IT’S like a reject script fished from the bins of the Sherlock writing room. Inside an elegant building in Knightsbridge, London, under the protection of a Latin American embassy, lurks one of the most destabilising men in the world. His hair and beard are white; his pallor keeps pace. His revelations topple governments and explode conspiracies. And as he opens his boxes of digital secrets, he is visited in his diplomatic lair by an entirely random set of A to C-list celebs.
Vivienne Westwood, Eric Cantona, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon have trooped in. Lady Gaga has dropped by for tea and cake. Pamela Anderson regularly delivers cardboard boxes of vegan muffins. And to top it all, the other night, Nigel Farage was seen scuttling from the building … Sorry, scrunch that one up again. Back in the bin.
However, that last bit of reality-farce around Julian Assange does at least mesh with what seems to be an actual political crisis. Farage’s new pals in the Trump administration have much for which to thank the WikiLeaks founder. Right through the final stretches of the US election, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of emails from the Democratic National Congress into the public realm. In a week-by-week drip, the viciousness and donor-cravenness of Hillary Clinton’s operation was revealed to an already sceptical public. During the campaign, Trump said in one of his Tweet eruptions: “I love WikiLeaks!”
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WikiLeaks’ revelations this week are called the Vault7 files. They show how the CIA (and their pals in GCHQ) attempt to bug just about every device in your life that has an operating system and a signal.
But this also comes at a time when the Trump proto-coup is in open war with elements of the so-called US “deep state”, including security agencies such as the CIA. They fear the president has been compromised by Russian interests, and that the Clinton material WikiLeaks delivered was originally obtained by Russian state hacking. Yet there is a suggestion in the Vault7 files that the CIA possesses the ability to code its own hacks to look like foreign interventions – including, by implication, Russian ones.
Is this news murky, mad and fake enough for you? One might initially sympathise with Assange’s recent views that “WikiLeaks is very happy that there is a narrative about fake news out there, because we have a perfect record of having never got it wrong in terms of authentications”.
When you read WikiLeaks, continued Assange, “you’re not reading pre-weaponised knowledge. When you read a newspaper article, you are reading weaponised text that is designed to affect a person just like you. I think that is the real beauty of WikiLeaks ... it is that sea of information, that intellectual treasure, that rebel library of Alexandria you can go into.”
The quibble over this Alexandrian claim would be obvious – why not reveal Trump’s entire tax records before the election, if you could reveal the Clinton camp’s private mails? However, Trump survived, even triumphantly rode, his own tide of noisome-enough revelations.
Yet another question: where are the WikiLeaks info-revelations from that citadel of “weaponised news”, the Putin regime?
So what sticks – but even worse, what matters? As some have noted, the warnings of 1960s situationists like Guy Debord about a “society of the spectacle” – where little or nothing can be thought beyond the limits of a ubiquitous, strategising media – have come to pass.
“The spectacle proves its arguments,” Debord wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed … Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.”
Say hello to our world, post-January 20. Tempting, in the face of all this systemic bullshit, to return to cultivating your garden. But one last heave, for old times’ sake. We should at least note when one of these actors on the spectacle’s stage is displaying some consistency.
And if you look at the overall effect of Assange’s actions, he is clearly staying true to some of his long-held principles. Essentially, he believes most large organisations and establishments have an inherent tendency to conspire against the people. In his much cited 2006 essay Conspiracy as Governance, Assange draws on Machiavelli and Shakespeare, citing the soothsayer’s unheeded advice to Julius Caesar: “Security gives way to conspiracy.”
In a data-driven, connected age, that capacity to conspire is multiplied. The job of the “fifth estate” – the digitally-literate branch of the fourth estate – is to break up that conspiracy, by revealing the flows of information that maintain it.
It’s important to realise Assange is far from being a simplistic anarchist here. His aim is to “replace the structures that lead to bad governance with something better” – a “position of clarity” that can “carry us through the mire of competing political moralities”.
Simply put, in a world where information easily leaks everywhere, organisations now have a painful incentive to behave more honestly and less abusively. If they don’t, they pay what Assange called in 2006 “a secrecy tax”. This means they have to bear the cost of engaging in “inefficient but secretive processes”. This “tax” isn’t just a money cost, but also a performance cost. There is “a consequent system-wide cognitive decline, resulting in decreased ability to hold on to power, as the environment demands adaptation.” Translation: secrecy makes you stupid and lumbering. And that’s whether you’re an egregious corporation, or a political party in the contest. One can certainly critique how Assange executes his own philosophy. Edward Snowden has taken WikiLeaks to task for not “curating” its data dumps carefully enough, with private information about uninvolved civilians at times revealed. For better or worse, Assange became impatient with traditional journalism’s careful (but time-consuming) distinction between public interest and private harm.
The philosopher Peter Ludlow also raises some excellent questions. Are all state-level conspiracies equally bad? For example, “if Arab leaders are conspiring with the US to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons programme” shouldn’t we approve? Closer to home, could peace negotiations with the IRA/Sinn Fein have happened without an initial period of absolute diplomatic secrecy?
If transparency places a “secrecy” tax on organisations that tend to conspire, might that not make their actions even more secretive and draconian? And when WikiLeaks or a similar organisation defends its own internal processes against external scrutiny, is it in danger of becoming a “conspiracy” itself? Or should we make distinctions between those who want to “level the playing field”? I’m asking these questions because I’m interested in the answers, and then further questions. I’m also asking because we might be about to get another bite at the cherry of creating an independent Scottish state. And there are claims from the “leaker culture”, as Ludlow describes it, that will have to be answered. For example, would an independent Scotland be asked to be part of the “Five Eyes” info-surveillance system (or FVEY), currently including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US? If asked, should we join?
Snowden, still Rector of Glasgow University described FVEY as a “supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the known laws of its own countries”. His 2013 document leaks revealed the Five Eyes spy on each others’ citizens, in order to evade their own domestic surveillance regulations. So can we have these gnarly discussions about what it really means to forge a Scottish nation-state, which justifies its hype as a “progressive beacon” in the world? As well as the nice, obvious ones about how capable and well-resourced we are for independence?
The Assange Show may be lurid and bathetic by turns, as glamorous visitors click-clack up the stairs to the Ecuadorian embassy. But Assange, and WikiLeaks, are also a serious challenge to the complacencies of national governance – Scottish or otherwise.