Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaks: It's people vs. governments

If the arrest of WikiLeak's Julian Assange highlights the essential wickedness of governments, two related developments reassure us about the essential goodness of human beings. First, WikiLeaks will continue regardless. Secondly, there is a groundswell of public opinion in support of Assange. Never was the adversarial relationship between people and governments more sharply exposed.

Let us not forget that WikiLeaks did not reveal any classified information about national security like, say, America's strategic nuclear secrets. What it disclosed was the hypocrisy behind America's operations in Iraq/Afghanistan and the double-speak character of its diplomatic posturings. These embarrassed government leaders – mostly at a personal level. The enraged egoists of the US establishment turned vengeful against the messenger.

The establishment betrayed its own value system in the process. Official documents were leaked not by foreign spies or saboteurs or thieves, but by Americans brought up on the tradition of freedom, equality and human virtues. Some of them were outraged by the cruelties of American policies and the sadism of field troops. The man arrested for some critical leaks, Bradley Manning, said his motivation was the conviction that information must be free and available to the public.

Manning had hit the headlines even earlier. A soldier assigned to Iraq, he had come across US soldiers on a helicopter in Baghdad shooting a bunch of civilians dead. They did it for fun. The video of this savagery became public because a shocked Manning got it released. In jail since May, Manning, who is only 23, is a folk hero. There is a Bradley Manning Support Network (with the motto, “Exposing war crimes is not a crime”), a Bradley Manning Defence Fund, a vigorous internet campaign and public rallies demanding his release.

Another conscience-stricken whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, had leaked the Pentagon papers in the 1970s, official documents that revealed how the White House was lying about the Vietnam war. He had worked with the Government in Washington and in Vietnam and was privy to the goings-on. He too was arrested and tried but he was let off when illegal activities by the Government to trap him came to light.

Julian Assange will meet the same tribulations the earlier crusaders for truth faced. But he too has strong public support. Britain's most celebrated human rights lawyer cut short his holiday in Australia and rushed home to voluntarily assist Assange in his fight against extradition to Sweden. Wellknown public figures have grouped together to stand guarantee for him in his bail pleas. Credit card companies that barred donations to WikiLeaks were hacked by angry donors. Clearly WikiLeak's disclosures were appreciated by people in many countries as earnestly as governments disliked them.

It is a pity that democratic leaders who fight for human rights go into revenge mode when citizens ask them to correct their own record. There is in fact a streak of viciousness in the way the US authorities pursue its whistleblowers. The infamous break-in mafia in Richard Nixon's White House hatched an “Ellsberg neutralisation plan” meant to lace his food so that he would appear like a hopeless drug addict. Bradley Manning is projected as a homosexual with serious psychological problems. Julian Assange is arrested on charges of sexual misconduct. Ironically, the charges are filed by Sweden, a no-holds-barred culture where there is no such thing as misconduct in the area of sex. Call a man a dog before you hang him.

In this case, even when you hang them, they don't die. An Ellsberg may escape jail, a Manning may languish there. But the bid by sinners to hide their sins will never succeed. Even if Assange is taken away by a vindictive America, new forces will come up daring to reveal the secrets of those who should not have secrets. That reality applies to America, to Spectrum Raja, to the Tatas and to celebrity journalists. That's why we will have more WikiLeaks and more Niira Radia tapes. And so be it.