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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Five WikiLeaks Myths and their Disturbing Truth

December 11, 2010 at 18:49:11

Five WikiLeaks Myths and their Disturbing Truth

By Elaine Shpungin (about the author)

"Your concept looks terrific. I wish you the best of luck" Daniel Ellsberg by inju

On December 6, I received a message from a friend celebrating the fact that Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, was leading a Times magazine poll for the next "person of the year."

Up to then, I had been somewhat dismissive of the whole WikiLeaks debacle, perceiving this Assange character as someone who practiced "irresponsible" journalism, releasing thousands of private communications that seemed to have little to do with national security and a lot to do with mean-spirited back-channel insults between diplomats. Add to this an accusation of rape (which did seem suspiciously timed to me, but still) and this did not seem like someone I wanted to have coffee with, never mind nominate for person of the year!

However, due to the popularity implied by the Times poll, and to my great respect for my friend's political senses, my interest was piqued. Thus, I began to dig into the WikiLeaks story, reading sources I have personally come to trust over the years to put together a credible version of the facts for myself.

What I discovered troubled me greatly.

Surprisingly, what was disturbing were not Assange's actions, or even the unethical and untruthful actions revealed about our government by some of the leaked cables (although these are very sad to me), but by the actions and words of our political leaders (like Joe Lieberman) and major organizations (like Amazon and Visa/Mastercard) which have summarily decided on Assange's guilt without evidence or a due process. I am also disturbed by the mainstream story told about WikiLeaks, Assange, and the leaked cables, which weave the myths below into a tale of narcissism, drama, irresponsibility, and (yawn) petty diplomatic cat-fights, with "treason" and "terrorist" accusations thrown in for flair.

The counter-story that emerged out of my reading is far more complex and nuanced, and raises many questions about who has really crossed ethical boundaries here -- Assange or those that have tried to discredit and shut him down.

It is to be expected, of course, that no government wants to be embarrassed or have their state secrets (especially ones that showcase lies or human rights abuses) revealed publicly. However, if such a thing occurs, officials (and the media, and corporations) have a decision point a moment in which they can choose the level of dignity, morality, ethics, and legality with which they will approach the disclosures.

It is these actions and words, which have stemmed from the moments of choice presented to our leaders by WikiLeaks, that worry me in terms of what they reveal about their commitment to democracy, civil liberties, human rights and use of power.

But I will let you judge for yourself.


Assange is an anti-establishment, anti-business trouble maker who is trying to create chaos for his own enjoyment.

Evidence and statements made by Assange and those who know him suggest that he is neither anti-establishment nor anti-business but anti-corruption and illegality.

WikiLeaks neither steals documents nor pays others to do so nor investigates actions and crimes. Instead, WikiLeaks acts as a secure online publishing clearinghouse for documents submitted to them voluntarily by "whistleblowers" (people who want to expose corruption, human rights abuses, and illegal activities by organizations, corporations and nations).

Whistleblowers throughout history, although not always popular at that moment, have been willing to take risks to inform us about decisions that have critical implications for our health (e.g., tobacco industry); the welfare and lives of our family members (e.g., Vietnam war Pentagon Papers); our preferences for how our tax dollars are spent and our ability to make a living (e.g., financial corruption by governors, luxury purchases by our representatives); and our ability to decide on the match between the actions of those who lead us and our own moral compass (e.g., sales of arms to certain groups and nations, child molestation and sex scandals, financial support to governments that are officially at war with us or unsupported by us, etc.)

Legal protection for whistleblowers varies widely by topic and geographic locale and whistleblowers are often at risk for serious recriminations ranging from job loss to incarceration and death.

To address this, WikiLeaks has created a way to encrypt documents and transmissions so that the identity of those who share them remains anonymous. In many places around the world, this prevents whistleblowers from being detained, tortured, imprisoned and assassinated for exposing practices they believe to be endangering and hurting others.

Assange has stated in interviews that what he envisions is a world where corruption is minimized and corporations and governments that operate in ethical and legal ways are rewarded, while those that break laws and ethics codes are exposed and prevented from thriving.


Although Assange's work may expose some corrupt or unsavory practices, his irresponsible "dumping" of documents and "transparency trumps all" shotgun approach puts many innocent lives at risk.

Contrary to this popular assertion, the evidence suggests that (a) WikiLeaks currently approaches the release of documents with deliberation and care; and (b) no individuals have yet been shown to have experienced harm as a result of released WikiLeaks documents, while thousands of individuals seem to have been harmed (and killed) as a result of some of the secret decisions described in released WikiLeaks documents (e.g., Kenya, 2009).

