Everyone tracks everything now and there are no secrets. Leave your cell phone on and someone, somehow, can know exactly where you are – or where your cell phone is – within a few feet. Buy anything with debit or credit cards and you leave a trail. Spend any time on the web, even with your cool new android phone, and Google or whatever search engine you’re using has a record of what you’ve been clicking on, and how long you stayed there. And your emails never disappear. They’re out there somewhere. It’s all accessible, although sometimes protected – or so Google says. And sometimes, without your knowing it, the information is sold, as it’s useful to those who want to sell you things and those who have the information like the money that’s handed to them for it. But most of this information just floats free – what you’ve posted on Facebook or other social media sites, comments you might have left at websites, blog posts like this, and residue on Twitter, if you Tweet. And of course this has changed dating – you can always find something on the guy who just asked you out. And it has changed hiring – type the candidate’s name in the Google search box and forget what he said in the interview about how wonderful he was.
Of course none of this is new. That employer could always run a credit check and do a search for criminal records, or even traffic tickets. And down at the county register’s office there are the property records – who owns what and when they bought it and how much they paid for it, to the penny. Much of life, much of your life, is an open book. It’s just that now it is incredibly easy to find out most anything, at no cost at all – and there’s an aerial view of your backyard on Google Maps. There are no secrets, or few secrets.
If this bothers you, well, you do know there’s only one answer for you. Be as boring as possible – do nothing interesting, say nothing interesting, think nothing interesting. That’ll stymie them. They’ll move on.
But this new world of cost-free inside information on everything about anything or anyone has upset our naïve expectations of privacy. And at the center of this is WikiLeaks – the non-profit organization that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified stuff from anonymous sources. It’s basically a whistle-blower site. In April 2010 they posted video from a 2007 incident where Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed by US forces – we had said it was an accident and they called it collateral murder. In July they released their Afghan War Diary, a compilation of eighty thousand documents about the war in Afghanistan, not previously available for public review, mainly because they were raw unedited action reports and off-the-cuff comments. In October 2010 it was the Iraq War Logs, four hundred thousand of the same sorts of raw documents. Those two logs caused a little stir, but then a big yawn – there was nothing much new here, and the action and incident reports were, in the end, kind of boring. It was our military at work – harried individuals trying to make sense of things.
But in November 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing United States State Department diplomatic cables – the behind the scenes back-and-forth among Foreign Service professionals. And that did damage. Such diplomatic traffic would contain candid assessments offered on the assumption no one on the outside would ever know that everyone had agreed Hamid Karzai was un unstable bipolar nutcase and Sarkozy was an egotistical little jerk who only needed to be flattered, and his own people thought so too. There was a lot of that sort of thing – and stuff on lies to be told and real aims that had to be hidden for now, or forever.
And that’s where the damage was. That sort of thing could make diplomacy itself impossible. You cannot negotiate anything if the other side thinks you’re lying, and has a way to find out what you really think, easily and instantly. It’s like play poker with all the cards face-up on the table. You can’t bluff, and in fact you can have no strategy at all. What you see is what you get. There’s nothing to discuss. And if war is diplomacy by other means, then it all comes down to war or surrender. It would be like Donald Rumsfeld’s wet-dream – there’d now be no talk. Just shut up and get on with the shock-and-awe.
This seemed a big deal, and our government was outraged. Decades of careful diplomacy had been blown out of the water. All that back-and-forth banter was just harried individuals trying to make sense of things, never meant as any official position – and official positions hadn’t been worked out yet. Now no one would talk to us, and our Foreign Service professionals would probably stop talking even to each other. That would be too dangerous. You might as well just shut down the State Department and auction off the furniture.
And of course it was embarrassing. And we don’t like to be embarrassed. Who does? So many on the right called for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to be tried for treason – until others pointed out that since the guy was an Australian citizen living in Sweden, Julian Assange hadn’t exactly betrayed his country. This isn’t his country. Others called him a terrorist, who should be hunted down and killed, preferably with one of those cool drones, but he hadn’t blown up anything at all. His actions were entirely nonviolent. You’d have to change the definition of terrorist to anyone who embarrasses us and messes up our plans, basically someone we really don’t like at all. For some that’s already the definition of a terrorist, but it’s still a problem. You just don’t go out and kill someone you find really, really irritating – or most people don’t. Our Justice Department is still working on just what they can do. It’s unclear what laws apply, although much of what was posted was classified. When a foreigner publishes our classified information, provided to him willingly by insiders here, the law is murky. Our government has just forbid anyone in the government, or contracting with the government, to even click on any link to this stuff, or be fired. Our response is a work in progress.
