Wikileaks and the Dangers of Hubris

As anybody who has read a John le Carré novel knows, the spooks, many of whom work with or as diplomats, are in the habit of putting false information about in order to achieve this or that noble or nefarious end. Which raises a number of subtle questions regarding the recent WikiLeaks cable disclosures: how much of this stuff is exaggerated or untrue? Is it even possible to untangle the web of deceit and counter-deceit (and incompetence and foolishness) woven by our diplomats and their masters? Exactly what methods are El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, the New York Times and the Guardian — the newspapers called on to vet and disseminate this tsunami of official tongue-wagging — employing in order to verify the truth or falsity of each document released? Who is really controlling the publication of this information, and to what purpose?

A closer look at these matters brings us to the real value of WikiLeaks. Over and above their oft-stated goal of scaring the bejesus out of any would-be misbehaving varmints in power is an even simpler and more valuable message for the public: don’t believe anything you read. No seriously, not one single thing.

On Saturday morning, Michael Moore reported on his blog that one of the WikiLeaks cables concerns the fate in Cuba of Sicko, the movie in which Moore took pains to praise the Cuban healthcare system with his usual mixture of naivete, incisiveness and spin.

Sicko makes the (reasonable) point that if a poor third-world country can offer its citizens universal free health care, it is crazy that the United States can’t, not even in the case of those injured while helping in the 9/11 emergency. In the January 2008 cable in question, an American diplomat alleged that Cuban authorities were planning to ban the public showing of Sicko; they were afraid that regular Cubans would get all stroppy if they saw this movie, because the quality of care shown therein is so very not available to most Cubans. The appearance of this cable was greeted with joy by a number of the many right-wing journalists who detest Michael Moore; the story also appeared in The Guardian (mysteriously, only a cached copy is available (Update: And now gone; the cable itself is here)) and The Nation and on BoingBoing.

So then Moore went nuts on his blog because, he said, Sicko was shown on Cuban state television, and there were also several screenings around Cuba, apparently contradicting the cable’s claim that the film had been banned. He pointed out that anybody with an Internet connection could have checked these facts. He claimed all this as proof of “the Orwellian nature of how bureaucrats for the State spin their lies.”

In his usual clever way, though, Moore left out a lot of important facts himself. For starters, Sicko wasn’t shown on Cuban state television until April 2008; the allegations may or may not have been true in January, when the cable was written. There’s no explicit reason to doubt that Cuban authorities initially intended to ban it, but by April had figured that there was more to be gained by showing an Oscar-nominated American film praising the Cuban health care system than there was to be lost through a display of the best Cuban medical facilities — facilities available only to Party mucky-mucks and foreigners, it is said (unless you have money for bribes).

What’s more, Moore didn’t much make notice but the subject cable isn’t really about Sicko at all; the movie is discussed in just one paragraph out of thirty-nine. The cable is really about the sad state of health care in Cuba, the lack of OTC medicines — even aspirin or Tylenol — the corruption among doctors, the terrible conditions in general. (I am Cuban, and these are things that anyone with the remotest ties to Cuban citizens hears about all the time. In case you want to know more about the Cuban medical system, Iván García writes a good blog that appears to honor every side soberly; his is the most credible analysis I have read.) Moore’s blog post mentions nothing and offers no opinion regarding the veracity or otherwise of the bulk of the information contained in the cable; this omission weakens his case enormously. But how many readers of Moore’s blog, and of Daily Kos, where Moore also posted his version of events, even bothered to read the original cable?

Elsewhere, most of the attempts to disavow the contents of the cables appear to have come from those most liable to be harmed by said contents being true. As Emmanuel Gyezaho pointed out with bewitching vim

in Uganda’s Daily Monitor, for example:

For governments and officials named in the leaks, the new storyline has been to say that the information in the cables was somewhat exaggerated by the diplomats in their meetings with sources. Perhaps that is true but the reverse may well be true. Just ask yourself, how come the authors of these damning cables are still silent. Have you heard any of them come out and say, I didn’t write that damn document? Ambassador Jerry Lanier is here in Kampala and posted some of that stuff that has got all these top shots on tenterhooks. Where does the burden of proof lie with these cables?

The burden of proof lies with the public, in the end. It is our own responsibility to question every single source of information we have. Because really, it is just one tissue of lies after another.

Formerly-respectable Pakistani newspapers the News and Jang recently reported a heap of slurs against the Indian government, claiming the WikiLeaks cable dump as a source. So then the Guardian went and looked through all the cables and lo, there was no such information in there at all; some eager beaver had just made it up. (Not that the Indian government is getting off scot-free, by any means, where the WikiLeaks cables are concerned.)

