Transcription above video from 10 minutes onwards:
I've been speaking more at events like this and at various college campuses
and the like over the last year.
And one of the things that typically happens
before the event, is that there's a lot of time and mental energy spent on
figuring out what the topic of the speech is going to be, and what the title
is going to be.
The speaker and the sponsors of the event go
back and forth over what will be an interesting topic, what's timely, what
will be interesting to people. And then the title gets worked on and changed
and edited. I have several speeches planned over the course of the next
month, and there are all different topics and titles that were all worked
out as part of this arduous process.
What I found is that, as much time and energy
that's spent on that process, it actually ends up being completely
irrelevant, because I find that no matter what the topic is, I keep speaking
about the same set of issues, no matter what the title is.
The reason why that happens is not because I have some monomaniacal
obsession with a handful of issues I can't pull myself away from no matter
what the topic is. That may be true, but that's not actually the reason. The
reason is because political controversies and political issues never take
place in isolation.
They're always part of some broader framework,
that drives political outcomes, and that determines how political power is
exercised. And so it doesn't really matter which specific topic, or which
specific controversy of the day you want to discuss, the reality is, you
can't really meaningfully discuss any of them without examining all the
forces that shape political culture, and that shape how political outcomes
So, in order to talk about any issue, you end up
speaking about these same, broad themes, that are shaping, and I think
plaguing, the political discourse in the United States.
This is something that I first realized when I started writing about
politics in late 2005.
One of the very first topics on which I focused
was the scandal about the Bush administration eavesdropping on American
citizens without the warrants required by law. This was first exposed by the
NYT in December of 2005, so it happened around six weeks after I began
writing about politics. I had this very naïve idea that this was going to be
very straightforward and simple political controversy.
The reason I thought that in my naiveté, was
because what the
got caught doing [eavesdropping on Americans without warrants from
the FISA court] is as clear as could possibly be a felony under American
You can actually look at the criminal law that
existed since 1978, when
FISA was enacted.
It says that doing exactly what the Bush
administration got caught doing, is a felony in the U.S., just like robbing
a bank, or extortion or murder, and that it's punishable by a prison term of
five years or a $10,000 fine for each offense.
The report that the NYT published was that there were at least hundreds and
probably thousands of instances where American citizens were eavesdropped on
illegally and in violation of the law. So, I thought that this was going to
be a fairly straightforward controversy, because I had this idea that if you
get caught committing a felony, and the NYT writes and reports on that and
everybody's talking about that, that that's actually going to be a really
bad thing for the person who got caught doing that. I know it was really
I'm actually embarrassed to admit that I thought
that, but that really is was I thought at the time.
I also thought that basically everybody would be
in agreement that that was a really bad thing to do... that thing that the
law said for 30 years was a felony and punishable by a prison term and a
large fine. And, as it turned out (and I realized this fairly quickly) none
of that actually happened. It wasn't a really bad thing for the people who
got caught committing that felony.
And, not only did everyone not agree that that was a bad thing, very few
people actually agreed that that was a very bad thing.
So, what I thought I was going to be able to do
was to take this issue and write very legalistically about it, and
demonstrate that what the Bush administration had done was a crime, that it
was a felony under the statute and that the legal defenses for it that they
had raised were frivolous and baseless and that would be the end of the
Crime committed, investigation commenced,
So what immediately happened, when I realized
that none of that was really going on, of course then the question became
why. Why was my expectation about what would happen so radically different
than what in fact happened?
So, then I needed to delve into that dynamic, that I began by referencing
that determines political outcomes. I had to examine the fact that we have a
political faction inside the U.S. [the American Right] that is drowning in
concepts of nationalism, and exceptionalism, in tribalism that leads them to
believe that whatever they and their leaders do is justifiable inherently
because they do it, and in a complete lack of principle... this is the same
faction that impeached a democratically elected president not more than 10
years earlier on the grounds that the rule of law is paramount and we can't
allow our presidents to break the law.
And, yet, here they were defending it.
And then I watched Democratic politicians, one after the next, go on talk
shows to talk about this scandal, and they were all petrified of saying what
the reality was, which was that what the
Bush administration got caught
doing was a crime and it was illegal. They were all afraid to say that.
What they were really eager for was for the
scandal to go away, for them not to have to talk about it any longer. And so
that made me write about the cravenness of the Democratic Party, and the
extent to which they are replicas of Republicans when it comes to national
security issues, and the complete bipartisan consensus, where all of these
kinds of issues are concerned, especially in the post 9-11 world.
