Julian Assange's manifesto decrying the "conspiratorial power" of the United States was unearthed months ago. But despite the revelations therein, the debate over WikiLeaks keeps getting boiled down to transparency versus secrecy — with the assumption that Assange is on the side of the former.
Transparency and freedom of information, defenders argue, is critical to making our democracy function, bringing state secrets to light to prevent the exploitation of the public’s ignorance. Here's Michael Moore explaining his $20,000 donation to help bail out Assange:
We were taken to war in Iraq on a lie. Hundreds of thousands are now dead. Just imagine if the men who planned this war crime back in 2002 had had a WikiLeaks to deal with. They might not have been able to pull it off. The only reason they thought they could get away with it was because they had a guaranteed cloak of secrecy. That guarantee has now been ripped from them, and I hope they are never able to operate in secret again.
But a close reading of Assange’s manifesto suggests his mission isn’t preventing the government from operating in secret, it’s to prevent it from operating at all, at least in its current form. Assange isn't trying to unravel the veil of secrecy for the sake of openness itself. He wants to set in motion a chain of events that will chip away at America's "authoritarian regime." And in ways large and small, including some which he probably never predicted, it's starting to work.
READING THE MANIFESTO
Julian Assange’s mission statement has been broken down in recent weeks, particularly by Aaron Bady, a grad-school student the Atlantic dubbed, “The Unknown Blogger Who Changed WikiLeaks Coverage.”
It was Bady who helped redirect the media attention toward the reason why the cables were being leaked, rather than the content of the leaks alone. After all, this latest trove concerns the petty grumblings of diplomats, "the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance." By Assange's definition, those secrets are what define a conspiracy. Assange writes that WikiLeaks’s activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” the kind of clarity that comes with toppling the status quo.
CHOKE THE BUREAUCRACY
Assange's mission statement is actually two interrelated essays. The first is titled "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" and the second — sort of a director's cut, extended edition — is called "Conspiracy As Governance." There is some mention, in the second essay, that cutting off the conspirators leaves room to replace "bad governance with something better," but it's almost tacked on as an afterthought. Assange's concern is undermining the conspiracy itself.
In both essays, Assange uses the metaphor of nails being hammered into a board, connected by twine, to illustrate how conspiracies work within an authoritarian regime. "Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment)," wrote Assange, "pass it around the conspirators and then act on the result." The goal in leaking secrets is to sever the twine, making authoritarian regimes even more secretive and impeding their ability to function.
Nails and twine not making sense to you? Bady explains it using The Wire:
Remember Stringer Bell’s “is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?” To function effectively, the primary authority has to be disassociated from all other members of the conspiracy, layers of mediation which have to be as opaque as possible to everyone concerned (which a paper trail unhelpfully clarifies). But while the complexity of these linkages shield the directing authority from exposure, they also limit Avon Barksdale’s ability to control what’s going on around him. Businesses run on their paperwork! And the more walls you build around him, the less he might be able to trust his lieutenants, and the less they’ll require (or tolerate) him.
We can already see the seeds of Assange's plan starting to take root on the margins. The military has banned the use of flash drives, DVDs, and CDs, because removable media is reportedly what Bradley Manning used. The Pentagon's networks are thus a bit more secure. But there's a reason just about everyone uses removable media: It's easy and efficient. So the policy change has made life more difficult for the military. (In Wire terms, it's like hiring a guy to spend his whole day buying burners because the pay phones are tapped.) Snip, snip, snip go the twines.
PROVOKE AN OVERREACTION
Glenn Greenwald prefers the Osama bin Laden analogy, likening Assange's intent to bin Laden's plan to provoke the U.S. into self-harm.
"These kinds of disclosures will end up subverting American imperial power, as [Assange] sees it ... It will drive government and the Pentagon, and the military industrial complex, into further degrees of secrecy which will essentially paralyze it and make less effective and more corrupt, and that will cause it further to collapse in on itself precisely because openness is such an effective attribute of large organizations."
Provoking a stronger enemy into an overreaction is a classic strategy for insurgents, and it's not hard to see how some of the U.S. reactions to WikiLeaks have not been in the nation's best interest. Pressuring private companies to cut off websites the government doesn't like, especially without due process, will make it pretty hard for the U.S. to maintain the high ground with authoritarian governments like China or Iran. And prosecuting Assange will set a dangerous precedent that could land just about any newspaper or media outlet in the crosshairs next time, dangerously undermining the First Amendment.
RALLY THE RESISTANCE
In addition to cutting off a conspiracy's ability to function, exposing secrets tends to inspire rebel forces. As Assange wrote:
Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance.
Maybe Assange, who has longstanding ties to the hacker underground, knew that a group like Anonymous would rise up to wreak havoc on companies like MasterCard that cut off WikiLeaks donations. Maybe he didn't. But either way, the hactivist uprising has become potentially the biggest game-changer. And it's worth noting that it wasn't just the leaks themselves that mobilized the resistance, it was the government's clampdown.
And regardless of the outcome in the sex charges against Assange in Sweden, it's not difficult to see how easy it would be for his supporters to cast him as a martyr, inspiring those who have always suspected that the U.S. was more like an authoritarian regime than a democracy (*cough* Michael Moore *cough*), into further resistance.