So now there are all kinds of lying liars making up lies about these other packs of lies, some of which may not even be lies.

And all of this is actually a really good thing, on the whole. Julian Assange and his ex-partner, German hacker Daniel “Sobersides” Domscheit-Berg, have often explained the very simple motive behind WikiLeaks, namely to create a fear of exposure among those who are about to do something wrong. Which, yes. They should fear exposure! (And by the way, this Swedish documentary provides a terrific capsule history of WikiLeaks: just one hour long, densely informative and super-recommended.)

Sobersides D.-B., also by the way, has written a book to be published in Germany in January of 2011; the English translation of Inside WikiLeaks: My Time at the World’s Most Dangerous Website won’t be out until next April. His new site, OpenLeaks, should be launched any day now; it’s kind of an alternative WikiLeaks, except that OpenLeaks won’t concern itself with publication directly; instead, those providing information will be asked to specify where they’d like their information to be forwarded. Ideally we would have a ton of similar venues that can never be shut down, despite the ludicrous headlines claiming that these sites are in some kind of competition (e.g. “OpenLeaks to launch, rivals WikiLeaks.”) As Assange and Domscheit-Berg have themselves pointed out over and over, what we really need is many, many WikiLeakses in order to minimize the exposure of any particular group to the kind of state-sponsored vendettas and craziness we are seeing now — as the publishing history of the Pentagon Papers demonstrated decades ago.

There was a widely-publicized falling-out between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, but close attention to the reporting on this story, particularly to Domscheit-Berg’s interview with Der Spiegel, indicates a radical and honest difference of opinion regarding the methods by which the information gathered should best be disseminated; there are solid arguments for both approaches. Assange believed that making the biggest possible splash in the mainstream media served their purposes best, but this left WikiLeaks vulnerable to accusations of editorializing (amply justified, in the case of the Collateral Murder video; yet (a) can we really regret the publication of that video? And (b) didn’t the “editorializing” and “sensationalizing” nature of the edit create a far more compelling story for the conventional media to run with? Would any mainstream outlet have had the balls or the inclination to parse the story in this way?).

In contrast to the Assange approach, Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s feeling is that leak sites such as these should grow slowly, carefully, quietly. There is a lot to be said for that philosophy, too, particularly in view of what has happened to Bradley Manning.

There’s been no explicit confirmation that the recent WikiLeaks cables were leaked by Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old Army intelligence officer who was shopped to the Feds by big jerk Adrian Lamo, and who is now spending 23 of every 24 hours in solitary confinement in the Quantico military prison. Still, the general consensus appears to be that Manning provided the cables we’ve all been reading, plus the raw footage edited by WikiLeaks in order to produce the Collateral Murder video.

Had Assange not put himself forward as a hacker rockstar, it is questionable whether any toadying little grass such as Adrian Lamo would have felt a lure of self-aggrandizement sufficient to betray Manning.

When pressed to give particular examples of the harm that might be done by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials have failed to come up with remotely satisfactory answers. U.S. military authorities have argued, for example, that WikiLeaks endangered Afghan collaborators named in leaked documents, but without producing or even naming a single Afghan collaborator who was actually harmed. Plus, please. The US military has amply demonstrated its own tender care of Afghan civilians (and no, I do not believe that all the military behaves in this disgraceful manner). But is it more likely that the government is concerned with protecting Afghans, or saving their own sorry hides from exposure?

To be fair, on the other hand, you don’t have to look far to find a lesser but still legitimate reason for the government’s attempt stop WikiLeaks: will it now become impossible for diplomats to express themselves frankly to their bosses in Washington for fear of their communications becoming public? That would not be so great, either.

What is now in question for WikiLeaks and for Assange, as was reported on BBC TV Friday night, is this: if Manning ever contacted Assange personally with a view to learning how to acquire and submit the information he appears to have leaked, then it will become much easier to prosecute Assange in the U.S.

But no such evidence has yet appeared; if Manning hadn’t confided in lowlife jerkface Adrian Lamo, he might have been our generation’s Deep Throat. All the attention on Julian Assange, who spent a few days in solitary confinement as against Bradley Manning’s seven months plus, has evidently taken a lot of people’s eyes off the ball. It seems likely that Manning is being crushed so that he in his turn will shop Assange. But maybe the authorities at Quantico will figure out that the public is not at all likely to believe a word Manning says now, given the circumstances, because the public will believe that in these circumstances Manning, who, again, is all of 23 years old, will eventually confess to being the reincarnated spirit of Maria Callas if that is what they want him to say. What possible justification is there for keeping him in these conditions, except that this psychological torture will break him down?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.