Wikileaks and the Moral Dualism of the U.S. State Department

Posted on December 18, 2010 by


[This is the second in a series of three articles I am writing about Wikileaks. The first was “The Wikileaks Revolution” that led to a parallel article published in CounterPunch. The third one will focus on anthropology and secrecy. Before going any further, I must say that an article by a sociologist at the University of Strathclyde, Roy Revie’s “Wikileaks and 21st Century Statecraft” at PULSE, is probably a far superior version of what I originally planned to write here, and I warmly recommend that article. It also allows me to write about something related, but in greater depth than planned.]

Here I am going to focus more on the history of a promise–it will not be obvious, but this leads to my next essay, dealing with Wikileaks and the anthropology of secrecy. I thus want to look at variations of that promise, first made to a domestic audience, then translated for an international audience. If you read Revie’s article, you might wonder if any of what follows is “real”: could such things really have been said? Why say them, if you do not mean them? What is the point of a promise? Does legitimacy not require a solid foundation in credibility? How do you build a following if you cannot make people believe? How do you sustain belief, when your actions do not live up to your promises? These are serious questions, I think, that reflect how moral judgments about “hypocrisy” not only are a central feature of the current U.S. conflict with Wikileaks, as they ought to be. They are fundamentally political questions as well, that concern accountability. If you do not take your own principles, values, and laws seriously, then why should anyone else? Clearly, you cannot be trusted. A regime that banishes truth, shuts down accountability, and ignores its own laws, is a regime that invites anything but peace.

Phase 1. The Government Is Open: No Further Discussion on the Matter Is Allowed

Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama declared on the White House website, on a page devoted to “Transparency and Open Government,” that his,

“Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Obama then clearly stated, in a section headed by “Government should be transparent,” that, “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”

This was not a once-off statement, an accident. It was repeated. On 20 January 2009, on the White House blog, his administration stated, in a section titled “Transparency”: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.” (Unlike the blog of Iranian President Ahamdinejad, the White House blog is closed to comments—and I would have linked to Ahmadinejad’s, except American hackers believe you should not be allowed to see his blog.)

What “transparency” there has been comes in the form of a massive deluge of data that should always be publicly accessible—being about the public itself, and hardly about Obama’s government. Moreover, it is data in such quantity, unsorted and out of context, that no one except one dedicated computer scientist has been able to make much use of, and it proves to be pretty banal stuff.

When it comes to Freedom of Information Access requests, one year into his presidency, with its promise of greater government transparency, “the Obama administration is more often citing exceptions to the nation’s open records law to withhold federal records even as the number of requests for information declines” (source). Major government agencies cited an executive exemption from FOIA at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year (source)—the most transparent government in American history is in fact more secretive than Bush’s. Indeed, as AP reported, “the administration has stalled even over records about its own efforts to be more transparent” (source).

Others have also noted that Obama’s first broken promise was that of allowing Americans five days to view legislation before he signed it. Yet, Obama and his staff continued to repeat: most open government in history, transparent, accountable.

Having provoked a situation where whistle-blowing becomes the public’s only defense mechanism, it is important to note that the government of “unprecedented transparency,” is transparently engaged in an unprecedented level of attacks against whistle-blowers, far worse than under George W. Bush. As the New York Times observed: “President Obama has already outdone every previous president in pursuing leak prosecutions.” Under George W. Bush, no one was convicted for leaks to the press.

Glenn Greenwald is right to observe—and an observation is all that it is:

“Most of what our Government does of any real significance happens in the dark. Whistleblowers are one of the very few avenues we have left for learning about any of that. And politicians eager to preserve their own power and ability to operate in secret — such as Barack Obama — see whistleblowers as their Top Enemy.”

Greenwald refers to John Cole’s critical observations here about how Obama has treated torturers, and those covering up torture (“let’s move forward”), versus his treatment of whistle-blowers (jail them now!), and he wonders,

“perhaps if these whistleblowers had tortured some people and illegally eavesdropped on others, they would receive the immunity that Obama has so magnanimously and selectively granted. Instead, they merely exposed secret government corruption and illegality to the world, and thus must be punished.”

“Working within the system” has clearly been cut off, as those who lodge complaints are routinely ignored, especially when it concerns illegal acts of torture and other extreme forms of wrong-doing. Think of the case of Thomas A. Drake, a veteran intelligence bureaucrat, who was concerned about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying and its waste of millions of dollars and “took his concerns everywhere inside the secret world: to his bosses, to the agency’s inspector general, to the Defense Department’s inspector general and to the Congressional intelligence committees. But he felt his message was not getting through.” He contacted the press, and now faces years in prison.

