The story of Wikileaks has reverberated across the globe proving to be one of the most contentious issues of recent times. An analysis of the organization’s actions and the subsequent reaction on the part of the ‘Establishment’ is difficult due to the unprecedented scope of the leaks, the politically anarchic realm of the internet in which the story takes place and the fact that the plot has yet to reach a stage of dénouement. Beyond the partisan debate over whether Julian Assange is a freedom fighter or a ‘cyber-terrorist’ lies the fact that what has taken place represents a stage in the crystallization of our post-modern age and the internet as a political zone. After a decade of media docility and the socio-political effects of the Terror Dialectic on the Democratic ideals of civil liberties, the ‘cyber war’ over the internet sparked by the audacity of Assange and his organisation has forced the reawakening of the mitochondrial debate over the boundaries between the State and the Individual from which the Democratic Era was born.
The Logic Behind the Leak
Julian Assange cuts an unorthodox figure as far as political personalities are concerned, whichever end of the hero-terrorist continuum he is to be placed in. He boasts neither the brawn of the archetypal nationalist leader nor the turbaned and bearded allure of the Hispanic extras one encounters in more recent Hollywood blockbusters. Assange’s biography reads like the complicated plot of a Marvel comic-book character?the son of a colourful non-conformist mother educates himself at an early age and reaches intellectual maturity as a hacker in the early days of the World Wide Web only to lose custody of his son after a police raid on his home when he is charged with twenty-five counts of hacking related crimes including roaming freely and unwarranted in the computer networks of the U.S Department of Defense and Nortel. Although he fined and not incarcerated upon conviction, the tragedy is followed by a period of depression where Assange sleeps in parks and goes through a neo-ascetic transformative experience which crystallises into a struggle to regain contact with his son. The formative events which Assange encountered from his bohemian childhood, his days as a hacker and up until the legal battle fought against the Australian Health and Community Services in order to regain custody of his son moulded his political stance and gave birth to the theoretical basis upon which Wikileaks is founded. A particularly well crafted June 2010 article in The New Yorker describes Assange as a ‘student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn’, illustrating the theoretical logic behind the ‘Leak’ as a caveat of political activism:
[Assange] had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution…He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.
If Julian Assange is in fact the post-modern heir to the great modern political writers of the likes of Kafka, his political ideology has the clumsy fervour that is characteristic to the young ideologue in a Dostoevsky novel. The internal logic of seeing absolute transparency in government and corporate functions as the key to socio-political utopia falls in on itself without the need for too much pressure to be exerted. One of the most popular jibes on the part of those commentators on the political ‘Right’ is that Wikileaks can only survive if it can maintain a high level of secrecy in order to force governments and corporations to be more transparent. The success of Assange’s vision inevitably results in an enormous concentration of extorsive power in organisations such as Wikileaks, where they act as powerful arbitrators not bound to the traditional notions of state interests. In this sense Wikileaks represents a threat to those in power in the traditional democratic or republican sense by taking over their role in this capacity, simply a species of coup d’etat in the Information Age; the anarcho-libertarianism of Assange and his organisation is at heart an oxymoron. What he terms ‘radical democracy’ simply shifts the apparent head of power leaving the body intact; there is no real dissolution of power to the ‘people’.
The genius of the Leak lies in the action itself as the catalyst of political debate. Through the intellectual formation which has set Assange outside the traditional pail of democratic discourse, that is the left-right structuralist stage of debate, the actions of Wikileaks reverberate straight to the core issue of the legitimacy of our governments and the corporations which, through their subsequent reactions to the organisation since Assange’s arrest late last year, have proven to be politically aligned with them. While Assange’s theoretical focus on transparency falters easily on inspection, the unhealthy political state which the Leak is designed to treat is what he sees as the illegitimacy of the ‘regimes’ in power. And while regarding the Leak as a means to force these governments to embrace transparency and ‘radical democracy’ is too mathematical an equation to work smoothly in a tumultuous world, the Cablegate leaks have forced those very regimes to act in a manner that has made the legitimacy of their actions?and by extension the legitimacy of their power to act in such a manner?the focal points of renewed scrutiny of the significant concentration of powers which has gone relatively unquestioned for almost a decade.
While the diplomatic cables have provided a mine of primary source information pertaining to the American diplomatic and strategic stance to its foreign policy, the actual impact of the information so far has not forced a paradigm shift in the manner in which the subject of American foreign policy is understood. Most political analysts worth their salt have had a rather good grasp on the general tune to which America dances on the world stage and the content of the cables provide ample support for existing perspectives, and a good snide comment to quote where tasteful. Despite the relative harmlessness of the actual information that has been made public, the United States has taken the incident as a provocation treasonous enough to label Assange a ‘cyber-terrorist’. And while the information released so far has not devastated American diplomacy or their military presence in Iraq and the ‘Af-Pak’ region, Assange still has what has been described as a ‘thermonuclear deterrent’ of information that he will unleash onto the world if he is compromised. The encrypted file aptly named ‘insurance.aes256’ has already been distributed across the internet and only the key to unlocking the information within is needed. With only a fraction of the quarter of a million cables released so far, the sensitivity of the information leaked may not be simply dismissed.
