by John Naughton
6 December 2010
Western political elites obfuscate, lie
and bluster - and when the veil of secrecy is lifted, they try to
kill the messenger
Browser showing WikiLeaks
home page after move to Switzerland
Screen shot of a browser
showing WikiLeaks' home page
and Julian Assange after the
move to a Swiss host.
'Never waste a good crisis" used to be the
catchphrase of the
Obama team in the runup to the
presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from
official reactions to the
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained
confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.
There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.
And as the backlash unfolds - first with deniable
attacks on internet service providers
hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and
PayPal suddenly "discovering" that their
terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and
then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students
posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook - the intolerance of the old
order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured.
The response has been vicious, coordinated and
potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who
cares about democracy and about the future of the net.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal
democracies that are clamoring to shut WikiLeaks down.
Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed
in just a year.
On 21 January, secretary of state
Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech
about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and
most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google.
"Information has never been so free,"
declared Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks
are helping people discover new facts and making governments more
She went on to relate how, during his visit to
China in November 2009,
Barack Obama had,
"defended the right of people to freely
access information, and said that the more freely information flows the
stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information
helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new
ideas, and encourages creativity."
Given what we now know, that Clinton speech
reads like a satirical masterpiece.
One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is
the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been
deceiving their electorates.
The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European
adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American,
British and other NATO governments privately admit that too.
The problem is that they cannot face their electorates - who also happen to
be the taxpayers funding this folly - and tell them this.
The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to
Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt
and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was
propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as
much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.
The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies
see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a
functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this
tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels
cannot bring themselves to admit this.
Afghanistan is, in that sense, a quagmire in the same way that Vietnam was.
The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted
troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians.
The attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone
who has rosy fantasies about whose side
cloud computing providers are on.
These are firms like,
...which host your blog or store your data on
their servers somewhere on the internet, or which enable you to rent
"virtual" computers - again located somewhere on the net.
The terms and conditions under which they
provide both "free" and paid-for services will always give them grounds for
dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so. The moral
is that you should not put your faith in cloud computing - one day it will
rain on your parade.
Look at the case of Amazon, which dropped WikiLeaks from its
Elastic Compute Cloud the moment the
going got rough.
It seems that
Joe Lieberman, a US senator who suffers
from a terminal case of hubris, harassed the company over the matter.
Later Lieberman declared grandly that he would
"asking Amazon about the extent of its
relationship with WikiLeaks and what it and other web service providers
will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to
distribute stolen, classified information".
This led the New Yorker's Amy Davidson
to ask whether,
"Lieberman feels that he, or any senator,
can call in the company running the New Yorker's printing presses when
we are preparing a story that includes leaked classified material, and
tell it to stop us".
What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent
to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out.
In the last decade its political
elites have been shown to be,
incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in
not regulating banks)
corrupt (all governments in relation to
the arms trade)
recklessly militaristic (the US and UK
And yet nowhere have they been called to account
in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their
way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex
reaction is to kill the messenger.
As Simon Jenkins put it
recently in the Guardian,
"Disclosure is messy and tests moral and
legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing.
But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are
cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can
only default to disclosure."
What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom
of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose
clothes have been shredded by the net.
Which brings us back to the larger significance of this controversy.
The political elites of western democracies have
discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of
authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching
them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants
trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified
internet companies - with the exception of Twitter, so far - bending to
But politicians now face an agonizing dilemma. The old, mole-whacking
approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology.
Thousands of copies of those secret cables - and probably of much else
besides - are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies
Our rulers have a choice to make:
either they learn to live in a
WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future
or they shut down the internet...
Over to them.