The Change You Can Believe In Is Change for the Worse

Whistleblowers May Have a Friend in the Oval Office,” wrote Joe Davidson of the Washington Post back in December of 2008. Davidson claimed, “Whistleblowers in the federal government and those who work to protect them see a longtime friend in the next president.” He quoted—and this is even more striking–Adam Miles, the legislative representative for the Government Accountability Project, “a public interest group that bills itself as the nation’s leading whistleblower organization,” who said:

Attorney Obama and Senator Obama and candidate Obama and President-elect Obama have all supported whistleblower rights.”

After all, on the very website of the “Obama-Biden Transition Team” (change.gov), under “Ethics” (the ironies just keep piling up) we read sections titled, “Bring Americans Back into their Government,” and “Make White House Communications Public” –and this one: “Protect Whistleblowers”:

“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.”

Of course whistle-blowers would end up having full access to courts—it would be Obama prosecuting them and placing them in court.

This is not just about whistle-blowers, but about how the Obama regime handles information in general, always opting for public spectacle, spin, stage managing, orchestration, and tight control. Even the relatively docile and pliant mainstream media sometimes erupts in outbursts of indignation and disbelief. Helen Thomas, always an exception to the placid herd (and she has been made to pay the price for that, hasn’t she) complained to Obama’s press secretary about how his office tries to control the press: “Nixon didn’t try to do that. They couldn’t control (the media). They didn’t try. What the hell do they think we are, puppets?” At one point, Obama went almost a year without a press conference. Obama’s crisis management in the months-long BP oil spill disaster led off with attempts to prevent criticism (source).

What a striking contrast between this behaviour and what we hear from John F. Kennedy below (thanks to Guanaguanare for drawing my attention to this):

Kennedy: “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”

And guess who quoted Kennedy with approval? (Hint: the answer is not “Barack Obama.”) Click here for the answer.

Phase 2. The Open Government Preaches Internet Freedom

Just a few months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the person who might have been President, the “change” that you supposedly missed), denounced “intolerant governments” across the globe that are “slowly crushing” activist and advocacy groups that “play an essential role in the development of democracy.” And then she noted:

Some of the countries engaging in these behaviors still claim to be democracies. Democracies don’t fear their own people.”

Hillary Clinton also had enthusiastic praise for the work of young, technologically-enabled activists, presumably the kind feared by those countries that falsely claim to be democracies—America is on the side of the activists, have no fear:

“You are the vanguard of a rising generation of citizen activists who are using the latest technological tools to catalyze change, build movements, and transform lives. And I hope this conference provides an opportunity for you to learn from each other and discover tools and techniques that will open new doors for activism and empowerment when you return home….I can’t wait to see what all of you do next” (source).

Collateral Murder. The Afghan War Diary. The Iraq War Logs. Cablegate. And a million other documents. That’s what some did next. Still like it?

A little further back in time, this past February, Hillary Clinton came out resolutely against anyone that blocks the free flow of information:

Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society.” (source)

One person was really impressed: James Lewis, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Technology and Public Policy Program, heaped praise on Clinton: “This was really an important speech. It was the first time the U.S. has ever publicly taken someone to task for doing something bad on the Internet and did it at a senior level. That’s an incredible step forward because we need to tell people there are limits, ‘You’ve got to back off’.”

Before then, back in January, Hillary Clinton decided she would perform as the world’s anti-censorship leader, in light of Google’s response to an alleged Chinese cyber attack. In a speech she stated:

Internet freedom is not just about freedom of expression, but about what kind of world we live in.”

Also in January of 2010, in her now (in)famous “Remarks on Internet Freedom” delivered at the Newseum, Hillary Clinton made these amazingly Wikileakish statements:


“Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world….

“As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.

“Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.

And censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand. I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

“…we are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right.”

Going back further to November of 2009, Clinton announced:

The United States is a strong supporter of civil society around the world. Civil society activists and organizations work to improve the quality of people’s lives and protect their rights, hold leaders accountable to their constituents, shine light on abuses in both the public and private sectors, and advance the rule of law and social justice. They are key partners for progress.”

In the same month, Barack Obama himself criticized “internet censorship” at a public meeting in Shanghai with students. He told those 400 students:

I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves.”

He then described himself as “a big supporter of non-censorship” and said criticism made him a better president. Truly amazing…this is like reading quotes from an alternate universe, where Obama is not the deeply sinister and scheming political player that we know.

