Raking Muck: WikiLeaks, Manning, and the Newer Journalism

The broad case establishes a precedent that publishing national security related information about the United States is espionage.

— Julian Assange, on Russia Today, June 2013.

The Manning Trial, with all its state-like ghastliness, the prosecution pawing and bruising those who disagree with it into submission, has thrown up a few distinct and disturbing trends. Ecclesiastes 1:9 claims there is nothing new under the sun, and we have been greeted to the predictable prosecution seeking to paint WikiLeaks as the spectre haunting global security. This is backhanded flattery of sorts – the organisation has to be seen by the security establishment as innately wicked and corrosive to state “values” (constipated secrecy, sinister deception, orchestrated dissimulation).

It is therefore incumbent that every feature of the WikiLeaks’ experiment be attacked: its journalism (qualified or otherwise), its sources, its backers. Army Private first class Bradley Manning is but the important conduit, and this entire enterprise on the part of the U.S. government is an attempt to punish the flow of information all cogs and channels.

It follows that the entire chain of information has to be shown to be inimical to U.S. interests. Jihrleah Showman, one of Manning’s former supervisors, was trotted out to suggest that the American flag meant nothing to the private. Ignore the information; attack the man. “I tapped the flag on my shoulder and asked him what it meant. He said the flag meant nothing to him and he did not consider himself to have allegiance to this country or any other people.” Snowman’s inability to detect anything parochial rendered her “distraught”.

Defense attorney David Coombs has done his best to shift gears on his opposition. He filed motions asking the court to dismiss the charge of aiding and abetting the enemy, the other being alleged violations of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Both are vital aspects of the case, not only against Manning, but WikiLeaks. It is axiomatic that projects of power require necessary enemies, and here, the enemy is writ large. As Coombs explained, “The government’s whole argument seems to be premised on creating WikiLeaks as a bad organisation.” Indeed, an organisation with “evil” intent.

On Thursday, Colonel Denise Lind ruled that from Ft. Meade, Maryland that those charges would stand. This does not mean that she will be swayed by them, but hope springs eternal.

In an attempt to cast a bomb on the prosecution cause to disparage WikiLeaks, Coombs called on the expert services of Harvard University jurist Yochai Benkler to consider the question about the role of the organisation in the newer journalism. Benkler proved accommodating, arguing that a guilty conviction in the case of Manning would be costly to world reporting, imposing an onerous burden on the “willingness of people of good conscience but not infinite courage to come forward.” Fortune should also favour the not so brave.

Benkler discussed, in rather expansive fashion, the definition as to what “handing” over material to the enemy might constitute. An organisation with the means of attracting a global audience would mean “that any leak to a media organisation that can be read by any enemy anywhere in the world, becomes automatically aiding the enemy.”

Benkler is good value, at least if you are a free speech advocate. He quotes in a paper (in progress) for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review a few choice words from Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy might well have been Uncle Sam’s loud sissy, to use Gore Vidal’s term of reference, but he could drag out a gem or two, a few of which can be found in his “The Man With the Muck-rake” (April 14, 1906): “There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed.”

The New Journalism used to be a rather elegant phrase to describe the adventurous, richly gleamed prose of its followers, led by Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, truth gathered through descriptive and inventive prose, often fuelled by stimulants.

The newer journalism forged in the WikiLeaks foundry is of a somewhat different type, forensic, keen less on ornamentation than stripping away the deceptive façade. The state need not be indulged with any invention – enough has been done there by the spin doctors, surgeons and dentists. They now feel a sense of dread at this unveiling, with sources to be seen and the lie, rendered visible. Beware the muckraker.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.