WikiLeaks: What you need to know

Give Julian Assange credit for one thing — he’s got people talking.

Not agreeing, mind you. But talking, definitely.

Take the Berkeley City Council, a famously left-wing group. Its members have been considering praising the “courage” of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier thought responsible for disclosing 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website that Assange founded in 2006.

Or, by way of contrast, consider Sarah Palin.

The former U.S. vice-presidential candidate recently remarked that Assange ought to be hunted down, presumably to be disposed of more or less in the manner of an Alaskan moose unlucky enough to find itself between Palin’s cross-hairs.

So, when we discuss WikiLeaks, what are we talking about — heroes or villains? Is WikiLeaks the harbinger of a more open and equitable era in human affairs or a sinister threat to all that we hold dear?

To keep the conversation halfway civil, or at least mutually comprehensible, here is a primer to what may be this month’s most popular subject for water-cooler and Christmas party conversations — that is, if you don’t count the return of Dion Phaneuf to the Maple Leafs lineup or the identity of that stocky and hirsute police officer wielding his baton with such wild abandon at the G20 summit.

Question: Is Julian Assange a rapist?

Answer: No.

The 39-year-old Australian is now behind bars in Britain, where he faces possible extradition to Sweden. Authorities there wish to question him about allegations of sexual misconduct lodged by two Swedish women. The allegations do not suggest violence by Assange and may come down to a series of misunderstandings. Assange maintains his innocence, and no charges have been laid. Unless proven guilty, he’s innocent.

Q: Is Assange a spy?

A: It doesn’t seem so.

The U.S. Justice Department is exploring possible legal avenues against Assange, perhaps under the 1917 Espionage Act. But it has not laid charges yet, possibly because Assange and WikiLeaks have merely provided a conduit for the disclosures, but have not been their source.

Besides, if WikiLeaks has behaved illegally in releasing the trove of documents, then presumably so has the New York Times, one among a number of mainstream publications that have printed the leaks. The Barack Obama administration in Washington might well be reluctant to launch a legal battle that could pit the executive branch against the media.

As for Manning, the U.S. soldier and intelligence analyst who allegedly uploaded the documents to WikiLeaks, he is incarcerated in Quantico, Va. on suspicion of engineering the leaks.

“I see Assange as being someone who is in a sense a glorified webmaster,” says Paul Dewar, New Democratic Party critic for foreign affairs. “The degree to which he has been condemned by many has been overblown.”

Q: Does the ongoing release into cyberspace of many thousands of confidential diplomatic cables spell the end of international statecraft as we know it?

A: Yes and no.

Some things will almost certainly change. According to Daryl Copeland, a career Canadian foreign service officer and author of Guerrilla Diplomacy, a guide to a nimbler form of international relations, one unintended consequence of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is that diplomats are likely to become more secretive, not less so.

“People will classify messages at a higher level,” he says. “This is just logical. It’s going to make people less inclined to share what they would have shared before.”

On the other hand, for all the attention they have garnered, the latest WikiLeaks disclosures have so far been pretty mild — unlike the WikiLeaks video entitled “Collateral Murder” that was released earlier this year and showed the killing of 12 Iraqi citizens in a 2007 attack in Baghdad by U.S. Apache helicopters.

“It’s gossip,” Robert Guttman says of the most recent leaks. He’s director of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University near Washington, D.C. “It’s like a blog that’s gone crazy with heavy-duty gossip. It’s not really going to change U.S. foreign policy. This will all pass.”

Q: Have the latest WikiLeaks disclosures wreaked terminal havoc upon Washington’s relations with its allies — and adversaries?

A: No.

Most adults take it for granted that people say one thing to someone’s face and different things behind that person’s back. Governments are accustomed to the same treatment. Or, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, quoting an unnamed representative of another country: “Don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.”

Q: Do the WikiLeaks disclosures constitute this decade’s version of the 1971 Pentagon Papers, whose publication in the New York Times and the Washington Post exposed the duplicity and lies behind U.S. military involvement in Vietnam?

A: No.

The Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. government official, revealed specific wrongdoing in specific circumstances. For example, the documents provided evidence that then U.S. president Lyndon Johnson lied to his country about the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that was used as a pretext for U.S. entry into the war.

By contrast, the current disclosures provide a blizzard of unrelated and possibly unimportant revelations on countless unrelated themes.

“This is information-dumping,” says Copeland. “It’s not whistle-blowing. Whistle-blowing has to do with exposing wrongdoing. There’s not much of that in this.”

Q: Does WikiLeaks have any connection to Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia?

A: No.

Q: Are some of the critics of the latest WikiLeaks’ disclosures being hypocrites?

A: Yes.

Many right-wing commentators were only too happy to welcome WikiLeaks’ disclosure of the so-called Climate-gate emails, a series of digital messages that were culled from computers at the University of East Anglia and that supposedly exposed cooked-up science on the subject of climate change (although in fact the emails did nothing of the sort).

Some of those same former WikiLeaks cheerleaders are at the forefront of attacks on the website now.

“It’s absolute hypocrisy,” says Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic. “This is an ideological response.”

Q: Is anybody in the WikiLeaks controversy fully accountable to the public?

A: Maybe not.

Central to Assange’s criticism of governments and other large institutions is their lack of accountability to ordinary people. But the same charge could as easily be laid against WikiLeaks itself.

“Who is WikiLeaks?” says Guttman at Johns Hopkins. “Its mailing address is a post office in Australia.”

Or, as Raffi Khatchadourian put it in a June article in the New Yorker: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most — power without accountability — is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”

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