Phase 3. Enter Wikileaks, Exit Internet Freedom

Secretary Clinton Delivers Remarks to the Press on the Release of Confidential Documents

In front of a world wide viewership, Wikileaks becomes the touchstone of American democracy, putting its standards to the test, watching those standards betrayed. Wikileaks is a mirror, held up to the face of American diplomacy. The U.S. Government, and its truth claims, now becomes the butt of continuous mockery, lampooned and parodied worldwide—here, watch Joe Biden arguing with Joe Biden, having his own Donald Rumsfeld “Yes/No WMDs” moment; here, watch the Fake P.J. Crowley (State Department spokesman), and compare him to the “real” P.J. Crowley, and ask yourself: which one is more credible?

Those “human rights activists” supposedly courted in secret by the State Department, are damaged not by the release of the diplomatic cables, but by an absurd association that renders them shady. Indeed, any human rights activist, and anyone concerned about the safety of journalists, cannot possibly watch this, and claim to have the right partner in the State Department—unless they just are not paying attention, or were never meant to be taken seriously. The outright loss of any credibility is extremely costly for any political maneuver. After thinking it was developing a pool of “smart power” resources, Clinton now stands in front of the camera grim, sour, haggard, hard, the face of authoritarianism finally revealed like poison coming to the surface.

What does “damage control” look like at the State Department, now lacking a backstage for its image management? Why, it’s more of the same. Let’s all pretend that nothing just happened here. We read from P.J. Crowley, thinking he can out-Twitter Wikileaks:

No country believes in press freedom more than the United States. We practice what we preach. #WPFD
11:29 AM Dec 9th via web

[And yet: “Lieberman Introduces Anti-WikiLeaks Legislation”: “Senator Joseph Lieberman and other lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime for anyone to publish the name of a U.S. intelligence source, in a direct swipe at the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks.” And here is Reporters Sans Frontières, which the State Department was previously happy to cite when it criticized Wikileaks: “This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.” Who else? Pravda’s legal editor had this to say about current U.S. discussion about revising its 1917 Espionage Act so as to provide legal cover for abducting and bludgeoning Wikileaks: “The ironic thing about these so-called ‘espionage’ acts is that they actually invert the concepts of crime and punishment….with the ‘espionage’ acts, the criminals themselves have actually created laws to conceal their crimes, and exploit these laws to penalize people who expose them.”]

While Julian Assange places journalists in authoritarian societies at risk through the release of cables, we are protecting them.
11:27 AM Dec 9th via web

[Missed it before…then look again at how the U.S. protects journalists, and watch this.]

U.S. looks forward to hosting World Press Freedom Day. We welcome the discussion about media in the 21st Century http://go.usa.gov/1yw #WPFD.
11:26 AM Dec 9th via web

[Do they also welcome irony? See “State Department Touts ‘World Press Freedom Day,’ Internet Calls Irony.”]

In a press statement from P.J. Crowley—now, even a mediocre spokesperson would know when the smart thing to do is to just shut up and hope people forget you—the U.S. hosting “World Press Freedom Day” was touted as if nothing had just happened:

“…we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.”

Meanwhile, on the State Department’s Facebook page, “Only comments that comply with the U.S. Department of State on Facebook TOU will be approved for posting.”

Reasonable individuals have balked at the egregious hypocrisy on display, where the U.S. effectively is left arguing, “Internet Freedom is good…for the citizens of our enemy states, not our own.” One example of how some have tried to remedy the borderline personality disorder that is U.S. policy is witnessed in the writing of Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution (thanks to Opinio Juris for this lead):

“If Congress can make such a demand on Assange, the U.S. would be in a bad position to object if the Congress of People’s Deputies made a similar demand on the Washington Post. I actively want more Chinese secrets revealed against the will of the Chinese government. Indeed, were Wikileaks spending more of its time undermining authoritarianism and less of its time undermining democracies, I might admire it. And I would find outrageous efforts by foreign governments to require American news outlets to keep their secrets for them. I’m not against double standards in all circumstances, so it’s possible that the right answer here is hypocrisy: Doing what we need to do and objecting when other countries do the same. But I agree…that the situation would be very awkward.”

One expects someone to shout: “Don’t impose any false equivalence on U.S. actions!” No, no “false equivalence,” just absolutist hypocrisy, otherwise known as “American exceptionalism.” What others do is wrong, except when America does it—then America is right, and the others are still wrong.

From this vantage point, Wikileaks has given us an anthropological gift. It has shown all of us that underpinning the state’s claims to moral universalism is a particularist commitment that sits easily with moral turpitude. Wikileaks thus reveals that China and Iran are unexceptional, that the only universal here is the aggression of state power mounted against its enemies. State power expresses itself ideologically as moral dualism.