And then I started realizing that there were journalists who were shaping
the political discourse who were not only saying that they were fine with
the fact that the Bush administration had broken the law, but were attacking
the very few Democrats who actually stood up and said,
"I think it's problematic when the president
does things that the Congress says is a criminal offense."
The journalist class, almost unanimously, was
saying that the Democrats ought to avoid this for political reasons, and
that on substantive grounds, Bush did the right thing because he had to
Then I had to start writing about the media's
allegiance to political power and their belief in the omnipotence of the
national security state, and its ability to act without restraints.
And then it turned out that it wasn't just the government who was
eavesdropping, but they were doing so in collaboration with the largest
telecoms, the entire telecom industry, in essence, which was turning over
all the phone records and emails of their customers secretly to the
government, even though laws were in place specifically prohibiting private
telecoms from handing over any information to the government without
warrants because in the past, when the
Church committee discovered the decades of
abuses they found that AT&T had been turning over records to the government,
that Western Union was turning over all telegraphs.
And so, Congress said not only the government is barred from eavesdropping
on Americans without warrants, but private telecoms - it shall be against
the law for them to turn over data without warrants as well.
Of course, they did exactly that.
That led to my having to write about the
consortium between government and corporate power and how the surveillance
state and the national security state have essentially become merged; and
that the real power lies with the private sector because so many of these
government functions have been nationalized.
Then, of course, the entire "scandal" ended by all of the perpetrators being
The Bush Administration was given an immunity shield
by the Obama administration from any investigations to determine whether
crimes were committed. And the private telecom industry was given
retroactive immunity by the Democratic-led Congress in 2008 supported by
In fact, the only person to suffer any legal repercussions from that NSA
scandal was someone named Thomas Tam, who was the mid-level Justice
Department whistleblower who found out that this was taking place and was
horrified by it and called Eric Lichtblau at the NYT and exposed that it had
The person who was the only one to suffer repercussions was the
person who exposed the criminality. The criminals were fully immunized.
So that led to my having to write about how the rule of law had been
subverted. And, so, I realized that what I thought the scandal was about,
what I thought the issue was about... you know, nice abstract clinical
little discussions about whether the law had been violated, and whether
Article II theories were really viable, were actually relatively irrelevant.
You could have that discussion, but it didn't make much of a difference.
What made the real difference were these broader themes.
So, although the topic tonight is ostensibly
WikiLeaks and the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks, if you
look at what has happened in the WikiLeaks scandal, it involves every one of
the ingredients that I just described.
That's why I can give a speech on the erosion of
civil liberties in the U.S. (which I'm going to do in a few days). Tonight
I'm talking about WikiLeaks, but what I'm always going to end up talking
about are the fundamentals of how political power in the U.S. is exercised
and the way in which just outcomes are subverted because of these dynamics.
One of the reasons why I find WikiLeaks to be such a fascinating and
critical topic is because I think it sheds unprecedented light on how these
processes work and how they have come to develop and evolve in the U.S. I
also think there's so much at stake in the war that has arisen over
WikiLeaks and Internet freedom, and the ability to breach the secrecy regime
behind which the government operates.
For that reason, too, it's such a critical
There are a lot of different ways to talk about WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks is
a complex topic. But, one of the things I want to do is just to sort of walk
through, a little bit, the chronology of my involvement in WikiLeaks and to
talk about some of the realizations that I've had that may have been
somewhat known to me, but have really been cast into a very bright light as
a result of what's happened in the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks.
The first time that I ever wrote about WikiLeaks, or ever really thought
about WL was in January of 2010, a little bit more than a year ago, now. And
this is a time when almost nobody had heard of WikiLeaks , before they
disclosed the first news-making leak, which was the video of the Apache
helicopter shooting unarmed citizens and journalists in Baghdad.
But, what had prompted me to pay attention to it
and to write about it was that the Pentagon had prepared a report in 2008, a
classified report, about WikiLeaks that ironically though unsurprisingly was
leaked to WikiLeaks, which WikiLeaks then published.
What this report said, it talked about,
I didn't have a really good sense for what
WikiLeaks had been doing, or what it was, but I figured that if there's any
group being targeted that way by the Pentagon, that's a group that merits a
lot more examination and probably some admiration.
So I started looking into WikiLeaks and what they were doing, and at the
time, although they hadn't made much news in the U.S., they had actually
exposed a great deal of wrongdoing around the world.
