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WikiLeaks and the ‘Dogs of War’

A quick note on Wikileaks and the ‘World Diplomacy Scandal’.  WikiLeaks release of 250,000 diplomatic cable messages on Sunday, November 28 captures a whole lot of powerful people caught behaving badly. That, however, is not how the story is being spun in many quarters. Indeed, quite the opposite: the ‘dogs of war’ have come out in full force, not over the scandalous behaviour of powerful people acting stupidly as they supposedly carry out public diplomacy on our behalf, but to target the messenger for lethal consequences.  Some members of the bombastic far right of the Canadian political scene have literally advocated that WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, be assassinated.

As University of Calgary Political Science Professor Tom Flanagan, and former senior advisor to Prime Minister Harper’s election and transition teams stated on the CBC’s Power and Politics the other night that “Assange should be assassinated, actually”, while adding a touch of laughter to soften the blow of such powerful language. He “wouldn’t be unhappy” if the WikiLeak’s founder “disappeared,”, Flanagan noted. Not to be outdone, eternal blowhard Ezra Levant delivered much the same message from his perch amidst the QMI stable of media outlets, Karl Peledeau’s Quebecor Media empire. In the Toronto Sun Levant mused approvingly about the assassination of Julian Assange.  I can only wait to hear what this group’s sidekick, the self-anointed ‘military strategist and historian’ David Bercuson has to intone on the matter. Similar sentiment is even more widespread among conservative extremists south of the border. They are in good company with the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, which has blocked access to the site in the country, while denouncing WikiLeaks. The Italian Foreign Minister incredulously states that Wikileaks has unleashed the equivalent of a “diplomatic 9/11″.  This is nuts.

Not all of those weighing in from the lofty heights of state power in the U.S. hold such rabid views, however. There is even a certain amount of levity displayed by the Obama administration, but not much.  Instead, there is a significant crackdown on those who facilitated the leaks and a condemnation of Assange for putting the lives of soldiers and countless individuals in jeopardy.

The U.S. Government has the capacity to eliminate WikiLeaks from cyberspace. That it has not raises fascinating questions about diplomacy in the global digital media age.

The U.S. controls the ‘root domain server’ through ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the ‘global registery’ of all internet sites.  ICANN is a private corporation, but one that was created by the U.S. Department of Commerce and whose continued existence depends on the Department’s periodic renewals.  The U.S. Government does not control ICANN directly, but ICANN serves as a kind of proxy for U.S. Government interests.  ICANN could be ordered to delist Wikileaks, to send it into an electronic blackhole, at the drop of a hat (see M. Mueller, Networks and States, MIT, 2010 regarding these arrangements and capabilities).

That is a risky move, however. In this instance, given the worldwide opprobrium being heaped onWikiLeaks, a decision by the U.S. to use this power in this instance might even be applauded.  However, doing so would further fuel the ‘militarization’ of cyberspace. The same countries likely to condone such an act in this instance would also be given a stark reminder of how the power to control cyberspace is a formidable instrument of State and military power in the 21st century. Such concerns have already driven a concerted and protracted effort by many governments, and the International Telecommunications Union, to dilute the power of ICANN, or in more aggressive ‘realpolitik’ terms, to wrest such unilateral control from the U.S.  The U.S. has steadfastly refused to budge. Others groups also aim to dilute corporate and U.S. State control of ICANN, but do so as part of a much broader advocacy of a more democratic, multi-stakeholder-oriented approach to “internet governance” where freedom of expression, access, and the complex realities of a complicated world are given the highest priority (Kleinwachter; Raboy, Free Press). So far, these efforts have born meager benefits, stone-walled both by U.S. intransigence and by ‘global real-politik’ amongst countries who seek a diminution of U.S. influence only as path to aggrandizing the capacity to project their own sovereign authority over the internet.

Although the U.S. Government has drawn back from the brink of banishing WikiLeaks from cyberspace, its actions are significant, nonetheless. Why has is it refused to go all the way, so to speak?  Is it reasons of ‘realpolitik’ — the threat of further fuelling the militarization of cyberspace — that is holding it back? Or is there buried in this some deference to principles regarding the free flow of information and freedom of expression? Or is something else altogether at play?  I think it is probably a reflection of all three. The most important ‘something altogether’ is the U.S. Government’s use of private businesses as proxies to accomplish some of its aims, while drawing back from a full-scale assault on Wikipedia comparable to, say, the bombing of Al Jazeera’s media offices Kabul or Baghdad in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

In this instance, instead of laser-guided bombs dropped by jet-fighters, it is the giant internet bookseller Amazon that has accepted the role of proxy for the power of the State. Who knew that Amazon didn’t just sell books and a bunch of other merchandise, but also operated one of the world’s largest ‘server farms’, essentially giant digital warehouses that store the collections of websites like WikiLeaks, and many others.  So-called web hosts are surprisingly few and far between; the market is highly concentrated (see Eli Noam, 2009, Media Concentration in America). When Amazon was approached by independent Senator, and chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Joe Liebermam, rather than the Obama Administration formally, with the request to drop WikiLeaks from its servers, it did.  The company, in other words, agreed to tool of the State. Censorship has been privatized.  Far better than assassination, but certainly a chilling part on the continuum of state power.

