When lives are at stake and governments choose to guard our ignorance

Gary Anderson, a retired US Marine colonel, says that Julian Assange is an enemy combatant and is “as much an enemy to the United States as any Al Qaeda operative.”

Not long ago an Esquire headline writer posed the question: “Should we execute Julian Assange?” “We” being the national American vigilante?

“Lives are at risk” is one of those fire-alarm imperatives that drains blood from the brain. It sets arms and legs and vocal chords in motion, fixes the mind on red-light conclusions and turns quiet deliberation into an unaffordable luxury.

A few years ago in Reader’s Digest, Michael Crowley rang the same alarm bell when he demanded that life-threatening websites like Cryptome (a sibbling of WikiLeaks) be shutdown.

To understand what nuts and zealots can do with this sort of information [available through sites like Cryptome], recall what happened in the early 1990s when three abortion doctors were killed after pro-life extremists created “wanted” posters displaying the physicians’ names and photographs. A few years later, a website showed pictures of other abortion doctors, and listed the murdered ones with their names crossed out. Eventually the site’s Web server shut it down.

Having been an outlet for State Department and CIA propaganda in the 1940s and 50s, Reader’s Digest was already on shaky ground positioning itself as a champion of public interest, but it was the Department of Justice which revealed that on occasions Reader’s Digest itself had been a source of dangerous information.

A 1997 DoJ report on the availability of bombmaking information made it evident that the necessary know-how was not hard to come by.

Stories of crimes contained in popular literature and magazines also constitute a rich source of bombmaking information. For example, the August 1993 edition of Reader’s Digest contains an account of efforts by law enforcement officers to track down the killer of United States Court of Appeals Judge Robert S. Vance and attorney Robert Robinson. That article contained a detailed description of the explosive devices used by the bomber in committing the murders, including such information as the size of the pipe bombs, how the bombs were constructed, and what type of smokeless powder was used in their construction. According to the Arson and Explosives Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in a bombing case originating in Topeka, Kansas, the devices were patterned after the bomb used to kill Judge Vance. Upon questioning, the suspect admitted to investigators that he constructed the bomb based on information contained in the Reader’s Digest article.

As Daniel Ellsberg notes, in its efforts to clamp down on embarrassing leaks, the government’s first recourse is invariably to declare that “lives are at stake”

That’s a script that they roll out — every administration rolls out — every time there’s a leak of any sort. The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually lives are at stake as a result of silence and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal.

In the latest revelations from WikiLeaks, the dangers of secrecy are no more clearly evident than in what we now learn about the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles — an issue we have previously been repeatedly assured poses no immediate risk. Secretly, we now learn, America’s leading diplomats in Pakistan did not share the confidence that the administration wanted to instill among Americans whose ignorance it preferred to guard.

Less than a month after President Obama testily assured reporters in 2009 that Pakistan’s nuclear materials “will remain out of militant hands,” his ambassador here sent a secret message to Washington suggesting that she remained deeply worried.

The ambassador’s concern was a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, sitting for years near an aging research nuclear reactor in Pakistan. There was enough to build several “dirty bombs” or, in skilled hands, possibly enough for an actual nuclear bomb.

In the cable, dated May 27, 2009, the ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, reported that the Pakistani government was yet again dragging its feet on an agreement reached two years earlier to have the United States remove the material.

She wrote to senior American officials that the Pakistani government had concluded that “the ‘sensational’ international and local media coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons made it impossible to proceed at this time.” A senior Pakistani official, she said, warned that if word leaked out that Americans were helping remove the fuel, the local press would certainly “portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

The fuel is still there.

It may be the most unnerving evidence of the complex relationship — sometimes cooperative, often confrontational, always wary — between America and Pakistan nearly 10 years into the American-led war in Afghanistan. The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organizations, make it clear that underneath public reassurances lie deep clashes over strategic goals on issues like Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and tolerance of Al Qaeda, and Washington’s warmer relations with India, Pakistan’s archenemy.

The issue here, however, is more complex than transparency vs secrecy. While the dangers posed by nuclear stockpiles in Pakistan — and for that matter anywhere else — should concern everyone, the overbearing relationship between the US and a client state which it has turned into a theater for remote war, has fed popular and well-founded suspicion about the intentions of the US government. Pakistanis widely believe that the United States is intent on stealing the Islamic republic’s nuclear crown jewels. Those suspicions will now be further compounded as Pakistan’s government struggles to placate competing international and domestic fears.

If transparency is the buzzword of this political moment, maybe it should be seen as a signal that a larger issue is in desperate need of remedying — an issue that WikiLeaks cannot address: that the need for transparency is symptomatic of a global deficit in trust.

We have repeatedly been given reason to expect that government leaders, corporations and other powerful institutions cannot be trusted. WikiLeaks now fuels that mistrust and those who feel threatened can either shrink behind the barricades of secrecy or acknowledge that they must address the monumental task of building confidence in the fragile idea of public service.

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5 thoughts on “When lives are at stake and governments choose to guard our ignorance

  1. Vince J

    Today’s DemocracyNow has an excellent interview with Scott Horton. It showa what kind of criminals, war criminals, liers, tortures, murderes, terrorists and crooks US officials really are!


