Thursday, December 09, 2010

Wikileaks: Assange has been maneuvered into being a US press agent

On the wikileaks matter I’m primarily guided, I think, by a sense in following the Middle East for a while that the New York Times especially and Western news organizations generally are not trustworthy sources for information about the Middle East or about US relations with the global South. For me, given my interests, this is completely and obviously clear. For Assange, with a different set of interests, this may not be as clear or as important.

So having the New York Times lead Western news organizations in releasing 250,000 documents strikes me as only superficially different from having the US government do it itself. There is no reason to expect Assange to agree with me on this, but if he followed the Middle East as closely as I do, and was impartial or objective, he’d probably reach that conclusion himself.

Now the US did not release these cables on purpose. I disagree with people who think segments of US intelligence released these cables. There are a lot easier ways to prevent war with Iran than this. And in fact, the parties of the US government that do not want war are doing a very effective job preventing it right now and have been since 2006 at the very latest.

But once the cables were released, I’m sure at least one team in the US government was assigned to minimize the damage. And in this case, much more than previous cases, this team has done an excellent job. One reason is likely that the US government or at least those given this job, like me but unlike Assange maybe until now, understood that the New York Times can be, for the most part, trusted by the US to minimize any damage to US foreign policy objectives.

How it works is that Assange has been convinced that cables cannot be released unedited, and he does not have the resources to edit them himself. Assange, for his own reasons seems to have tried to avoid the Times, giving the cables to foreign (but very friendly – Britain, Germany and Spain) press.

The US state department seems to have through steps convinced Guardian that it is not legally safe to release the cables without following the lead of … the New York Times.

And what we have now is a New York Times-led process. The arguments that convinced Guardian to follow the NY Time’s lead were at least attempted in the cases of the other papers. It isn’t clear to what degree of success, except that all of the organizations have agreed to coordinate with each other with this slow release process.

Here is my issue. If the New York Times says it looked through 250,000 cables and found 100 that say Saudi Arabia wants the US to bomb Iran, I believe them. I don’t have to read the cables. I'm also completely unimpressed. The story still may or may not be true. It isn’t even fair to ask any independent party to refute that story looking only at the cables the Times released and not the 250,000 the Times looked at and did not release.

When will an independent parties be able to look at what the New York Times looked at? Never. Some at least segments of the documents the New York Times examines are determined to be too damaging to US interests to release. We’ll never find out who makes that determination or on what basis, but I don’t trust the Times, even if the decision was not made in consultation with the US government, which it is.

But at the current pace, wikileaks will be finished releasing the documents it decides to release more than five years from now. There is no reason to believe the current pace will be maintained though. Over these five years, at least, the US government and New York Times have a head-start in shaping the stories that come from these cables.

Another example is that it seems that someone has found a document where a Shell executive claims to have spies throughout the Nigerian government. This is a passing story for Guardian, but why can Lagos publications not look though all of the documents related to Nigeria to make their own determination of which documents are important, to get as full an understanding as Guardian or New York Times can get?

That is the true travesty that Assange was maneuvered into submitting to. It repeats itself in probably hundreds of ways, most of which will remain unknown for years if they are ever released.

This slow release may be keeping the story in the headlines, but it is keeping important stories out of Nigerian newspapers and others and it is causing the pressure on Assange to grow steadily.

The slow release is a terrible idea all around. Assange would be well served I think to have the ACLU hire a private law firm to go through the documents removing names based on transparent and publicly explained basis and releasing the rest of the documents immediately.

A process like that is what was done for previous large releases from the same source. I can’t explain why Assange or wikileaks switched to such an inferior process for this one, but it represents a victory for the US government at applying pressure on the organizations Assange trusted to release the cables.

The process renders the leaks of minimal value. We are seeing a skewed sample of the documents and while there are nuggets of valuable or exciting information, we and all independent parties, unlike the New York Times and US government, cannot see the other documents that would establish a context for this information, can’t see the environment where the information came from or where it led.


lidia said...

Arnold, you might be right, but at least regarding the ME there is a work by Angry Arab and others to analyze the documents about the ME and to translate them into Arabic. So it could be read by the masses and it will have a serious effect

Arnold Evans said...

Except Angry Arab does not have access to 250,000 documents. He has access to the, as of now (almost two weeks after the releases started), 1,295 documents selected by major Western news organizations, led by the New York Times in collaboration with the US government.

There is some use to it, but the process has rendered the releases much less valuable than they would be if Angry Arab could search through the entire archive himself and select relevant documents instead of presenting the documents selected by the New York Times with US State Department input.