As a novelist with a penchant for political mystery and suspense, I am familiar with the standard plot twist of the endangered protagonist: If only she can get the information out into the public, she’ll be safe. The men in black can’t touch her then and the world will have to grapple with the truth.
As the plot thickens in the strange case of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and the man behind the latest uncovering of duplicity, hypocrisy and deception in American diplomacy, what is easily the most fascinating story of the year is also becoming the most important.
Say it ain’t so: The hero of our story cannot be a sex offender wanted in Sweden for something resembling rape. Even sexual misconduct, however it is characterized, is not permissible for our man of the hour. A good protagonist may be tortured, twisted, suffering extreme bouts of anxiety and depression but he cannot in any way be a sexual offender. Such a distinction would place our story in the waste bin of literature never to be consumed by the general public. We desire this story to be widely read.
This is not how our story goes. Rather, Julian Assange is under attack by the most powerful forces on the planet. Having outfoxed and outmaneuvered the intelligentsia, the wrath of the United States government is being brought to bear. When we learn that the Swedish government was not much interested in the case until an angry White House condemned the latest WikiLeaks release in terms normally reserved for terrorists and enemies of state, we begin to suspect that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is twisting some Swedish diplomatic arms. When we learn that Sweden is heavily invested in the international arms trade and may have something to hide, we wonder what bodies might be buried in the Swedish wine cellar. When we learn that the prosecutor refused even to talk the case over before posting Assange’s name on the Interpol most wanted list, our suspicions grow. When we learn that the Swedish Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on the warrant, we suspect our doubts concerning the Swedish judicial process are well grounded.
Moreover, when the Ambassador of Ecuador (perhaps inspired by the revelation of America’s betrayal of democracy in Honduras) came to the rescue, offering virtual asylum to our beleaguered hero, it was subsequently withdrawn for unstated reasons. The unseen hand of oppression no doubt belongs to the American diplomatic corps and an incensed Hillary Clinton. (How will this affect her still breathing presidential aspirations?)
Amazon announces that it will no longer allow WikiLeaks to use their servers and Pay Pal, a subsidiary of eBay, severs ties in attempt to cut off financing. The squeeze is on and we begin to wonder if it is even possible to reveal the truth in a corporate world.
In this case the cat is out of the bag. Elvis has left the building. But Assange and friends promise even more fun and games, the next episode exposing the highly questionable and perhaps illegal conduct of a certain powerful American bank.
So what have we learned from the latest WikiLeaks revelations?
Respectfully and with due deference to Julian Assange and his hacker friends, we have learned very little of substance. In fact, we have learned more from the reaction than from the documents themselves.
If anyone was surprised that the Saudis and their Sunni allies in the Middle East are more threatened by an empowered Iran than they are by Israel and, in fact, were cheerleaders for a preemptive strike on Tehran, then they had little interest in foreign policy and likely remain ignorant today.
If anyone is surprised by the extent to which this American administration has gone to protect officials of the Bush administration from charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, they have not been following along.
The sum total of the WikiLeaks revelations thus far is to confirm an already dark and cynical view of the American government. It adds to our disillusionment and the realization that a change in presidents and a change in ruling parties did not translate to a change in policy.
For me the most damning revelation (if it can be called that) was our government’s response to the military coup in Honduras overthrowing the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, in June 2009.
At the time I correctly read the coup as an unjustified reaction to Zelaya’s proposals to help his nation’s abundant poor. That he wanted to raise the minimum wage was just too much for that nation’s elite to bear. I incorrectly interpreted the Obama administration’s neutral response as a step in the right direction. Thanks to WikiLeaks we now know that our own diplomats got it right from day one: The coup was unlawful, ungrounded and therefore deserving of an immediate and forceful denunciation. Our official response neither condemning nor approving the coup was calculated to legitimize the coup with a subsequent election while Zelaya was exiled to the Dominican Republic.
The message to Latin America was, and is, clear: This administration like its predecessors is no friend to democracy for whenever the elite come calling we will answer. Tragically, the Obama administration continues to pursue a policy of exploitation under the guise of free trade though it has alienated the entire hemisphere.
This was the administration that was supposed to champion transparency yet the venom it has shown toward the man who forced some small measure of it upon them is palpable. There is nothing in these documents that poses a threat to any lives and the only policies they challenge are policies that deserve to be challenged.
What follows is an assault on the free flow of information through the worldwide web. Members of congress and the executive are scrambling to find ways to shut WikiLeaks down. Because the web is international and the WikiLeaks people are highly competent their efforts are likely to fail. For individuals and organizations with lesser resources the effort to suppress might well succeed. That is the greatest danger the WikiLeaks phenomenon entails: that freedom of the web might be compromised.
It is critical to bear in mind that WikiLeaks is not the source of its information; it is the conduit. It receives information from people within the halls of power who believe the public has right to know and that that right supercedes all other considerations.
We need a WikiLeaks. We can no longer count on our corporate-owned media to do the right thing when it may undermine their own interests. We need a neutral conduit. In fact, we need a thousand conduits so that none can be singled out for retribution.
Imagine what might have happened had someone leaked the Downing Street memos or something like them, exposing the lies of war before the first bombs fell on Baghdad. If an unjustified war could be averted and hundreds of thousands of lives saved, how sacred then is the right of government secrecy?
I do not know what happened with two women in Sweden but I have a suspicion that the case would never have come to light if not for the other activities of Julian Assange. If guilty, without question he should be held accountable.
In his role as a provider of information that enlightens or empowers the public, Julian Assange deserves all the protection that freedom of the press can provide. Toward that end we should extract a price on Amazon and eBay with a Christmas boycott for doing the government’s dirty work.
I sincerely hope that all efforts at suppression and revenge fall short and that our government finally learns that transparency is not only the best defense against security leaks, it is also the best policy.
This is how our story must end: Not with our hero in jail but exonerated and our government shamed into more open, honest and responsible policies. It must leave us yearning for the next installment.