Like most people by now, I have read the skimmed over version of the leaked cables from the State Department regarding US foreign policy, that were posted recently on Wikileaks.org. This close look at the world of foreign diplomacy can read almost as an Ian Fleming novel complete with spies, eccentric villains, unsung heroes, “mercurial” leaders and corruption. Many of these cables, however, only seem to confirm that “We the People” are considered mostly irrelevant in the shifty chess game of diplomacy where the US is trying to stand their ground as a relevant player. The government's strategy to stay in the game includes the usual high level espionage, bullying of their allies, support of shady puppet governments, complete disregard of basic human rights by attempting to use Guantanamo prisoners as trading chips in exchange of favors, among other things. The real shock value comes from the fact that there are Americans that are still surprised by these facts.
There has been a very obvious attempt to divert public attention from the leaks themselves to Julian Assange's accusations of sexual misconduct by two Swedish women that lead to the Interpol putting a warrant on Assange's head, and to his eventual arrest in Great Britain. In a television interview with the BBC, Mark Stephens, a British lawyer working for Mr. Assange, had this to say:
“It is quite bizarre, because the chief prosecutor in Sweden dropped the entire case against him, saying there was absolutely nothing for him to find back in September, and then a few weeks later on - after the intervention of a Swedish politician - a new prosecutor, not in Stockholm where Julian and these women had been, but in Gothenburg, began a new case which has resulted in these warrants and the Interpol Red Notice being put out.”
These suspiciously well timed accusations have obviously led to endless speculation about Mr. Assange's character. What kind of man is Julian Assange? Is he a sexual fiend? Is he a 21st century martyr? In my mind the real question should be: Is any of that relevant to how the leak's information affects us? The answer, I believe, should be “no”. His indulgences, habits, likes or dislikes, are irrelevant within this context. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are no more than instruments that have allowed the power scales, for once, to tip in favor of the common citizen, providing us with a rare behind the scenes look to where the tax payer's money goes.
The government, of course, has gone into their usual tirade of fear, accusing Assange and Wikileaks of threatening national security and the lives of our soldiers by disclosing classified information. Only a few days ago the alumni of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, were warned through an e-mail from SIPA's Office of Career Services, that posting links to Wikileaks online or even discussing the leaked cables in social media could jeopardize their chances of finding a job in the federal government. This sudden rhetoric of panic from our government comes from this reversal of roles that has suddenly allowed the population to monitor back and to ask due questions.
In an essay for the French newspaper Libération, Italian author, Umberto Eco, eloquently explained this phenomenon:
“The Orwellian prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker's grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker - the citizens' self-appointed avenger - can pry into the state's every secret.” (Excerpt)
For most of its modern history, the relationship between the US government and its citizens has been based mostly on the information that is kept from them, only disclosing what the government deems necessary or what could sway public opinion in their favor. Among all the industrialized countries, the US probably has the most ill informed population of all about the comings and goings of their own government.
Assange and the leaked cables are not the real threat to national security. The fact is that our government's often reckless and unrepentant foreign policy has created more enemies than friends, thus always finding themselves in the “need” to defend or plant the worn out flag of American brand democracy in some other underdeveloped country that fails to fall in line with their political or economic agendas. When you make enough enemies as a country, you find yourself in the constant need to look over your shoulder. Once you are spying on allies as well as “enemies”, there is no turning back. This paranoia eventually extends to your own citizens. You create better and more sophisticated ways to monitor and spy on your population, while making them believe that the basic freedoms of their constitution still apply to them.
Julian Assange and Wikileaks are only the beginning of this new unprecedented access to information that had, until recently, been out of the average citizen's reach. It is of the outmost importance that all of us recognize and reflect on what it really means to have this new insight into our role in current global issues and possible future conflicts and political upheaval. The opportunity, but also the responsibility this represents. We no longer have to wait decades for crucial information, which could have changed certain outcomes in history, to be made public, or ask ourselves what would have happened if we had only known.