The use of private proxies is a convenient fiction that the U.S. government periodically invokes to avoid the injunction of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1791) prohibiting Government from making any law that abridge the freedoms of speech, the press, and association.  It is also a strategy that is consistently ruled illegal by U.S. courts.  Subcontractor capitalism may be the ‘new capitalism’, but the State is not allowed to ‘subcontract’ the suppression of citizens’ rights and freedoms to private actors like Amazon. In doing so, it puts a bullet through the heart of the First Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

This is becoming an increasingly common pattern in the ‘regulation of the Internet’. Governments around the world, and not just the U.S., but in Canada, Britain, Europe, Korea, Taiwan, People’s Republic of China, among many others, have expanded the extent to which ‘private business’ are used to project national sovereignty of slices of the Internet, in particular in relation to the enforcement of copyright, standards regarding adult-oriented and pornographic material, and electronic surveillance for national security purposes. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), in particular, have become the major locus of such activities, sometimes justifiably (i.e. in relation to the notice and take-down of child pornography), often times in circumspect ways. Now such actions have been extended to taking down a dissident voice that dared to show not just that the ‘emperor has no clothes’, but that international diplomacy (and the business negotiations that interact with it) appears to be run more by a tawdry group of spoilt fratboys and drama-queens.

The yoke between network media and national security was tightened greatly by the Bush Administration’s secret “Terrorist Surveillance Program”, which was disclosed to the public in a series of articles by the New York Times at the end of 2005.  The program involved the systematic electronic surveillance of the communications of US and foreign citizens’ telephone, Internet and other communications. The program was initiated by the National Security Agency and operated with the compliance of all the major US telecoms companies — ATT, Verizon, Sprint, etc. (except, probably, Quest). The program was denounced in 2006 by the Federal Court, District of Michigan, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, as a travesty in which the Bush Administration acted completely outside the boundaries of the law and the US constitution. Within six months, however, the U.S. Congress duly passed a new law making what had been illegal legal, and granting the telecom carriers immunity from prosecution.

Amazon now takes up its place in this long and dubious line. Moreover, it is doing so for an event that is emphatically not a ‘diplomatic 9/11′ or ‘Pentagon Papers’ situation, but rather an amazing demonstration of just how stupid people who are suppose to lead can be. For Canadians, the sight of Jim Judd, the head of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) until 2009 pandering to American officials about Canadian citizens as having “moral paroxysms” and prone to “knee-jerk anti-Americanism” over Gitmo, torture and so forth, surely indicates how connected he and others like him are to the real people who make up this country. He is part of a broader clothe of what I am calling the ‘dogs of war’; and they are scoundrels.

There are other instances in which WikiLeaks has played a more important role in the past year. Indeed, the latest ‘dump’ is just that, a dump of miscellaneous examples of poor behaviour and bad judgment in comparison to the far more significant releases that it put forward on three other occasions earlier this year related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the infamous “collateral murder” video of two Reuters journalists killed by American soldiers (Google the “collateral murder” video distributed by WikiLeaks, and now on YouTube). The two journalists, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen were among twelve people killed in a suburb of Baghdad in July 2007 when soldiers in an Apache helicopter hovering overhead opened fire. Watching the video, and from the soldier’s perspective, it is plausible that the soldiers could have had legitimate ambiguities about whether the people they were stalking were packing RPGs and AKs, as the narrative accompanying the video constantly states.

Even so, the video demonstrates a more reprehensible portrait of soldiers jacked up on testosterone and a mission where human life appears to be worth precious little.  The global news agency Reuters, which Canadians might now be interested to know, if they don’t already, is now owned by the Thomson information and newspaper powerhouse (Globe & Mail), and to its credit the news agency sought access to the video footage through the Freedom of Information Act in the United States. Nothing came of such efforts. The graphic footage only became available when Wikileaks released the material in April, 2010. Level-headed groups like Reporters Sans Frontiers have either denounced the actions or called for much more forthright inquiry into the killing of these journalists, as well as others in the Afghan and Iraq Wars.

The spaces of war and the space of media have converged in the 21st century. In fact, this is recognized in the new doctrine of information warfare adopted by the United States Department of Defense in 2003, where cyberspace is made into the fifth realm of ‘total military dominance’, alongside the traditional areas of land, sea, air and space. At a time when war proceeds with no definitive bound in time or space, outlets like WikiLeaks are essential members of an expanded ‘digital fourth estate’.  They are also inevitable in this age of co-operative news and commentary production.  The reaction to WikiLeaks by the ‘dogs of war’ in Canada and other places around the world is a travesty, a real disgrace.  It is not just a threat to the life of Julian Assange and the free flow of information that is at stake, but the rights of us all to know and to live in a decent world.

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