to commend wikileaks and talk about government penchant for secrecy. The Economist, as always, drew a sharp difference between wikileaks and Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg had surrendered in court and subjected himself to due process for his infraction (he was later acquitted in a messy case). Ellsberg had approached many before Times and Post took up the offer to print. The papers did so with great care and after satisfying themselves that they were indeed 'exposing' America's duplicitous conduct. Ellsberg also later approached a US Senator to make him submit the 43 volumes as material in US senate because the senate rules protect a US Senator from any legal proceedings for what he says on the floor of the US Senate (250 year old constitution, whew). Economist highlighted these with the conduct of Assange who functions outside any legal accountability.

As the wikileaks strip tease continues everyday so far nothing has emerged that made non-partisan commentators to shriek "Shame" at America. Just last week NYT ran an article that showed how the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) battles corruption at high places across the globe in its prosecution of drug trafficking. Hardly worth condemning, if anything we should be applauding. Of course habitual America baiters like N.Ram ran reams of news print condemning the "empire" while turning a proverbial Nelson's eye to his beloved China's far more shameful conduct of la affair Nobel Peace Prize.

To pretend that nothing of what he did caused harm is just arrogance. Assange haughtily proclaims that nobody has been harmed (physically that is). True. He also decries that this is usual scare mongering. True. Every government, when a secret is exposed, shrieks "national security impaired". However in this case, across the spectrum, most serious journalists agree that US diplomatic relations has indeed taken a beating. Next time when a Government co-operates with USA on anti-terrorism acts it will very well hesitate.

Richard Stengel, editor of Time, succinctly captures the contradictions, "(Assange) replied that he believed in the necessity of keeping his own sources secret and took great pains to do so. Now, there is some hypocrisy in defending secrecy in order to attack it, but there is more naivete and even danger in suggesting that the world is a safer place without any secrets at all". Stengel, along side many others, categorically states "it seems inarguable that the release of 251,287 documents via wikileaks harms American national security and that Assange meant to do so".

Commentaries from India have ranged from puerile to churlish. N.Ram, educated in Journalism at Columbia, is the worst offender. When the Obama administration blew hot and cold about prosecuting Assange, N.Ram called it digital McCarthyism (referring to Amazon halting hosting of wikileaks). This to a country where a US President CANNOT prevent any newspaper from publishing what they want to. When George Bush got wind that NYT was preparing to run articles exposing US wire tapping programs he called the publisher to Oval office to discuss. This is the US President calling a news publisher to the OVAL OFFICE. Bush wanted to allay their concerns about abuses, he offered details to convince them and asked not to publish. NYT went away and later published the article cursorily telling the administration that the details offered did not convince them about checks to prevent abuses. Heads of State called to Oval office meeting with US Prez do not refuse but NYT publisher can do it and walk home free.

Assange also played coy with whom he chooses to give his leaks. He was miffed by some critical articles that NYT had run about him hence he chose to exclude NYT from his list of recipients (However The Guardian from UK struck an arrangement to share the leaks with NYT). This is not the unimpeachable conduct of a truth seeker or someone with loftier aims in exposing secrets. In a case of what goes around comes around his own sexual harassment case details are now leaked and he is fuming at the leaks. His secrets are to be his own while anybody else's is game for being exposed to prevent abuses.

NYT and Post which ran excerpts of wikileaks helpfully came up with a pictorial representation of where the cables originated from. Most cables were between open societies. Almost no leaks from anything Russian or Chinese. Quite a telling picture. If indeed he had anything on the Chinese I am sure the Chinese in China would not be reading it thanks to that governments censorship. Of course, in his own safety, its good nothing Russian was there, ask Alexander Litvinenko.

Another conundrum in this saga is the role of pro-wikileaks activists. When wikileaks had challenges to hosting its sites hundreds of activists convinced that this was a David versus Goliath affair took to defending wikileaks by, well, hacking the sites of companies that they thought treated wikileaks unfairly.  Have you observed the protesters at Climate Conferences and G-20 conferences? Protesting against corporations and MNC's they would cheerfully riot, loot and ransack everything in sight. Of course, we are told, they have no other reasonable avenue to convey their disagreements.

Sometimes even these exposers do not do so entirely out of some lofty ideals. Mark Felt, the famous 'Deep Throat' of Watergate era was motivated more out of personal agenda than for any discomfort with what Nixon's aides did.

What is undoubtable is that, for better or worse, wikileaks has changed the way US and international diplomacy will work in the years to come.

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