Having said that, Assange is not a traditional investigative journalist who goes after a specific story (e.g., plastic melanine in milk products sickening thousands of babies in China). Instead, WikiLeaks acts as a publishing clearinghouse for documents submitted to them voluntarily by "whistleblowers" (people who want to expose corruption, human rights abuses, and illegal activities by organizations, corporations and nations). WikiLeaks then releases large numbers of these documents (after they are verified by volunteer experts) to the public and specific media outlets (e.g., the NY Times, Guardian UK) with the idea that citizens and journalists will comb through the details, report them in ways that make sense to them and their readers, and, in some cases, piece together stories that would parallel the work done by investigative journalists.

Despite this rather "open" approach to releasing leaked information, statements from Assange and his staff (even those who have now left the organization) strongly suggest that he chooses which documents to release (and when) based on specific criteria, contradicting the accusation of document "dumping."

In terms of concern for the "innocent", it seems that, while at times in the past Assange may have been less careful about protecting the names of referenced individuals (e.g., in the Afghanistan war reports), he has recently made efforts to work with human rights groups, media outlets, and insiders to redact current reports (edit before publication) with an eye towards information that endangers individuals, as well as hold back thousands of more damning documents. Other accusations (for instance, around the release of a list of critical infrastructure sites), while more controversial, are commonly believed to reveal nothing that cannot be easily found using Google or even a printed atlas.

Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of Vietnam War Pentagon papers and winner of Ghandhi Peace Award) and others who are closely familiar with Assange's work (e.g., the attorney Glenn Greenwald) have also stated that accusations of "military safety" are a default that is leveled against whistleblowers regardless of relation to actual risk, and have challenged accusers to come up with a single specific example in which individuals have been hurt or have indicated that protection was needed as a result of leaked WikiLeaks documents.


Assange has committed treason or terrorism and needs to be treated as a criminal.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who has published edited documents voluntarily sent to him by others (see Myth #1). He did not steal the documents, pay someone to steal them, or break any binding agreements (e.g., between him and his employer) by releasing the documents to the public. While the U.S. (or other nations) are currently investigating possible laws under which Assange may be prosecuted (e.g., the Espionage Act), at this time, Assange has not been charged with any crime related to the leaked cables or any of the other documents released by his organization since 2006.

Despite this, and without even a nod to due process, high ranking U.S. officials and leaders, including Joe Lieberman, have made conclusive statements about Assange's criminality and guilt, with some comparing him to Osama bin Laden (an individual who has been responsible for the violent death of thousands of innocent civilians and whose vision of a just world includes a small number of conservative religious leaders ruling without meaningful input from the populace - the exact opposite, ironically, of Assange's vision of a just world in which a small number of corporate and government leaders do NOT get to rule without meaningful input from the populace).

Meanwhile, major corporations in the U.S. and other countries, including Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal have blocked WikiLeaks from receiving donations, while others (Amazon, EveryDNS, Vimeo) have refused to continue hosting them on their web servers. All have cited investigations into illegality or actions that may have broken their contracts, while PayPal and Amazon have admitted to pressure from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively (although PayPal later denied it).

As a frequently cited contrast, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan can continue to use Visa and Mastercard to make donations to their site, which asks them to consent to a statement that "I am white and not of racially mixed descent. I am not married to a non-white. I do not date non-whites nor do I have non-white dependents. I believe in the ideals of western Christian civilisation and profess my belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God."

Reporters without Borders have stated that the actions to block WikiLeaks from operating are unprecedented:

This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.

Daniel Ellsberg, who, in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers (an 8,000 page, 47 volume report which showed numerous ways in which the American public had been misled by the government about our involvement in Vietnam), has repeatedly defended Assange. Among other things, Ellsburg has stated that the accusations of treason and vitriol aimed at Assange in relation to the leaked diplomatic cables closely parallel his experiences following the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (including being put under illegal surveillance with the goal of discrediting him through any means possible).

Amnesty International has also released a strong and clear statement about freedom of speech and human rights as it relates to WikiLeaks, saying (among other things):

"" criminal proceedings aimed at punishing a private person for communicating evidence about human rights violations can never be justified. The same is true with respect to information on a wide range of other matters of public interest.

At the very least, a significant number of the documents released by WikiLeaks appear to fall into these categories, so any prosecution based in whole or in part on those particular documents, would be incompatible with freedom of expression. (Amnesty Intenational Q & A)."