They had disclosed documents showing the
involvement of government leaders in death squads in Kenya
They had shown
the involvement of the Icelandic government in the financial collapse that
destroyed that country's financial security
There was an Internet bill
being discussed in Australia to shut down Web sites that were supposedly
promoting child pornography, yet secretly on the list of targeted Web sites
were a bunch of political sites that had been critical of the Australian
They had exposed corporate toxic waste dumping
in West Africa
The involvement, or the negligence of local officials in
Berlin with regard to a trampling at a nightclub that killed 23 people
they had been quite active in a whole variety of different ways in exposing
The one document they had exposed involving the U.S. was a manual at
Guantanamo for how prisoners ought to be treated.
This manual was nothing very enlightening. We
already knew that severe systematic abuse and torture were taking place at
that site. But, the mere fact that WikiLeaks had shown that they were able
to start shedding light on some of the world's most powerful factions, and
exposing serious corruption, and had touched a little bit on America's
detention regime, with this one document, was enough for the Pentagon to
take them very seriously.
So, I wrote at that time about that report, and I had talked about all the
potential for good that I thought WikiLeaks could do. I had encouraged, in
the context of my writing about it (and I also interviewed Julian Assange at
the time), I encouraged my readers to donate money to the group because
there were indications that they were somewhat impeded in some of the
disclosures they wanted to do because of the lack of resources.
I said this would be a great organization to
donate your money to. They need it. They look as though they could really
achieve a lot of good.
And after I wrote that, I received a lot of comments from people via email,
from people in person telling me at my attended events, from people in my
comment section, American citizens who said the following:
"I understand and agree with the idea that
WikiLeaks has a lot of potential to do good, but I'm actually afraid of
donating money, because I'm afraid that I'm going to end up on some kind
of a list somewhere; or that eventually I will be charged with aiding
and abetting, or giving material support to a terrorist group."
This was not one or two people who tended toward
the pole of paranoia saying these things.
These were very rational people, and there were
a lot of them. Some long-term readers whom I knew to be quite sober in their
thinking. The fear that they were expressing was somewhat pervasive.
That, to me, was extraordinarily striking:
these were American citizens who were afraid to donate money to a group
whose political aims they supported; who had never been charged with, let
alone convicted of any crime who felt like they were going to end up on some
kind of government list, or possibly be charged with aiding and abetting or
giving material support to terrorism.
Although I didn't find those fears to be completely justifiable, in the
sense that I thought those things would happen, I told people that I thought
they ought to set those fears aside and donate money anyway, the fact that
those fears existed.
That kind of climate of intimidation has been
created in the U.S. when it comes to the most basic rights of association
and free speech, which are the rights which are implicated by donating money
to a political organization that you support; that that climate of fear and
intimidation had been so great that people were self censoring and
relinquishing their own rights was something that perhaps in the abstract I
had known about in the past, but really illustrated to me just how pervasive
that had become.
Over the course of the next several months, because I was writing about
WikiLeaks more and more, especially as they began releasing the news-making
videos and documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and I began
engaging in debates on behalf of WikiLeaks and arguing with those who were
claiming they were a force for evil and should be punished and prosecuted, I
got to know the people who were involved in WikiLeaks, either currently or
in the past.
Especially among the people who had once worked
with WikiLeaks, but then stopped, there was a common theme that they all
sounded when you spoke to them about why they stopped working with WikiLeaks, including some who had been very high up in the organization hierarchy and
who were well resourced, and people who are citizens of European countries.
What they said, almost to a person about why they stopped being involved in
WikiLeaks, and what a lot of people who still work with WikiLeaks will tell
you about why they are contemplating no longer working with WikiLeaks is
they will say:
"I am extremely supportive of the
organization's aims and mission, I am proud to have been a part of the
things they have done thus far, but I have a paralyzing fear that one
day, my government is going to knock on my door and not charge me with a
crime (that I can confront and am willing to deal with), but they're
going to knock on my door and tell me they are extraditing me to the
In other words, the great fear of almost every
person now or previously involved in WikiLeaks is that they're going to end
up in the custody of the American justice system, because of the black hole
of due-process-free punishment that they've seen created and that is
sustained for foreign nationals accused of crimes against U.S. national
security, because of the way in which people are disappeared without
recourse to courts or any political protest.
It's amazing that we have spent decades, probably since the end of WWII,
lavishing praise on ourselves as the model of justice for the entire world,
the leaders of the free world, lecturing everybody else about what their
system of justice ought to be, and yet the fear that so many people around
the world have, is that they will end up in the grip of American justice.
