Friday, December 10, 2010

What WikiLeaks really means

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has" - Margaret Mead, anthropologist.

An unknown individual who calls himself 'Australia's most famous ethical computer hacker' - Julian Assange - puts up a website that supposedly carries leaked versions of documents and communications on sensitive state subjects. All hell breaks loose, as the one of the states concerned is a mighty power, engaged in multiple controversial & costly wars abroad, and the leaks put a big question mark on the entire authority of the apparatus itself! Apologies in advance are offered to friendly nations worldwide by the superpower (perhaps a diplomatic-first of its kind). Red-faced bureaucrats and politicians patch up in advance on many issues likely to emerge! The website promises more and more juicy releases, nation after nation goes after the site's founder (and administrator) and finally one of them nabs him.

Welcome to the WikiLeaks controversy. Perhaps for the first time in modern history, a single individual has challenged the might and repute of the superpower that's the USA, and dragged alongwith the reputations of many others. Perhaps for the first time, world governments realise how vulnerable they are to what a single man can do to them. Perhaps for the first time ever, media and its unbridled power to create extreme transparency are under question.

This controversy raises fundamental questions which I will attempt to answer below. I feel the three questions raised are
  1. Does a State have the right to do anything in the name of sovereign power? And then cover it up?
  2. Can media truly exercise extreme transparency without upsetting human civil values?
  3. What is the nature of truth itself? Are there permanent truths for us to hang on to?

Death by a thousand cuts!
It's rather easy to be killed by a single bullet. The mind will not get enough time to feel the pain. Getting stabbed is painful but it ends quickly. The real torture is when someone inflicts countless minor lacerations on your body, and death arrives of blood-loss, slowly and steadily. WikiLeaks does precisely that - putting entire legions of foreign service-men, diplomats, ambassadors, bureaucrats and politicians on tenterhooks - awaiting the next cut to their reputation, the next blow to the carefully built facade that's been holding the reputations for long. On the face of it, the whole business of doing business with foreign nations comes to a halt, as suspicions build up. It's the classic spy-vs-spy story, with WikiLeaks as the huge catalyst for aggravated suspicions.

A simple analogy, anyone?
Imagine that someone puts a secret camera and microphone inside your bedroom or living room, and records everything you do. And then promises to release stuff bit by bit, on some website (SharmaLeaks, for example!!), over a long period of time. The intolerable pain of having to wait for what's coming next can tear the family (or marriage) and the reputation apart. Our lives are like scratch-books - some incidents are scribbles, others deep-etched memories of things really important. When voyeurism prevails, both categories get mixed up in dangerous and avoidable ways.. and it's never good for anyone. There's no husband in the world who will want to live with his wife any longer if the complete history of every single conversation that the wife has ever done is made transparent. That's how humans are. We accept our partners, friends and colleagues on "averages". On an average, things work out just fine as the pluses outweigh the minuses. Try finding someone, any one, who has never spoken ill about you, and you'll end up searching forever. (the husband-wife example quoted was intentional; the reverse order is 100% certain!).

The State as the Big Brother
What's wrong with someone who tells you the truth? A lot, if the truth trespasses the thick line that separates concepts underlying individual liberty from those representing State's sovereignty.

The State is all powerful. The State is not to be played around with. The State can get you, anyday, on any pretext. The State knows it all, and there's no escape. And to live happy ever after, it is necessary for everyone to pay a rent to the State. In nations like India, rent-seeking assumes multiple forms, most of them illegal and unconstitutional, yet unavoidable (unless you are willing to learn the basics of law, human rights, and are willing to fight for the same). In developed nations of the West, high levels of media scrutiny keeps raw power of state under check.

So what is this "State"? The term represents the whole concept around which modern civilisation stands. Independent, powerful and supposedly benign national powers that take care of their citizens, provide for them and create an environment of peace and prosperity. Rule of law governs everyone, thereby levelling off any specific advantage a group may command. Everyone is equal before the law.
Who is this "State"? What's the permanence of people who make it up? Well, certainly the people who make up the State's machinery are not permanent. They come, they go. Some of them stay on for 30 or 40 years, making up the bureaucracies that we all so love to hate. But ultimately even they have to retire. No one stays on forever. Everyone has to die some day! But even though men (and women) come and go, the system keeps grinding, as the policies are documented, positions established and dogmas fertilised and kept alive. It never stops. It's the system that overrides all individual identities. Corporates like McDonalds may revel in their magnificent systems-and-process culture but no one comes close to the predictable repetitiveness of a State's bureaucratic machinery - cold, calculated, selfish, and always inward-looking.

