The contagious courage of the whistleblowers — from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden — is helping to defeat the conspiracy of illegitimate governance.
Illustration by Latuff
In 2010, ongoing wars and government corruption spread through a fog of apathy. The world appeared to be reaching a tipping point for either global crisis or transformation. In this climate, WikiLeaks emerged into the limelight like a call to the conscience of humanity. Over the last few years, they released secret documents revealing Kenyan government corruption, Iceland’s financial collapse, the criminality of US wars in the Middle East and more. Their very existence and what they revealed called into question the legitimacy of imperial power structures around the world.
Ever since its initial public insurrection, WikiLeaks kept making the headlines. In spite of founder Julian Assange being immobilized — first under house arrest and then confined in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — the stateless organization has continued to publish documents, shedding light on corruption and abuse of power. One might well have thought the life of this transparency advocacy group would be over after the massive US government retaliation and financial blockades by PayPal, Visa and other US financial giants. Yet, in the year 2013, WikiLeaks showed itself to be resilient and relevant as ever by releasing a secretive draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty and aiding the world’s most wanted whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, in his quest for asylum.
The inception of the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing website goes all the way back to late 2006. At that time, Assange wrote a kind of Manifesto called Conspiracy as Governance. In analyzing how corruption and secrecy are tied together, he described how “illegitimate governance is by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries working in collaborative secrecy … to the detriment of a population.”
In the introduction, Assange cited the words, “Conspiracy, Conspire” to mean “mak[ing] secret plans jointly to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment”. The word “Conspire” originates in Latin; con (together) and spire (breathe). It means to breathe together. The common use of the word is by nature exclusive, where two or more people share the fetid intellectual air behind closed doors, shutting out fresh ideas and cleansing sunlight from outside. Conspiracy is sustained by inbred collusion of selfish interests. It is like smoke surrounding those who are bound by it, disconnecting them from the reality of everyday people who are kept outside of such elite circles and often exploited or harmed by their actions.
Assange saw how “a conspiracy … is the agent of deception and information restriction.” Enactment of hidden motives of conspiracy depends on secrecy. Whether elected government officials or corporate executives, their interests are mostly divorced from ordinary people who are excluded from the circle. The primary motive behind this secrecy is to guard the self-interests of those involved.
The Battle over Public Perception
Secrecy is created and maintained through two means. One is simply to close information off from access by the public through government classification of documents. The other is to deceive by way of ‘public relations’ — propaganda used to control or distort public perception. Secrecy and corruption of government and the corporate state have reached a point of no return as the US government over-classifies information under the pretext of national security, including information that undeniably belongs in the public domain. “Currently the executive branch is the sole determinant of what is classified,” activist and whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds said, pointing to how excessive government classification is being used as a tool to silence whistle-blowers.
Secrecy creates a gap in public perception and a loophole in the responsibility of governance. This gap gives power to rich corporations and governments to erase their bloody footsteps and hide the exploitative motives behind their actions. The power of secrecy is primarily the invisibility it grants to those actions who would be universally condemned if their actions were placed in the public eye. If the real motives and actual effects of rapacious forces in government and industry are kept invisible to those who are outside of the inbred circle, the conspirators can carry out their agendas without any real opposition.
Moreover, the Pentagon spends an ever-increasing amount of money on PR every year and there has been an alarming merger of commercial and government interests with mainstream journalism through the consolidation of corporate media. The forces behind state and corporate collusion are increasingly the primary forces shaping new laws and public policy — and these forces are heavily invested in maintaining control of public perception.
