Tag: pentagon papers

Fabricated Myths about War

In front of the White House last Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, were among the 131 people arrested while protesting America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Hedges, a veteran war correspondent, recalls what he was thinking just moments before being arrested:

I was transported in that short walk to places I do not like to go. Strange and vivid flashes swept over me—the young soldier in El Salvador who had been shot through the back of the head and was, as I crouched next to him, slowly curling up in a fetal position to die; the mutilated corpses of Kosovar Albanians in the back of a flatbed truck; the screams of a woman, her entrails spilling out of her gaping wounds, on the cobblestones of a Sarajevo street.

Americans rarely see the horror and savagery of the wars being fought in their name. The public—right or wrong—could care less about war; and our military and political elites have incentives for withholding the realities of war from the public. I don’t like that symbiosis, but it makes sense.

What I find disturbing is the way in which the military’s values of small-unit cohesion—duty, honor, and camaraderie—have been adopted and are now being propagated by popular culture. In the 20th century, cultural narratives merely glorified war and combat. In the 21st century, cultural narratives are being driven by systems directed by war and combat. This “new isolationism” allows the public to hide from war, while enabling the government to devise new justifications for prolonging them.

In these heady days of the holiday season, while you’re buying your niece or nephew that last stocking stuffer or cavorting with co-workers at the annual Holiday party, keep this striking image in mind:

[W]e would drive into towns in Bosnia and find bodies crucified on the sides of barns or decapitated, burned and mutilated. That is why those slain in combat are treated as trophies by their killers, turned into grotesque pieces of performance art.

Wikileaks and ‘Economies of Repression’

My onetime professor Jorge Castañeda—later better known as Mexico’s foreign minister under Vicente Fox—used to speak with grudging admiration about the “Economy of Repression” practiced by the long-reigning Partido Revolucionario Institucional. He used the phrase in a dual sense: It was repression carried out by economic means, as papers that strayed too far from the PRI line would suddenly find their lucrative government advertising revenue drying up, state-controlled suppliers jacking up prices, and PRI-linked union workers threatening strike. But it was also an economical (that is, a parsimonious)means of repression, operating indirectly and relatively invisibly, and allowing more heavy-handed mechanisms—the censor’s pen and the truncheon—to be used more sparingly.

Castañeda’s phrase has crossed my mind more than once over the past week, as we’ve witnessed an array of digital intermediaries and financial institutions cutting ties with Wikileaks in the wake of attacks on the controversial site by prominent politicians. Amazon booted the whistleblowing organization from its hosting service shortly after receiving a concerned call from the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Amazon officials say the timing is purely coincidental, but the company still won praise for the decision from a group of prominent senators. Visa and MasterCard—both recent beneficiaries of lobbying by the Obama administration—blocked donations to Wikileaks, as did online payment processor PayPal, explicitly citing a recent letter to Wikileaks from the State Department declaring the organization’s activities illegal. (Donations to the KKK, by contrast, are still allowed.)

Like many who generally favor greater transparency, I have serious reservations about the way Wikileaks operates. While it is clearly false to claim, as some have, that the site is dumping classified material online “indiscriminately,” I have serious doubts that the news value of much of the released material outweighs the potential security risks or the chilling effect on diplomacy. Nor do I have much sympathy with what appears to be Julian Assange’s “heighten the contradictions” strategy of forcing governments to clamp down on internal information sharing.

It would be far better if we didn’t have a system of endemic overclassification, so that genuinely sensitive material were not mixed in with routine reports available to thousands of contractors and fresh-faced junior military personnel. It would be better if whistleblowers within the Defense Department who tried working through internal channels did not face reprisals, as an oversight report recently found they too often do. And it would be better if traditional media outlets had been quicker to fill the niche Julian Assange’s organization now occupies.

Whatever concerns I might have about Wikileaks, however, I’m still more troubled to see political actors pressuring intermediary firms in an effort to throttle a media organization that has been convicted of no crime. Indeed, the State Department’s assertion notwithstanding, it’s not clear that Wikileaks could be convicted in light of the strong precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case. As a recent report from the Congressional Research Service put it:

We are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.

In the heady days of the 1990s, it was widely assumed that the global Internet was, by its nature, an anarchic zone of untrammeled speech inherently immune from the control of governments quite apart from any formal legal constraints on censorship. But as political scientist Henry Farrell, among other scholars, has observed:

[A] small group of privileged private actors can become “points of control”–states can use them to exert control over a much broader group of other private actors. This is because the former private actors control chokepoints in the information infrastructure or in other key networks of resources. They can block or control flows of data or of other valuable resources among a wide variety of other private actors.

The freedom of the global Internet comes with an increased dependence on globalized intermediaries, over whom political actors in large and valuable markets will typically exert enormous leverage. A dissident publication running its own press may have an incentive to resist that political pressure—but a multinational credit card company or hosting provider, for whom the publisher is a relatively insignificant source of revenue—will often find its bottom line better served by compliance. As Farrell notes, we’ve already seen a similar strategy pursued against offshore gambling sites, whose payment processors were threatened with litigation by ambitious prosecutors.

It’s a sobering validation of Friedrich Hayek’s famous dictum that to be controlled in our economic pursuits—perhaps now more than ever—means to be controlled in everything. Whatever you think of Wikileaks, the idea that a controversial speaker can be so effectively attacked quite outside the bounds of any direct legal process, thanks to the enormous leverage our government exerts on global telecommunications and finance firms, ought to provoke immense concern for the future of free expression online.

The Politics of WikiLeaks

In publishing a massive trove of government documents on the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has done a useful thing. And because it often publishes information that is embarrassing to government, rather than dangerous to it, WikiLeaks is a good thing for democracy.

I say that to prevent the criticism below from getting me labeled as part of an effort to silence WikiLeaks or distract from the news it generates.

For starters – and this is more about the media than WikiLeaks – there’s the fact that thus far there is little new here. As we saw last week with the Washington Post’s Top Secret America blockbuster, the media fetishizes secret information, even when it merely elaborates on stories we’ve already heard.

My problem with WikiLeaks is its practice of stamping its politics on its leaked documents. For example, in April, when it released that gruesome video of U.S. Apache helicopter pilots in Iraq enthusiastically killing civilians that they mistook for insurgents, WikiLeaks titled the video “Collateral Murder,” despite the obvious efforts of the pilots to comply with the rules of engagement.

Now rather than simply put its documents on the web and let people draw their own conclusions, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a self-congratulatory press conference where he declares “it is our experience that courage is contagious” and compares the document release not just to the leak of Pentagon Papers but to the opening of the Stasi archive in East Germany. Certainly U.S. forces in Afghanistan have committed war crimes (it would be hard to run a war of this scale and avoid them completely) and spun the war’s progress. If these documents reveal more of those doings, that’s a good thing. But even the harshest critic of the war’s conduct ought to be able distinguish it from the activities of a Stalinist secret police force. I bet that the Stasi, faced with a similar leak problem, would have found a way to plug it by now.

Grandiosity is also evident in Assange’s recent response to transparency advocate Steve Aftergood’s critique of WikiLeaks seeming lack of privacy standards. In one paragraph, Assange irrelevantly brags that he spoke before European parliamentarians, asserts that “WikiLeaks not only follows the rule of law, WikiLeaks is involved in creating the law,” announces its opposition to “plutocrats and cashed-up special interests” (not secrecy?), and then claims to have inspired Senate legislation to make Congressional Research Service reports public, even though bills to that effect predate his organization’s existence by nearly a decade.

In the future maybe we can get Wikileaks’ product without its commentary.