That to me was extraordinarily telling, as well.
Then, over the course of the next couple of months, when the
over WikiLeaks was really escalated by the release of the diplomatic cables,
I began doing a lot of public media debates over whether WikiLeaks was a
force for good or a force for evil, or whatever media morality narrative
was, and how that was framed.
I appeared on countless shows and television
The reason I was so ubiquitous doing that isn't
because CNN and MSNBC producers suddenly decided that they really liked me.
It was because there were so few people to chose from who were actually
defending WikiLeaks, because the unanimity
in the media was essentially that
they were demonic and ought to be punished.
So, in order to have a debate where one person was arguing on behalf of
WikiLeaks and one was arguing against it (it was very easy to find someone
who was against it you could more or less pick a journalist or a political
figure out of a hat and that would be accomplished), what was harder was to
find people who were willing to defend it.
There were some but not many.
So, I did a lot of these show, a lot more than I
like to do, and is probably healthy for me to do. One of the things that I
found, that was sort of striking was, I was usually on the show, the format
of the show would be: there would be some journalist or a person who is on
TV, an actor on TV playing the role of a journalist along with some kind of
government official, some like Washington functionary.
I was on CNN and I debated Jessica Yellin, who's the CNN anchor, along
with Fran Townsend, George Bush's former national security advisor
did an NPR show once with Jamie Rubin, who was Madeline Albright's deputy,
and John Burns, the NYT reporter. That was usually the format.
I did MSNBC with Jonathan Tapper who's a
journalist who writes for the Washington Post editorial page, and Susan
Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman.
Literally, in every single case, the person who was designated as the
journalist, and the person who was there to represent America's political
class, thought and argued identically.
I mean they were completely
indistinguishable in terms of how they thought about WikiLeaks. They were
all in agreement that what WikiLeaks was doing was awful; that our
government had to put a stop to it.
The only concern that they had was that the
government wasn't more careful in safeguarding secrets.
So, you had people who were
claiming to be journalists who were on
television outraged that they were learning what the government was doing
and furious at the government for not taking better steps to hide those
things from them. And you had these debates that would take place and I
would be listening to them and I literally couldn't tell the journalist and
the political official apart.
And the reason that was so striking to me was
because, if you think about it, if you put yourself in the mindset of what a
journalist is supposed to be, not what an American journalist is, what an
American journalist is supposed to be, what they're supposed to be
interested in, is exposing the secrets of the powerful, especially when the
actions which are being undertaken in secret, are corrupt or illegal or
What WikiLeaks is doing is exactly that:
It is shedding unprecedented light
the world's most powerful corporate and government factions are
Any journalist who ever had an inkling of the
journalistic spirit, at one point in their life before that all got
suffocated, you would think they would look at what WikiLeaks was doing and
reflexively celebrate it. Or at the very least, see the good in it.
Yes, that what they are doing is what we are
supposed to be doing, which is bringing to the citizens of the world the
secrets that governments and corporations are trying to keep to conceal
their improper actions. And yet there is almost none of that.
I mean, it made sense to me that people in the political class were furious
at WikiLeaks because people in the political class inherently see their own
prerogatives as being worth preserving, and they want to be able to operate
in secret and think that they ought to be.
But, the fact that journalists were not only on
board with that, but were really leading the way was really remarkable to me
as I did these interviews because there wasn't even really a pretense of
separation between how journalists think and how political functionaries
think. I found that pretty striking as well.
A few other aspects to the WikiLeaks controversy that I think are
commonalities in how our political discourse functions:
One of the things you had was almost a full
and complete bipartisan consensus that WikiLeaks was satanic. I don't
think there has been a single democratic or republican politician of any
national notoriety (other than I think Ron Paul and a couple of very
liberal members of the house) who were willing to say that maybe WikiLeaks isn't all evil in a very cautious way.
Other than that, you basically had a
complete consensus as always happens when it comes to national security
controversies. Almost nobody was willing to defend WikiLeaks.
Then what you had was a faction on the American
Right, and some Democrats as well, who very casually, almost like you would
advocate a change in the capital gains tax, or some added safeguards for
environmental protection, would go on television and start calling for
Julian Assange's death.
Like I think we need to send drone attacks, I
think we need to treat him the way that Al Qaeda is treated. And maybe I was
being a little unfair to Democrats and the debate between Republicans and
Democrats were having at this time was should we kill Julian Assange
or just throw him in prison for the rest of his life, even though he
hasn't actually committed any discernable crime?