Limits to tolerance - the empire strikes back
For centuries, kings, princes and authoritarian regimes have tried to carry a heavy pretense of looking democratic, open-minded and transparent. But history teaches us that limits to all these do exist. As long as peripheral and harmless issues are raised the State may pretend to actually get affected and take corrective action (on its own agents). But the moment someone points a finger at any core aspect of the State, the empire prepares to strikes back. And that can be pretty nasty. Agents of the empire (the police, the military, the administrators, and the judicial system) can cause harm that may take years to repair. And since the process of revenge-seeking is orchestrated by a body that's amorphous, foggy and amoeba like, hitting back (by an individual) is a very difficult and uncertain process. Countless examples exist. In fast moving systems like Singapore (a rich, developed State), the State precludes a lot of civilian retaliation possibilities by creating a vast array of repressive policies covering a wide gamut of civilian life en (no chewing-gum, for instance). Caning is a frequently used punishment (sounds medieval, right!). In complex and slow moving States like India's, most citizens are under-informed about their own basic legal rights, and can be taken to task almost without any effort by agents of the State (fear of loss of reputation if the police merely reaches one's home, for example).

Enter Julian Assange!
Well, to hell with the State, said Julian Assange. And he attacked where it genuinely hurt the most. The secretive communications that constituted the inner workings of the American State. Thus, he exposed not only the Americans, but also all those linked with them - other State-heads, informers, military generals, and so on. His WikiLeaks website, designed as a digital drop box, is a place where anyone can anonymously submit sensitive or secret materials to be disseminated and downloaded around the globe. In April, it posted its most explosive leak yet, a video shot by an American attack helicopter in July 2007 as it fired on a group of men on a Baghdad street, killing 12, including two unarmed Reuters employees. It continued in the same spirit thereafter "leaking" cables (communications) between the American embassies worldwide and their US Head Office.

WikiLeaks' commitment to what might be called extreme transparency means that it hasn't turned away documents of questionable news value or origin. According to WikiLeaks' credo, to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys. "We never censor," Assange declares. No doubt, mainstream media's limitations (due to commercial interests) also got exposed in this melee.

How did it gain prominence?
Here are some of Wikileaks' biggest hits, that apparently have helped it gain the weight it has.

  • Video shot by an American attack copter as it mowed down a dozen men on a Baghdad street, including two Reuters journalists
  • Detainee treatment manuals from Gitmo
  • Inventories of US military matériel in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • NATO's "master narrative" for Afghanistan, which WikiLeaks said it unlocked by guessing the password ("progress")
  • Stolen docs from the Swiss bank Julius Baer's Cayman Islands branch, allegedly showing tax evasion
  • Confidential documents about sexual abuse by United Nations peacekeepers
  • Deailed reports on corruption and political violence in Kenya
  • Emails from Sarah Palin's Yahoo account
  • Holocaust denier David Irving's emails
  • Membership lists of the far-right British National Party
  • An internal report from the oil trader Trafigura about its disposal of toxic cargo off the coast of West Africa
  • Scientology manuals, including a list of URLs owned by the church, such as and
Since its launch in December 2006, WikiLeaks has published everything from the operating manuals of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to NATO's secret plan for the Afghanistan war and inventories of US military matériel in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus plenty of dishier stuff—Sarah Palin's hacked emails and Wesley Snipes' tax returns, as well as fraternity initiation books and a trove of secret Scientology manuals.

Basic assumption about WikiLeaks
That what it says is actually "true" - who knows that for sure? The governments are in a state of vehement denial, and there's never going to be an official proof of anything. Those who are benefitted by any specific leak will never deny it even if it's false! So the truth, alas, is based on a fundamental assumption that Julian is not making a fool of everyone :)
Also, the whole story of WikiLeaks has strangely accorded a certain reputation and status to Julian's credibility, and people tend to speak of him with a certain level of respect. That's interesting.

