No Comment — August 3, 2010, 11:25 am

WikiLeaks: The National-Security State Strikes Back

WikiLeaks’ disclosure of the 91,000 U.S. government documents that it labels the “Afghan War Diary” raises a number of vital issues. Most of the discussion so far has focused on the significance of the documents themselves. They make the intelligence community look not so intelligent, and they make a number of political leaders look like dissemblers, spewing claims about the situation in Afghanistan that can’t really be squared with information in their briefing portfolios. But quite apart from their contents, the WikiLeaks documents are a test for America’s voracious national-security state. Its response to them gives us a sense of how it intends to fight perceived threats to secrecy.

An Information War Targeting WikiLeaks. Field officers of the intelligence community urgently need to play a game of misdirection–relabeling the threat that is presented to them. They will argue that the WikiLeaks disclosures imperil the safety of American forces on the ground, America’s allies, and thus every American citizen sitting at home. They will find few facts to back this contention, but that won’t stop them. This argument has already been rolled out repeatedly. Almost immediately on publication, it was in a statement issued by Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones. The latest variant is the claim, advanced last week at the Pentagon, that the leaks have disclosed the names of Afghans who collaborate with the U.S. military. That’s certainly a plausible argument—and it’s regrettable that WikiLeaks decided to publish the documents without blocking these names—but so far the concern is hypothetical rather than real. In any event, however, the first stage in the effort to build public support will be to demonize WikiLeaks. It will be accused of endangering men and women in uniform, even though it might be better described as a channel in which they can vent their frustration at institutionalized stupidity and wrongdoing. Much of the American media, which filled the airwaves with bogus claims about WMDs in Iraq, can be counted on to view WikiLeaks as an adversary rather than an ally.

Making an Example of the Leaker. Focal to the response will be a harsh and heavy-handed prosecution or court-martial of the leaker. The message to other would-be whistleblowers must be clear. Cross us, and we will destroy you. You have no law or rights to hide behind. We can and will turn you into the enemy. At this point, attention is focused on Private Bradley Manning, a young enlisted man from Potomac, Maryland, who was arrested and detained in Kuwait. He appears to have been denied access to independent counsel and held incommunicado outside the country. Reports also indicate that criminal investigators are looking to identify individuals who may have facilitated his leak. A student at MIT was identified this past weekend as having assisted Manning in some Internet maneuvers. While the facts remain to be fully developed, it seems hard to see how Manning can mount a meaningful legal defense. The military whistleblower statute carves out a very narrow zone in which uniformed service personnel can disclose classified information; Manning does not appear to be in a position to avail himself of these defenses. Considering the weakness of Manning’s position, the heavy-handed tactics which are being applied against him are mystifying displays of asymmetrical legal warfare.

Destroying WikiLeaks. But the major target surely is WikiLeaks itself, and on this score the goal of the national-security state is unambiguous. WikiLeaks must be destroyed. Indeed, as I noted in March, long before these leaks, the Army Counterintelligence Center had prepared a 32-page secret plan to destroy WikiLeaks. The memo notes that the American intelligence community has valuable allies in the struggle against WikiLeaks—China, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. It recommended emulating the tactics used by these tyrannical states:

The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the Wikileaks.org Web site.

Finally, it argues that WikiLeaks itself must be criminalized and put out of business.

There is some evidence that this strategy is in fact being implemented. The Huffington Post reports:

Jacob Appelbaum, a Seattle-based volunteer hacker for Wikileaks, touched down at Newark Internation Airport in New Jersey on his way back from Holland last Thursday, and was promptly whisked away by U.S. customs officials for a “random” security search. The hacker told CNET he was interrogated as to the whereabouts of his boss — Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has gone underground since the U.S. government announced it was hunting him — as well as “his attitudes to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on the philosophy behind Wikileaks.” Appelbaum’s laptop was briefly confiscated, but investigators kept his three cell phones.

And indeed, Julian Assange may himself be a even more serious target. How might the United States deal with Assange? Marc Thiessen, a Republican publicist and torture apologist with close ties to former CIA Director Hayden, argues that Assange is a non-American who lives outside the country and therefore apparently has no legal rights. He advocates kidnapping and hints at still more violent conduct. As Eva Rodriguez notes, Thiessen seems ready to send drones over Iceland–one of a number of European states, nearly all of which are U.S. allies, that has supported WikiLeaks. When Daniel Ellsberg suggested earlier that Assange might be in physical danger, the comment was roundly dismissed by the “responsible media.” But Thiessen—who often appears to be the mouthpiece of senior Bush-era intelligence community figures–demonstrates just how well taken were Ellsberg’s concerns. I don’t think the Obama Administration will use a drone to murder Assange, but some in the intelligence community will be arguing for use of some of the “black arts” that were a staple of covert operations in the Bush era. He will certainly be targeted for petty harassment and subject to steady surveillance, and efforts to kidnap him are almost certainly being spun at this very moment. On this score, the intelligence community should recall what came of its kidnapping caper in Italy in 2002. (Tonight at 9 p.m. EDT, HDNET will premiere “The Italian Job,” a report on that particular intelligence fiasco.)

Few functions are so fundamental to a democracy as the decision about when and how to wage a war. That decision means an investment of treasure and blood that can affect the lives of hundreds of millions in America and elsewhere. In this process, fair presentation and discussion of the facts is essential to a correct result. If information can be routinely suppressed because it is embarrassing to political leaders or would undermine the arguments they make to the nation, then our democracy is faltering. In the wake of these disclosures, Americans should carefully judge the conduct of those who claim that suppressing the leaks is in the interests of national security. Are they upholding national security, or are they betraying American democracy?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Post
The Wrong Side of History·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
What it Means to Be Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Gene Simmons of the band Kiss addressed Department of Defense personnel in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today