But the ease and the casualness with which our
political culture entails calling for people's death, you know we ought to
kill this person even without any due process we ought to use drones, we
ought to treat him the way we treat Al Qaeda, and the like I think is also
reflective of how our political culture functions.
Couple other things that happened that I think are quite common which
WikiLeaks sheds light on: One of the things that started happening was that
you have members of Congress of both parties writing laws, now to vest the
government with greater power to prosecute people for espionage, and for
other serious felony offenses for leaking classified information.
So this is very typical when a new demon arises
and here we have
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks the
villain of the month, immediately the government starts thinking about how
they can opportunistically manipulate the hatred, the two-minute hate
sessions that arise out of this new villain to develop and seize more power
for itself. And you very much see that.
And the last point that happens that is, I think, quite significant... was
the complete manipulation of law to advance the interest of the powerful.
One of the things that I found to be striking
about what's happened with WikiLeaks is, there's this group,
what they call themselves, and they're essentially a group of mostly
adolescent hackers who have quite advanced computer skills for doing things
like shutting down Web sites or slowing them down.
What they decided they were going to do was they were going to take a
position in defense of WikiLeaks.
They said that they were going to target
for cyber attacks and other kinds of cyber warfare any companies that in
response to the government's pressure terminated their services with WikiLeaks.
There were a whole variety of companies that
obediently complied with the government's request to cut off all services of
...all of these companies made it impossible for
WikiLeaks to stay online or for them to conduct financial transactions to
Anonymous began to target these Web sites. And the attacks were fairly
primitive. They slowed those sites down for a few hours. Not very much
damage. And yet, the Justice Department treated them like this Pearl Harbor
on the Internet.
Eric Holder said,
"We are going to devote unlimited resources
to getting to the bottom of Anonymous and who they are."
Turned out to be a couple of 16-year-olds in the
Netherlands and Belgium doing the clichéd
operating-from-their-mother's-basement type thing, but the fact that they
had targeted corporate power on behalf of WikiLeaks, an enemy of the U.S.
government, meant that the full force of the law was unleashed in order to
But, a couple of weeks before those Anonymous attacks, there was a far more
sophisticated, and a far more serious and dangerous cyber attack that was
launched at WikiLeaks, that basically resulted in their being removed from
the entire network of Web sites for the U.S., the entire website that hosts
all Internet Web sites for the U.S. could no longer sustain those attacks
that were being launched in a way that would safeguard their other
So they removed WikiLeaks from the Internet.
That was when they had to search around and ultimately find a different URL.
Now that attack was really worthy of serious
investigation because the complexity of the attack was really unlike
anything that had really been seen before in terms of being right out in the
And yet, so far, for some really strange reason, even though that attack was
every bit as illegal as the attacks that Anonymous had launched that merited
such scrutiny and investigation from the Justice Department, Eric Holder,
the Obama administration has never once vowed to get to the bottom of who
might be responsible for the attacks that knocked WikiLeaks offline, even
though they're much more dangerous.
And so, what this really reflects is that the law becomes a weapon for the
U.S. government for corporate power to use, to punish those who stand up to
it the way Anonymous did in a very mild and modest way.
And yet, at the same time, the law shields those
who are in power or who are operating on behalf of those in power of to
advance their interests as illustrated by the fact that whoever was
responsible for the attack on WikiLeaks, whether a government organization
or a corporate entity, or some combination of both, broke serious laws,
committed serious cyber felonies, and, yet, will never be investigated, let
alone prosecuted by the Justice Department.
And it's all of these ingredients that I've just described that WikiLeaks
revealed, and that has shaped the outcome and driven the WikiLeaks
controversy are the same things I would talk about no matter what political
controversy you asked me to talk about, whether it be civil liberties
erosions; or what's happening in Wisconsin, or anything else. And that's why
I say that the title, the topic, the individual episode that you chose to
focus on, is valuable only as a window into how our political culture, how
political factions all function.
The last point I want to make is why I think that WikiLeaks is such a vital
topic, not just in terms of the light that it shines on our political
process, but in terms of what's at stake.
I actually do believe that the battle over WikiLeaks will easily be one of
the most politically consequential conflicts of our generation, if not THE
most politically consequential. I think that we're just at the very
incipient stages of this conflict, and that how it plays out is still very
much still to be determined.
I think what's at stake is whether or not the
secrecy regime that is the linchpin for how the American government
functions, will continue to be invulnerable and impenetrable or whether it
will start to be meaningfully breached.
