"There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy." – Joseph Pulitzer.
At approximately 6pm on Wednesday, Amazon ousted wikileaks.org from its servers after concerted and aggressive political pressure from America’s Homeland Security Committee. The move came after three solid days of ‘Cablegate’ – the largest intelligence leak in history. 251,287 dispatches from more than 250 US embassies and consulates, to be published slowly but surely in the weeks and months ahead. Among them are allegations of corruption, cover-ups and secret collusion between US and UK officials; dirty tactics exposed on a grand scale. Politicians, diplomats and corporations across the world must now be trembling. Could they be next?
As international reaction testifies, the repercussions of Cablegate are massive. Wikileaks is changing the world without invitation, and the political establishment does not approve. A global witch-hunt for Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ co-founder and figurehead, is now in full swing. Assange should be "hunted" and "executed" say prominent American politicians, who want him extradited and charged under the country’s 1917 Espionage Act, a law introduced to combat socialists and pacifists during the Red Scare. “Obama should put out a contract [to have Assange assassinated] and maybe use a drone or something,” said Professor Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While in France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, Wikileaks was described as a “threat to democracy”.
Even David Cameron, a devout convert to the church of “A New Politics”, has strongly condemned Wikileaks for their hand in Cablegate. “We condemn the unauthorised release of classified information," his spokesman said on Monday. “Governments need to be able to operate on a confidential basis when dealing with this kind of information.” Yet it was only 10 months ago, in February, that Cameron stood before an audience and proclaimed his commitment to open government and transparency. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said at the time.
In February, though, Cameron was not Prime Minister. He was still masquerading as a fresh faced candidate for change – a new alternative to the ugly political past. He could afford to pontificate about wild things like “open government” and “transparency” because there was no way to test him on it. He could tell the public what they wanted to hear, and then backtrack from his position once in government – the oldest trick in the book. His Cablegate position confirms this is indeed what he has done, quite blatantly, on the principle of “transparency”.
So far Cameron’s strategy on Cablegate has been one of avoidance and denial. "We are not going to get drawn into the detail of the documents," said his spokesman. The Prime Minister was instead in Zurich yesterday alongside David Beckham and Prince William, making a failed bid to host the World Cup in 2018. But he cannot evade the encroaching reality of this exposé for much longer. According to the cables released so far, British officials not only promised to protect US interests during the Iraq inquiry, but also made a deal with the US to allow the country to keep cluster bombs in the UK despite the ban on the munitions signed by Gordon Brown. The cluster bombs issue, it is said, was deliberately concealed from parliament and was approved by then Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Clearly this raises serious questions about what appears to be a festering culture of backroom democracy across the western world, in which Britain is complicit. Diplomatic secrecy, as critics of Wikileaks argue, may well be in some cases entirely justified and necessary – however not if it means nurturing what Assange himself describes as the “corruption of governance".
The central problem, it seems, is that this “corruption of governance” runs so deep. It is embedded within the very DNA of the political class and has been for generations, hence the high-level, across the board political resistance and opposition to the brand of total transparency advocated by Wikileaks.
Yet as politicians and other powerful figures call for the head of Assange, in their haste they have forgotten he is merely the figurehead of the organisation. The human face of Wikileaks, he is bold, brave and deeply principled. His commitment and dedication to truth and justice should be applauded. But they could hang, draw and quarter Assange and Wikileaks would still survive – thrive, even. “You can kill a man but you can't kill an idea,” as the civil rights activist Medgar Evers once said.
And an idea is precisely what Wikileaks has become. It is no longer simply a website – it is a pure expression of democratic ideals, a philosophy realised by the force of technology. The powerful may condemn and attempt to repress Wikileaks and all it represents, but the situation has long since spun far from their control. Facilitated by the internet, a new battleground has been established. All traditions now hang in the balance and all bets are off.