  2. Vince J

    If you read spanish, take a look at ‘El Pais’!!!! The ugly criminal face of the US is everywhere for everyone to see!
    Pity you don’t have a serious media in your country…

  3. Norman

    Isn’t this the result of lying to the citizens, using propaganda which they believe is the truth? The result of using 20th Century tactics in the 21st Century. It’s one thing to be the Worlds only Superpower, but quite another to abuse that power. For all those who sycophant the Government position on this & every other abusive tactic, you’re wrong in condemning the whistle blower, for as you do, then you expose the fact that you have been brain washed to go along with the story. This is not Patriotic attitude, it’s stupidity of the moment. With the release of the E-mails, the public’s right to know has been given the light of day. Whether or not there is an uproar for change, remains to be seen. But one thing is quite clear, the people of the United States have been taken for a ride, as the Government/Military/Industrial complex have taken advantage to such an extreme, that unless the citizens start yelling for change, it may become too late. Personally, I don’t like to be thought of as a stupid fool by those in power, and neither should the American public as a whole.

  4. Vince J

    Meanwhile the war criminals behind the US’s official Torture program are still free, writing books, giving TV prime time interviews and lectures… such is the state of decadence.
    Responding to the war criminal Hillary Clinton’s absurd allegations, Assange suggested she should resign. I agree…

  5. Rick

    The latest wikileaks release served as a National Security test
    of Americans’ Info-War literacy. We failed.

    Although depressing, that should not be a surprise, since the most
    recent (2003) National Assessment of Adult Literacy — conducted
    by the National Center for Educational Staistics found
    that only 31% of college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree were
    “proficient” in “Prose Literacy”, defined as the ability to
    “comprehend, and use information from continuous texts, such as paragraphs”.
    [ http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_386.asp ]

    Or defined as the ability to comprehend the significance of
    a Wikileaks cable. And when “value-neutral facts” are evaluated
    in an emotionally-charged context of ideological spin,
    Americans’ Info-War proficiency plummets to new depths.

    Since few Americans can read and comprehend a text — unless
    it follows a simplistic “Conflict Format” involving
    2 opposing sides — that’s how I’ve structured this text.

    In “Our” corner, we have the American military, as represented
    on the “Small Wars Journal” site. This SWJ post gets an “A” grade:

    In it, Col. David Maxwell highlights comments of Defense Secretary
    Robert Gates. Gates contrasted the current wikileaks with …
    “the Pentagon Papers [which] showed that many in the government were
    not only lying to the American people, they were lying to themselves.”

    (So far, the primary exception to this “lying to themselves” verbot
    I’ve found is the cable from the U.S. ambassador in Israel,
    which falsifies the circumstances of Israel’s 12/08 attack on Gaza.)

    But this “Small Wars Journal” post gets an “F” grade:

    Paul Woodward’s criticism of Col. Gary Anderson’s suggestion
    (to detain Julian Assange as an Enemy Combatant), is mild
    compared to some of the Comments in that thread on SWJ.

    Next, in “Their” corner, we have Julian Assange and Wikileaks,
    in their own words. Mr. Assange gets an “A” grade for his
    Time Magazine interview, in which he sketched fairly deep
    and nuanced understandings of the power of newly “leaked” Info
    in China vs. the USA, and how that’s a function of the relation
    between Political vs. Economic power structures, and the
    skills of an “info-mediating class” to analyze and package
    information for “consumption” by clueless, knee-jerk masses.

    Unfortunately, “Cablegate.Wikileaks.Org” gets an “F” grade
    for its front-page assertion that:

    “Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington — the
    country’s first President — could not tell a lie. If the
    administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle … ”

    Granted, childishly-simplistic “Founders’ Myths” like the above provide
    major structural support for many Americans’ ideological worldviews.
    But is Wikileaks’ blatant attempt to manipulate those people, really
    any more ethical than propaganda about Saddam’s non-existent WMD?
    (“2 wrongs don’t make a right; 2 lies don’t make a truth.”)

    Instead, “Cablegate.Wikileaks.Org” should have begun *educating*
    those people, by pointing them to the CIA’s “Kids’ Page” —
    which describes how George Washington became the nation’s
    first Spymaster, and how Benjamin Franklin distributed propaganda:

    Tom Engelhardt has earned my respect. But he got it wrong, in
    his “United States of Fear” article. It’s not physical safety
    that’s important to Americans (else we’d fight the “corporate terrorists”
    who poison our air, food, water, medicines, and financial assets.)

    What Americans need is the safety of their cherished *illusions* —
    the illusions of Control, and of ethical Righteousness via our
    alleged “Freedom” of Economic Markets and Political Democracy
    (both long ago captured by corporate powers).

    We will pay any price, bear any burden, cause any collateral damage,
    to preserve our cherished psychological illusions.

    Sadly, Gary Sick is right:
    [ http://garysick.tumblr.com/post/1186823450/he-came-he-saw-he-prevaricated ]
    Those like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sarah Palin — who wield
    their Info-War powers to project their “alternative universes”
    onto willing “fantasy subscribers” — are the majority.

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