And I also think that Internet freedom, the
ability to use the Internet for what has always been its ultimate promise,
which is to have citizens band together in a way that no longer needs large
corporate and institutional resources, to subvert and undermine the most
powerful factions to provide a counterweight to them, whether that Internet
freedom will be preserved.
And this is why I think that:
we have in general, when you talk about
politics and you look at political discussions, what typically is focused on
are these internecine day-to-day conflicts that are partisan in nature.
What are Republicans and Democrats
What reason today are the left and the
right at one another's throat?
What is it that's dividing the citizenry
and making the citizenry divisive and unable to band together to
defend their common interest?
These are the kinds of controversies that fill
cable news shows; that occupy pundits and political chatterers, and all of
By and large, all of that is completely inconsequential. In fact, I
shouldn't say that. It actually is consequential. It has a purpose. The
purpose is to distract all of us from what really matters in terms of how
the government functions.
What matters in terms of how the government
functions has very little to do with whether Democrats or Republicans win
the last election, or the next election. And it has very little to do with
who sits in the White House, what individual occupies the Oval Office. I
don't mean to suggest those things are irrelevant, they're not, they matter
in marginal and sometimes more ways.
But what they don't have anything to do with is
the permanent power faction
that runs the U.S. and runs the governments with which the U.S. is allied,
consortium of government and corporate power that I talked about
What's really interesting is, it used to be case
that if you stood up in front of an audience and said that what really is
running the government of the U.S. is not the political parties that win
elections, but this secret consortium of government and corporate power, a
lot of people would look at you like you were some sort of fringe paranoid
maniac, it would be a self-marginalizing act to talk about that.
But I don't actually think that's the case very
much longer, and that's because a lot of mainstream sources have confronted
those realities, because it's impossible to turn away from them.
I mean you could of course go back to the famous
1956 farewell speech of
Dwight Eisenhower, who is hardly a
fringe figure. He was a four-star, a five-star general, and a two-term
elected Republican president and he warned about exactly that.
He called it the military industrial complex,
of course. But he described how the merger of government and corporate power
in the national security state context was threatening to subvert democracy
because it would become vastly more powerful and unaccountable than anything
that was actually still responsive to democratic forces.
And yet, it's odd that something that someone
like Dwight Eisenhower warned about became for a long time taboo to talk
about. I think in the
post-9/11 world, this merger has become so overt, so
conspicuous, so pervasive that it's impossible to hide it any longer.
So earlier this year, or the end of last year, the
Washington Post had a three-part series
that got very little attention because it covered this topic too well.
People just didn't know quite how to process it, especially people who go on
television and talk about the news of the day.
It was called "Top
Secret America." It was written by Dana Priest, who's one
of the widely hailed and highly decorated establishment reporters, along
with William Arkin.
What it describes is exactly what I just
described, which is a vast apparatus of corporate and government power that
is so unaccountable and so secret and so sprawling and so powerful that not
even the people ostensibly running it know what it is composed of or what it
does or what it entails. This is the faction that is truly exerting power in
the U.S. when it comes to most of the significant policies.
So, people become confused, and frustrated and angry and confounded and
disheartened when they elect a Democratic president like Barack Obama who
ran on a platform of change and delivered so little of it; and who continues
to extend and bolster the very policies against which he railed while he was
There are lots of reasons why that is, and part of it is because politicians
are inherently unprincipled, and get into office and want to preserve their
own power. They think that the power that other people exercise which was a
threat, in their hands is not only something that could be trusted but could
be used as a force for good.
All of those reasons are true.
But, what is really true is that this powerful
faction that exists, this enormous consortium of government and corporate
power is at least as powerful and probably much more so, than any single
politician, even the "most powerful man on earth" or whatever we call the
president these days.
So, even if he wanted to change these things, and I
think he doesn't, even if he wanted to, he probably couldn't.
What this faction relies upon more than anything else to preserve their
power and to carry out the actions they undertake, is this wall of secrecy,
regime of secrecy. It is that secrecy that enables them to operate in
the dark and therefore operate without any constraints, moral, ethical,
legal, or any other kind.
This is not a new concept. If you look at what
political theorists have always talked about for centuries, if you look at
what the Founders talked about, the gravest threat to democracy and to a
healthy government is excessive secrecy, because people are human beings,
and human nature is such that if you operate in the dark, you will start to
abuse your power.