Assange is being held on rape charges, which, although he denies them, we know little to nothing about and should therefore take seriously.

Although sexual assault charges are certainly serious, a sober and credible Reuters report shows that Assange had consensual sex with two women (at different times) without the use of a condom (in one case, it broke), which resulted in unsuccessful attempts by the women to track Assange down for STD testing. These unsuccessful attempts (reportedly because he was already staying low due to the leaked cables scandal), escalated into a decision by a prosecutor to press charges. You can read the Reuters Special report (below) for yourself and decide if it's fair to say at this point that we "know nothing".


For all the drama, WikiLeaks cables mostly show a bunch of gossipy, mean-spirited revelations about diplomats and leaders saying unflattering things about each other.

First, when thinking about the relative impact of Wikileak's revelations, it may be helpful to note that in Wikileak's short history, the 4 yr old agency has already won the Economist New Media Award (UK's Index on Censorship's 2008) and Amnesty International 's Media Award for exposing "extra judicial killings and disappearances" in Kenya (2009).

Then, as recently as July and October 2010, both the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs exposed by WikiLeaks have led to a new understanding of events, decisions, and misinformation that has affected the lives (and deaths) of American men and women deployed in these countries, as well as the astounding number of civilians killed by violent means (66,000 in the Afghani conflict, for instance).

Finally, in regards to the leaked cables themselves, although it is true that the documents show an unexpected lack of "diplomacy" among diplomats (pun intended), leaders, and staff when communicating (privately) with each other, the cables also reveal important information that speaks to military, climate, peacekeeping, and ethical issues that affect us and our relationships with our leaders (and only a tiny fraction has been revealed so far).

For instance, we now know that diplomats have been asked, at times, to double as spies, with tasks such as collecting DNA samples, credit card information, and other personal data on UN leaders. We also know that the U.S. tried to use a carrot and stick combo involving financial incentives and political alliances to influence other nations' decisions during the failed Copenhagen climate talks. We also know that we have been purposefully misinformed about U.S. involvement in Yemen (official story: none; reality: escalation of troops and attacks), about U.S. killings of innocent civilians (directly, not as crossfire victims), about the level of corruption in Afghanistan (e.g., the amount of money we spend on bribes to the "other" side), and the diplomatic deals which involve leaders from other countries covering up for our government as it misinforms the American people.

Amnesty International has also confirmed that a number of WikiLeaks releases have clear relevance to human rights violations around the world, including previously released information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and recently released information about the U.S. involvement in Yemen and complicity between U.S. and Germany around the investigation of CIA agents in relation to the illegal detention and disappearance of Khaled el-Masri. Several media sources have compiled their own "top lists" of critical information, which will continue to evolve as more cables are revealed (see references).


As citizens who are interested in our own safety and in the safety of our children (at home and fighting abroad), in what our leaders say and do in our name, in the sustainability of our future, and in how our neighbors across the globe are treated by us - the truths about Assange and WikiLeaks bring up a lot of questions about where our leaders stand when it comes to issues of ethics and civil liberties.

Whether you'd want to have coffee with Assange or not, you have the right to know the whole story and not just the part that is shrouded in myth, threats, and accusations, some of them grounded in an absence of the due process which is supposed to help make this beautiful place the home of the free.


Is WikiLeaks' Julian Assange a Hero? Glenn Greenwald Debates Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News

WikiLeaks release: Timeline of the key WikiLeaks revelations

Operation Payback Cripples Mastercard Site in Revenge for WikiLeaks ban

Ex-Inteligence Officers, Others See Plusses in WikiLeaks Disclosures

Amnesty International Q & A Freedom of Expression

An Interview with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange

Reuters Special Report: STD fears sparked case against WikiLeaks

The Arrest of Julian Assange as it Happened

Intermediary Censorship of WikiLeaks on the Rise

WikiLeaks FAQ by Future of the Internet

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange Wants to Spill Your Corporate Secrets

Exclusive: WikiLeaks Will Unveil Major Bank Scandal

The 10 Most Important WikiLeaks revelations (Salon)

WikiLeaks cables: Seven key things we've learned so far

WikiLeaks list of 'critical' sites: Is it a 'menu' for terrorists?

WikiLeaks: Wikipedia

Pentagon Papers: Wikipedia

Daniel Ellsberg: Wikipedia

Whistleblower: Wikipedia


Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the director of a training center for doctoral students in Psychology and a student and practitioner of Non Violent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles (RC). She is currently interested in exploring restorative (more...)

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