But Assange is in protective custody in the UK now, pending sexual assault charges in Sweden wholly unrelated to any of this, and in the New York Times, Robert Mackey, reports on how things stand:
As Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, continues to grant interviews to the world’s media each day – including a revealing discussion with John Humphreys of the BBC on Tuesday – his supporters and critics alike have been offered glimpses of the estate in the English countryside where he is enduring what his lawyer jokingly referred to as “not so much a house arrest as a manor arrest.”
On Monday, Mr. Assange spoke with a Times of London reporter while perched on a fence on the 600-acre property. On Tuesday, he sat down with a BBC crew inside the 10-bedroom home.
By stark contrast, new details have emerged in recent days about the different conditions in which an Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, has been confined since his arrest in May on suspicion of leaking the confidential American military and diplomatic records published on Mr. Assange’s Web site.
Yes, Bradley Manning may have committed the only crime here, and Glenn Greenwald here reports details of Manning’s solitary confinement and argues that it amounts to torture:
In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.
Greenwald is impassioned. Robert Mackey fills in the details – it’s not torture at all, just solitary, with lots of time for reading. But it is odd.
And in this item Greenwald starts to dig into the legal issues. And he asks a curious question. The New York Times spills secrets. Should it be prosecuted? Will the New York Times be treated differently than Julian Assange?
And Greenwald cites this Times item by Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins where the two “expose very sensitive classified government secrets – and not just routine secrets, but high-level, imminent planning for American covert military action in a foreign country.”
And that’s this:
Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there.
The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.
The plan has not yet been approved, but military and political leaders say a renewed sense of urgency has taken hold, as the deadline approaches for the Obama administration to begin withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan.
America’s clandestine war in Pakistan has for the most part been carried out by armed drones operated by the CIA … But interviews in recent weeks revealed that on at least one occasion, the Afghans went on the offensive and destroyed a militant weapons cache.
The decision to expand American military activity in Pakistan, which would almost certainly have to be approved by President Obama himself, would amount to the opening of a new front in the nine-year-old war, which has grown increasingly unpopular among Americans. … One senior American officer said, “We’ve never been as close as we are now to getting the go-ahead to go across.”
The officials who described the proposal and the intelligence operations declined to be identified by name discussing classified information.
Is that the same sort of thing? Greenwald argues that it is:
Often in debates over the legitimacy of publishing classified information, the one example typically cited as the classic case of where publication of secrets is wrong is “imminent troop movements.” Even many defenders of leaks will concede it is wrong for newspapers to divulge such information. That “troop-movement” example serves the same role as the “screaming-fire-in-a-crowded-theater” example does in free speech debates: it’s the example everyone is supposed to concede illustrates the limits on the liberty in question. While the ground operations in Pakistan revealed by the NYT today don’t quite reach that level – since there is not yet final presidential authorization for it – these revelations by the NYT come quite close to that: “an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas.”
And this is far more aggressive behavior that that of Assange:
Mazzetti and Filkins did not acquire these government secrets by just passively sitting around and having them delivered out of the blue. To the contrary: they interviewed multiple officials both in Washington and in Afghanistan, offered several of them anonymity to induce them to reveal secrets, and even provoked officials to provide detailed accounts of past secret actions in Pakistan, including CIA-directed attacks by Afghans inside that country.
They’re not in jail, nor are those who leaked to them. No one is in solitary. And that’s fine with Greenwald, as he argues that the Times article represents exactly the kind of secret information journalists ought to be revealing:
It’s a pure expression of why the First Amendment guarantees a free press. There are few things more damaging to basic democratic values than having the government conduct or escalate a secret war beyond public debate or even awareness. By exposing these classified plans, Mazzetti and Filkins did exactly what good journalists ought to do – inform the public about important actions taken or being considered by their government which the government is attempting to conceal. …
These kinds of leaks are the only way for the public to learn about the secret wars the Obama administration is conducting and actively hiding from the public.
So, should editors and reporters who just spilled America’s secrets to the world be criminally prosecuted? From the Pentagon Papers to the NSA program and the SWIFT banking program and beyond – that is what the Times does. That’s what journalists do. And Greenwald adds this:
Also, for those of you supportive of the prosecution and oppressive detention of Bradley Manning – should the government do everything possible to discover the identity of the military and government officials who spoke with Mazzetti and Filkins about these plans?
He just asks you to think about that:
On some perverse level, I at least respect the intellectual consistency of those like Joe Lieberman, Rep. Pete King, and multiple Bush officials and followers who not only demand that WikiLeaks and Assange be prosecuted, but also that newspapers who do the same thing also be similarly punished. That view is odious and dangerous, but it’s the only intellectually coherent position. By contrast, those who are cheering while the Obama DOJ tries to imprison Assange – without also demanding that Mazzetti and Filkins occupy a cell next to him (and that their high-level sources be found and punished the way Manning is) – are advocating quite incoherent and unprincipled positions and should ask themselves why that is.