That's why, central to the whole design of our country, was that,
be these institutions that would prevent that from happening. They would be
adversarial to political power
You would have the Congress that would
investigate and exert oversight
We would have
the media, the glorious
Fourth Estate that would serve as a bulwark against abuse
We would have the courts that would ultimately
hold people accountable under the constraints of law at least, if nothing
And each of these institutions have utterly failed, especially,
though not only, especially in the post-9-11 world to bring about any
meaningful transparency to what the national security and the surveillance
state is doing.
They operate fully without accountability,
without constraint and with total compunction to do what they want.
So, WikiLeaks, is one of the very, very, very few entities that has proven
itself capable of breaching that wall of secrecy. That is why it is one of
the very few entities that has finally put some degree of meaningful fear in
the heart of this national security state.
For that reason and that reason alone is all I
need. That is why I think a defense of WikiLeaks has become so vital and so
crucial and such an obligation on the part of anybody who believes that this
regime of secrecy is so harmful.
Now if you look at the instances of serious government abuse over the past
decade, and even longer, what you'll find is that the lynchpin, the enabler
for all of them is secrecy.
So, if you look at,
the Bush administration's creation of a
worldwide torture regime
or its spying on American citizens
without the warrants required by law
or Dick Cheney meeting with energy
executives early on to formulate the nation's energy policies to
benefit only that group
or how the government excluded any
dissenting intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war to make the
case as though it was somehow airtight
or even going back to Vietnam, when the
government knew the war they were waging was unwinnable, even as
they were assuring the American public they were making progress and
Daniel Ellsberg released the secret
documents showing that (The
It's always secrecy that enables this level of
It's the same thing in all of the animal kingdom. Cockroaches at
night scamper around in the kitchen and the minute you turn on the light,
they run and hide. That is what transparency and light does to people.
One of the things about it is you can have whistleblowers, and we have had
whistleblowers without WikiLeaks, but there are a couple of features about
WikiLeaks that make it so unique and such a threat. One of the unique
features is that it provides full anonymity.
It doesn't even know the identity of the people
who are leaking to it, unlike say, the NYT, which always knows the identity
of their sources and thus could be compelled at some point to disclose it to
the government. And they have been compelled to do so.
WikiLeaks does not
know the identity of who it is who's leaking to them, and unless somebody
goes around and boasts that they are the leaker it's virtually impossible
for the government, no matter how much force they bring to bear, to discover
More importantly, WikiLeaks is a stateless organization. Unlike the NYT or
the Washington Post or the Guardian or Der Spiegel, or El Pais or any of the
other newspapers around the world, WikiLeaks does not physically exist in
any state, and therefore can't be subject to the laws of that state.
It can't, therefore, be dragged into court and compelled to disclose
information about their sources, even if they had it. But, what's more
important still about this statelessness is that unlike American newspapers,
which will acknowledge as Bill Keller, the executive editor of the NYT
recently did, in an article he wrote about WikiLeaks, they will acknowledge
that even though they try to be objective, their allegiance is a patriotic
and nationalistic one.
They are loyal to the U.S. government, and their
editorial judgments are shaped by what advances or undermines American
They therefore don't disclose things many times on the ground that
disclosure will harm American policy, even though that policy is improper.
So, the NYT learned that the Bush administration was spying without warrants
and they sat on that story for a year because Bush told them to, until Bush
was safely reelected. Or, the Washington Post learned that the CIA was
maintaining a network of CIA black sites throughout Eastern Europe, a
violation of every precept of international law on American treaties.
Although they finally wrote about it, they concealed the specific nations
where those black sites were located because the CIA told them that if they
disclosed the nations it would prevent them from continuing to operate those
So they withheld the information that enabled
that illegal policy to continue.
WikiLeaks doesn't do that. They have no allegiance to the U.S. government.
Their allegiance is to transparency and disclosure. So, sources know that if
they disclose something to the NYT, it's very likely that the NYT will
conceal it, or will edit snippets of it and release only those in order to
protect the interests and policies of the U.S. government.
WikiLeaks will not have that allegiance. They
have a true journalistic purpose which is to bring transparency to the
And then, finally what you see is the reform potential with WikiLeaks. The
amount of information which has been released over the past year is
extraordinary. And although journalists have talked about how there's
"nothing new in these documents" was the claim made for a while to dismiss
On one hand WikiLeaks is a great threat to
national security and compromising all that was good in the world. On the
other hand nothing they were disclosing was remotely new and it was all
everything we already knew. That conflict never got reconciled. It didn't
But, the reality is that the documents WikiLeaks has disclosed has not only
made huge headlines in the U.S., but in almost every country around the
What's really interesting is that Bill Keller, the aforementioned NYT
executive editor, although a hardcore critic of WikiLeaks, in that article
said, that some of the documents released by WikiLeaks, allegedly disclosed
to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning, exposed just how corrupt and opulent the
royal family in Tunisia was, and that that helped fuel and accelerate the
uprising in Tunisia, which was of course the catalyst for the rest of the
uprisings in the Middle East.