In an interview published in Forbes magazine in December 2010, the mere allusion on the part of Assange that he planned to publish damning internal documents of a large American bank was enough for the stock price of the Bank of America?apparently one of the least trusted American banks?to falter and for the corporation to undertake a frantic investigation into the possibility that it is indeed the target. In 2009, Wikileaks published reports from a pharmaceutical group which indicated that its lobbyists held considerable sway over the World Health Organisation’s project to fund the Development of pharmaceutical drugs in third world countries which led to the termination of the project. The commodities giant Trafigura was forced to pay around $200 million in damages when an internal communiqué which revealed that the corporation was dumping toxic chemicals off the Ivorian coast was responsible for health problems of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Ivorians. Trafigura had managed to prevent the British media from mentioning the documents through a court injunction and only found its way to the public when it was published by Wikileaks. The potential impact of the Leak is devastating to the highly manicured public faces of the organisations which are targeted.
It is now popularly understood that while Julian Assange is awaiting trial for charges of sexual misconduct and is currently confined to an English country estate, he is gradually gravitating towards U.S jurisdiction. While the response to Assange and Wikileaks on the part of America and corporations?particularly the financial institutions which have actively involved themselves in attacks on the organisation?is understandable considering potential threat that Wikileaks poses, the manner in which this reaction has manifested itself has only led to more scrutiny of their legitimacy and the lionisation of Wikileaks and Assange. Private Bradley Manning, who is currently languishing in solitary confinement, is accused of leaking the cache of cables to Wikileaks. Manning has still to be convicted of the charges which he faces under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The character responsible for turning Manning in is the ex-hacker, Adrian Lamo. Wikileaks and Assange are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution which is heavily protective of media freedoms as was demonstrated by the court ruling on the Pentagon Paper leaks during the Vietnam War which ensured that organisations which were involved in the publishing of leaked information, who did not incite the provision of the information, could not be convicted under the Espionage Act. Adrian Lamo has reportedly provided the FBI with a transcript of an online chat conversation which he had with Manning that alludes to the possibility that Assange had been in direct contact with Manning and that Assange had taken measures to assure Manning of his safety. This transcript is purportedly to be used by the Department of Defence as a means to remove the constitutional protection which Assange and Wikileaks benefit from as a publishing organisation and to provide the narrative loophole of evidence needed to implicate Assange in the charges which Manning is currently facing. If this is in fact the nature of the case being built up by the American government in order to ensure that it is able to make an example of Assange and deter the threat which the Leak Organisation poses, it is indeed a flimsy one. The need for the American government to stretch the legal relevance and coherence of its case against Assange only weakens the legitimacy of its power to take such an action. To charge Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917?formulated as a means to curb dissent against America’s involvement in First World War at a time when popular opinion favoured isolationism?would be a highly dramatic measure on the part of the U.S against a foreign citizen and an organisation which is global in nature.
Power and Legitimacy
The Democratic era was born of an attempt to establish a political system in which the will and power of the state was seconded by the will and power of the individual. The swift expansion westwards of the original American Republic across the continent the United States now regards as indigenous to its being was fueled by the fervor of this fundamental ideal which the democratic ideology embraces in order to ensure its legitimacy. The flood of frontiersmen which spilled over the Appalachians in order to claim their freedom had scant regard for any notion of federal legitimacy. As the American Republic conquered its continent, the debate over individual and federal power led to the Civil War, slavery was the issue through which the debate was voiced and the rallying cry for that devastating event. The ideal of personal freedoms is the central tenet of the democratic paradigm and while it is understood that the state and organization require a certain amount of secrecy in order to maintain the dynamic of their ability to function, this debate has always been at the heart of the socio-political dynamic of the democracy. Ever since the beginning of the age of the Terror-dialectic, when reporters began to be ‘embedded’ and an unprecedented amount of civil liberties were relinquished to the state ostensibly in order for the state to be able to protect the individual from the specter of terrorism, the debate over individual freedom versus state control was unnaturally subdued in the democratic sense. Wikileaks represents the re-awakening of this debate after a decade of docility. Whether Wikileaks’ aim to establish a ‘radical democracy’ in which power is devolved to organizations which collectively monitor government and corporations actions is possible or not, the target of their activism?the legitimacy of those in power?has sparked the beginning of debate over the legitimacy of the amount of power states have taken to themselves in the age of terror.
Assange and Wikileaks are both intricately part of and detached from the terror dialectic itself. They cannot be dealt with in the same manner as the traditional terrorist-as-Muslim whose alliances are foreign to the dominant political paradigm. Wikileaks’ radical ideology is not born from a foreign discourse or political understanding but, as is stated on its website, on the Declaration of Human Rights. Assange would have more in common with the rugged frontiersmen who conquered the American continent and gave birth to today’s superpower than the statesman accusing him of terrorism. And just as American westward expansion was dependent on a euphemistic focus on individual freedom, the attempt to lay barriers on the freedom of information in the traditionally anarchic political zone of the internet has been met with more popular resentment than the war which is being waged with real lead and blood in the Hindu Kush.
The Wikileaks story has placed pressure on the current state of political discourse. With the Cable Gate leaks attacking the core issue of the legitimacy of the state and corporate power, it has begun a process in which the necessity to maintain individual freedom will place pressure on governments in the West to prove their legitimacy. And while Julian Assange and Bradley Manning await their fates, the current economic crises has placed further pressure on the legitimacy of state power as the draconian economic reforms which are being forced upon the populations in Western states have pushed them to the streets in serious popular protest. Wikileaks is simply the beginning of a process in which the current political and economic state of affairs will be challenged and reformulated.
*Parves Asad Sheikh is a Muslim Political Analyst Based In Cape Town Who Is Interested In Formulating The Post Democratic Paradigm. This Article Was written for Globalia Magazine.com