But Michael Lind takes the long view:
Different ideas about the rule of law in the United States and a certain nation in Latin America were explained to me once by a distinguished professor of law from that country. “In your country, the Constitution and the laws are considered to be binding,” he told me with an ironic smile. “In my country, they are considered to be … aspirations.”
Further evidence, if any is needed, that the 21st century U.S. is degenerating into a banana republic can be found from the increasingly casual attitude toward the law that is displayed all across the American political spectrum. Liberals, conservatives and centrists, it seems, all agree that laws are aspirations, not commands. Individuals should be free to selectively disobey laws of which they personally disapprove. What is more, there seems to be a consensus that the American nation as a whole has no obligation to obey the system of international laws that the U.S., more than any other nation, spent much of the 20th century attempting to promote.
And in the matter of Julian Assange, one can see that:
The idea that the law in its majesty is supposed to protect the bad as well as the good apparently is rejected by those who celebrate information vandalism, as long as its victims are the State Department or big banks.
Ah, there is a crime here, information vandalism, whatever that is. But Lind sees a pattern:
When it comes to immigration, many progressives have not been content to argue for a path to legalization on the part of many illegal immigrants. Much of the left has attempted to erase any distinctions between legal and illegal immigration – for example, by denouncing critics of illegal immigrants and the scofflaw businesses that employ them as “anti-immigrant.” To read much of the liberal blogosphere, it would appear that immigrating to the U.S. by following U.S. laws, and immigrating to the U.S. by breaking those same laws, are equally legitimate.
Other progressives claim to oppose illegal immigration, but then denounce any measures to enforce immigration law, from border apprehension to workplace raids. But a law that has no sanctions to punish violators is not a law. It is, as the professor would say, an aspiration.
An equally casual approach to the rule of law is found on the right, among libertarians and conservatives who defend the offshore tax havens that defraud federal, state and local governments of tens of billions of dollars in tax revenue each way. Not even their defenders dispute the fact that these tax havens exist only to facilitate tax avoidance by hedge funds, banks and corporations. According to the Government Accounting Office in 2008, in 2007 Citigroup had 427 offshore subsidiaries, Morgan Stanley 273, JPMorgan 50, and Goldman Sachs 29. The “dark matter” of the “shadow banking system” created by these complex law avoidance schemes contributed to the global financial crisis and today’s prolonged recession. …
If liberals who dislike current immigration law have no objection to seeing it flouted, then why should libertarians who dislike taxes object to tax avoidance and tax evasion?
Lind goes on saying that it seems no one cares about the law any longer – “defenders of lawlessness on the part of individuals or the nation as a whole can make a case for an exception to the rule that laws ought to be obeyed until they are changed.” And they always do:
Yes, the defenders of Julian Assange might say, it is wrong to declassify government documents – but WikiLeaks lets the public know more about decision-making in American foreign policy, and that’s a good thing. Yes, progressives might argue, illegal immigration is undesirable – but illegal immigrants’ violation of US laws is outweighed by the improvement in their lives (to say nothing of the benefits for the Democratic Party if the amnestied law-breakers vote for the Democrats). Yes, say the conservatives and libertarians, tax avoidance in general might be a bad thing – but, on the other hand, the US corporate income tax is too high. Yes, say the foreign policymakers of both parties, we disapprove in principle of torture and extrajudicial murder – but don’t you want us to prevent another 9/11?
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that if too many good reasons are found to justify refusals to obey or enforce too many laws, respect for the system of laws as a whole will erode.
But Greenwald disagrees:
There’s just one little fact missing from Lind’s argument – the identification of any laws which WikiLeaks and Assange supposedly broke. The claim on the Left – at least that I’ve heard – is not that Assange broke the law but shouldn’t be convicted because he is achieving good things. The claim is that what he did isn’t against the law at all, and that there’s no way to distinguish what he did from what investigative journalists do on a daily basis.
If Lind wants to disparage the Left as renouncing the rule of law by defending WikiLeaks despite the “crimes” it’s committing, he ought to at least pretend to identify what these crimes are (“information vandalism” is not a crime, nor is publishing classified information). He doesn’t, and can’t, identify any because there are none. Ironically, Lind is guilty of exactly that which he is condemning -namely, deciding what is and is not a crime based on his likes and dislikes (“information vandalism!”) rather than what the law actually says.
And Greenwald notes that a top aide to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel did explain that Germany just doesn’t view WikiLeaks as a threat at all – it’s just “irritating and annoying.”
That seems the most appropriate and mature response. But everyone tracks everything now and there are no secrets. And that is irritating and annoying. So be as boring as possible – do nothing interesting, say nothing interesting, think nothing interesting. That’s the ticket. And no one will want to kill you, or put you in solitary.
But that’s no way to live.