international analysis and commentary

Washington and the strange world of leaks

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Almost a year and a half has gone by since Julian Assange became a household name with the “Cablegate” scandal. Diplomats went as far as describing the incident as the “September 11th of the world of diplomacy” and a few politicians in Washington even called for the death penalty for those responsible.

Today diplomatic relations remain virtually untouched by the incident (despite the gravity of some of the leaks) and Assange is far from death row – in fact he is living under house arrest in England where he paradoxically continues to run the WikiLeaks operation. Despite repeated attempts to disrupt the site, and an international banking blockade, WikiLeaks published The Guantanamo Files in April 2011, The Spy Files in December and The Global Intelligence Files – also known as the “Stratfor emails”- earlier this year.

Assange even hosts his own talk show where he has landed extraordinary interviews like the extremely elusive Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. And he has won impressive awards such as the 2011 Sydney Peace Foundation gold medal, the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism and he was the Readers’ Choice for TIME magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year. A Norwegian parliamentarian even nominated him for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize – which he could have placed next to his Amnesty International Media Award which he won back in 2009.

All said, Washington ended up looking bad in the public eye after Cablegate, most diplomats now act as if nothing ever happened and Assange became a sort of James Bond/Robin Hood hero. He has managed to transform his public persona from a global internet villain to a government-fighting pioneer of transparency, who continues to make headlines – though mostly due to his ongoing extradition battle on sexual offense charges in Sweden.

At the time of Cablegate, the Russian government (one of the many targets of the leaks) reportedly compared the whole episode to a “Hollywood movie” and ironically today Assange’s new tv show is carried by RT – a Kremlin-backed news network and website.

Even more ironically, President Obama – who sent diplomats around the world quickly sweeping the incident under the rug and pointing fingers at Assange, rather than at the governments (including his own) cited in the leaks – is now, at the other end of those pointing fingers.

Politico.com recently published an article entitled, “Leak fever hits D.C.” encapsulating the atmosphere regarding the latest media hype surrounding leaks in Washington. Republicans say that for more than a year, Obama’s administration has been publicly bragging about top secret programs (in an attempt to pump its image in time for the elections) – giving tidbits of information to the press regarding the famous bin Laden raid in Pakistan. The CIA is also accused of passing classified information about the raid to Hollywood movie makers. Add to this, mentions of top secret drone attacks on top al Qaeda leaders and hints about cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, the Obama administration denies any allegations.

This is a story we’ve heard before: accusations of breaches of national security, moral outrage, demands for special investigations, and very little chance any high level official will ever be held responsible.

The Valerie Plame case haunted the Bush administration until its final days. After the CIA officer’s identity was leaked (and her life put in danger), no one was ever charged, even though the name of the leaker (Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage) is well known today. Lewis Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was the only person to take the fall – though only for lying during the investigation, and his sentence was eventually commuted.

The Pentagon Papers, outed in 1971, represent the biggest leak in the history of the United States. Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who gave the papers to the New York Times, like Assange, eventually became an award-winning champion of transparency and peace.

As for Obama, it’s certainly not the first time a president (or his administration) leaks information to the press in order to make himself look good. This, of course, is no excuse, but Obama’s alleged leaks make him especially vulnerable to ethical charges. Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post in reference to information leaked about drone attacks, “I wonder if those presidents who knew war – a Truman, an Eisenhower, a Kennedy – would themselves boast about killing or let others do it for them.”

John McCain, top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Obama’s 2008 rival, cites the case of Private Bradley Manning – the only real fall guy in all of this, who is accused of leaking information to Assange, “The fact that this administration would aggressively pursue leaks perpetrated by a 22-year-old Army private in the WikiLeaks matter and former CIA employees in other leaks cases but apparently sanction leaks made by senior administration officials for political purposes is simply unacceptable.” Manning faces 22 charges – the most serious being aiding the enemy, which carries a life sentence.

The WikiLeaks scandal is, in fact, not a Hollywood movie, nor are the alleged leaks by the Obama administration. Both deal with real human lives. It was Assange who released the now infamous “Collateral murder” video of US troops gunning down civilians in what appears to be a mistaken helicopter raid. And, as the ACLU was quick to point out, one of the victims of the top secret drone attacks in Yemen was al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki – an American citizen (the 5th Amendment guarantees that no citizen shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, however a federal court didn’t buy it when the ACLU challenged Obama’s decision to put him on the CIA’s list of al Qaeda-linked terrorists to be captured or killed). Plus, Plame’s life was at stake in a twisted game of vendetta and the Pentagon Papers speak for themselves when it comes to the human cost of war (and dishonesty in election rhetoric for that matter).

Given this, what needs to come into discussion at this point, isn’t so much the illegality of leaks – as they are probably an unavoidable fact of political life –  but whether the original intensions were mostly good (as is probably true in the Assange, Manning and Ellsberg cases), or mostly bad (as is likely the case with the past two administrations). In the information age, the gray area that traditionally surrounded leaks is transforming to black and white, making the true purposes of leaks always more evident to well-informed masses. Maybe presidents should take this into consideration when choosing their deeds and rhetoric – especially when election time comes around.