The leaked cables!
Now the really juicy stuff started about a month ago when Julian Assange started exposing "cables" that contained intimate details of foreign policy of the US. This is perhaps the biggest expose in the diplomatic history of modern world. It proves just how vulnerable everyone is, in this age of nano-second IT connectivity and mass rapid media consumption.
Three critical aspects of the "leaked cables" -
  1. How nations interact - It becomes apparent that most of what we study in the erudite tomes on "Political Science" is actually correct (what a relief!). It is true that "in international politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests". The way the US diplomats have described the various heads of states is telltale. Who would argue with the descriptions accorded to the North Korean dictator, or the French president. And frankly, there seems to be nothing wrong in the way it's been done. What's wrong is that is that it got leaked, thereby becoming scandalous. Otherwise it may have gone on for years without any potential impact.
  2. How nations will interact - If you really reflect on this, it becomes clear that one of the two things will happen (the second one has a higher probability)
      1. breakdown in relations
      2. a big hearty laugh, and move-on!
  3. Immediate potential damage - Yes, heads will roll. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers who have been shamed brutally will find scapegoats. The diplomats who uttered the most honest observations will be removed! But ultimately, the needs and necessities of international politics are such that everyone will have to move on. They will take a deep breath, and move on.
Let's get real. The diplomats of any nation, in general, are rooted in reality and understand that every nation will try to protect its turf by all means. That Americans need Pakistani support in their war in Afghanistan is obvious. The Pakistani establishment supports terrorism and funds it, and hence will use the Afghan lever in all its negotiations with the West. If WikiLeaks exposes this, it will only confirm the worst fears of the Indians.. it will not tell anything new.

Do you hear that Mr Anderson?
Like the detestable Agent Smith in the memorable Matrix movie trilogy, the State - for now - seems to be holding Neo (Julian Assange) in its grip uttering menacingly "Do you hear the sound of that train, Mr Anderson? That's the sound of inevitability.. the sound of your death".

It is certain that world governments will not take to WikiLeaks kindly. They will do everything possible to have it shut down permanently. That the greatest proponents of free speech consider this as the right thing to do speaks volumes about the context in which free speech is truly allowed to exist. Let's face it - modern civilisations have a threshold limit of tolerating dissent. The moment it threatens to upset the balance of the State itself, it ceases to be able to exercise its right to exist without fear. Julian has been arrested, and may be put away for ever. Wait and watch. As far as I am concerned, Julian's courage (whatever the motives may have been) fascinates me. It's the ultimate tale of one man versus the establishment. It's very inspiring. It's very disruptive, and it's very much a story to be told to yourself when you are down and out.

Margaret Mead made her memorable quote thinking of a small group of committed individuals. The debate rages over truthfulness of motives, the limits of media transparency and the rational of extreme disclosure.


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Unknown said...

Hope Obama can handle WL Change?
We NEED transparency for our global society that we created an cannot control.To many crises.
We'd never gone to Iraq if we read the cables first? Can gov. cut own flesh and downsize coldwar min. of foreign aff./CIA that cost as much as public health care. Wars ? Environment ? The public and is needed to get involved to let our global society survive.
How can a few wise leaders alone solve complex global issues pending ?
If democracy fails, the only solution is More democracy. Know It's a hard path, but harder for our totalitarian enemies. E-vote(power), not E-commerce(money) that changes our world, stupid!

Abhiram Bhise said...

courage is contagious !

abhishek3231 said...

Thank you sir for your in depth analysis of wikileaks because i really didn't understand some aspects of it like how do they get all these leaks,are these leaks really authentic? etc.Now after your blog,this wikileaks sort of thing is clear and i will be in good frame of mind if this topic will ever come in a GD or PI.

young minds... said...

hello sir...
thank u so much fr such indepth analysis abt the much talked about topic of 'wikileaks'.
sir, i would also luv to read abt the latest scams in india... esp, the 2G scam, and the CWG scam... even though i have been readin the newspapers, but not able to get the jest of the core...
i would b waitin fr another blog regarding the same...

Anonymous said...

Hello sir,

This post illustrating a perfect example of how complexity can be convert into simplicity for the sake of understanding. Thanks for such a nice post.

Julian assnage proclaiming that wikileaks is a new kind of journalism called scientific journalism based on profs. can too much transparency on foreign policies, military operations etc. stagnant the growth and good relationship between nations? isn't is harmful? who knows a new cable may ignite the third world war?

vhjamdar said...

Very well written Sir.
This would indeed increase the knowledge of fellow people.
One thing I want to ask is;
can you be judgemental? What are your view points?