So, if you look at the chat logs that have been disclosed, where Bradley
Manning supposedly confessed that he was the source of these documents, what
he says about why he did that was that he believed that only WikiLeaks would
provide the level of disclosure needed to bring about the kind of
transparency that would make people, not just in the U.S., but in the world,
realize the level and magnitude of corruption of the people in power.
And that this could not help but trigger very
serious uprisings and reforms: exactly what is happening is exactly what he
said he hoped to achieve through this leak.
I have one more point that I just want to make, that I think underscores
this whole controversy. And that is, as I said earlier, that I saw the
WikiLeaks controversy as a war over the regime of secrecy and whether it
would be preserved or subverted and over Internet freedom as well. The
people who are most threatened by WikiLeaks are well aware of the fact that
you can not stop the technology that WikiLeaks has developed.
Even if you did send a drone to kill Julian
Assange and everybody else associated with WikiLeaks, the template already
exists. It's not all that difficult to replicate WikiLeaks' system for
anonymity and for disclosure.
In fact, there are other entities already popping up that will simply
substitute for WikiLeaks and replace what they're doing. The Pentagon knows
that. The national security state knows that.
They know that they can't create secrecy
practices that will protect them against these kinds of disclosures, as
well. So, their strategy is to escalate the climate of intimidation and
deterrence, so that would-be whistleblowers in the future think twice and a
third time and a fourth time when they discover illegal and deceitful
actions about exposing it to the world.
So you see, in response to WikiLeaks, and a variety of other whistleblowers,
Obama administration waging what is clearly the most unprecedented
aggressive war to prosecute whistleblowers, people who exposed waste and
corruption and lawbreaking in the Bush era, have been prosecuted with
extraordinary aggression by the Obama DoJ, even though Obama, when he ran
for president, hailed whistleblowers as patriotic and courageous, and said
that whistleblowing needs to be fostered and protected, he's currently
heading a war, the likes of which we have never seen, to put people who
whistleblow, who expose the wrongdoing of the powerful, into prison, and to
expose who they are and detect them.
On top of that, you have a war being waged on WikiLeaks.
The Justice department is obsessed with the idea
of prosecuting WikiLeaks, even though they have done nothing that newspapers
everyday also don't do, which is expose government secrets that they receive
from their source.
And they've done things like subpoena the Twitter
accounts of anyone associated with WikiLeaks including a sitting member of
the Icelandic Parliament who was once associated with WikiLeaks, causing a
little mini diplomatic crises, at least as much of a crisis as can be caused
You see as well what has happened to Bradley Manning... what they want
essentially to do, is to take that climate of fear that I began by talking
about, that made so many people who read what I wrote petrified of donating
money to WikiLeaks, even though they have the absolute legal and
constitutional right to do so. They want to take this climate of fear and
drastically expand it.
This is what the Bush torture and detention
regime were about.
Everybody knows that if you torture people you don't get good information.
It was never about that.
Disappearing people and putting them into orange
jumpsuits, and into legal black holes and waterboarding them and freezing
them and killing detainees was about signaling to the rest of world that you
can not challenge or stand up to American power, because if you do, we will
respond without constraints, and there is nothing anybody can or will do
It was about creating a climate of repression and fear
any would-be dissenters or challengers to American power. And that is what
this war on whistleblowing and this war on WikiLeaks is about as well.
They don't want, more than anything, for anybody to get the idea that they
can start doing what WikiLeaks is doing, to start exposing those in power
who engage in wrongdoing.
That is their biggest fear, because they know
that if that mechanism exists, they can no longer continue to do the things
that they are doing.
So, this war on WikiLeaks, this war on whistleblowers, is about forever
ending really the one avenue that we've had over the past decade for
learning about what our government and their corporate partners do, which is
the process of whistleblowing. If they succeed, that regime of secrecy will
become much more intensified. That deterrent will endure for a long time.
But if WikiLeaks is successfully defended, if
these efforts are warded off, then one of the most promising means of
bringing accountability and transparency that we've seen in a very long
time, will be preserved.
And that's why I talk about WikiLeaks so much,
why I write about it so much and why I think it's so important.