For instance, the actions of corporations overseas involving cheap labor and exploitation are largely kept out of public sight. This creates a gap between the actions of the powerful and how everyday people see the world. What people see are beautiful clothes displayed at shopping malls. The names on store tags such as Old Navy, Banana Republic and Gap found in the horrific aftermath of burned out or collapsed sweatshops in Bangladesh reveal this insidious practice, yet to the Western consumer it is just nice branding with appealing images of beautiful models. These kinds of corporations perform Orwell’s doublespeak with ironic store names that carry colonial connotations as they manufacture consumer consent in their support of this exploitative model. Another example is the current round of negotiations over the TPP, which is a brazen attempt to subvert national law and individual enterprise so corporations can guarantee profits by overruling protections for the people and the free sharing of information.
This simple concealing of information and motives of those in power often goes hand in hand with the work of propaganda, keeping the public ignorant of what lurks behind the scenes. A vital part of PR work involves creating false perception regarding the merging self-interests of the elites; spinning a false image that those in conspiracy are working for the common good. This form of manipulation creates what the father of Public Relations, Edward Bernays, described as “an invisible government”, which he observed as being the “true ruling power of our country.”
We are surrounded by an invisible force of control. Assange saw through its inner working and pointed out how these governments that operate in secrecy are inherently conspiratorial and how such governance is by definition illegitimate. His observation led him to his first hypothesis for solving the problem of dissolving conspiracy. He wrote that “when a regime’s lines of internal communications are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves.”
Assange put this forward as kind of a mathematical formula that he thought could be used to dissolve conspiracy. Exposing secrecy = weakening trust lines of communication = collapse of conspiracy. With this act, the conspirators’ power of invisibility from outsiders is undermined. In order for a formula to hold true and manifest, it needs a precise logic of architecture that would carry out each step. The act of becoming a watchdog on power usually comes from within the system, somewhere closer to the circle of conspiracy. This has traditionally come in the form of whistle-blowers. The original Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) was enacted to ensure this necessary check and balance on power. Yet, recent years have seen a steady erosion of this law, and with Obama’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, there is no denying that this system of accountability has broken down.
The same can be said to some degree about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was passed by Congress in 1966, which set limits on government’s withholding of documents. FOIA made federal agency documents except Congress and the Judiciary available to not only US citizens, but persons of any nationality upon request, with certain exemptions. Over the years, this has been rendered increasingly ineffective. One example is the case of a classified US military video of the incident on July 12, 2007 in New Baghdad, depicting three airstrikes from a US Apache helicopter (which WikiLeaks released with the title Collateral Murder). Reuters, whose journalists were killed in the video, tried to obtain the footage through FOI requests, but without success.
The Method of Leaking
It was in response to this breakdown of traditional checks and balance on power that WikiLeaks blazed onto the world stage with a new model of stateless free press that practices adversarial journalism. The method of leaking was made possible through a unique technical infrastructure. The system of anonymous drop-boxes provides a secure platform which helps those inside an organization have the confidence to step forward and reveal wrongdoing without fear of their identity being revealed.
Exposing secrecy can bring the actions of conspirators into the public eye and rectify distorted public perception. Assange described a particular kind of information that signals the presence of conspiratorial work. He explained how concealed information sends an economic signal for oppression because it shows someone putting economic input or work into concealing that information. This means it would be most effective to focus on the information that is most concealed and bring it out into the open, as that which is most heavily invested in keeping secret likely has the strongest effect when unveiled to the public eye.
Assange also spoke of censorship as a signal of corruption. He holds that censorship ”reveals fear of reform. It means that the power position is so weak that [they] have got to care about what people think.” After releasing authentic classified documents that are gained through an inside source, WikiLeaks disseminates this information as widely as possible with the intention ”to get the maximum possible political impact.”
In April 2013, WikiLeaks published a trove of 1.7 million US diplomatic and intelligence documents called the Kissinger Cables, spanning from 1973 and 1976. WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson noted that hiding information behind the wall of complexity is also a form of secrecy. By developing a highly searchable database, WikiLeaks made documents usable that were normally quite difficult to access.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Leaks
Then came the TPP leaks. On November 13, WikiLeaks released a complete draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Intellectual Property Rights Chapter. TPP is a backroom corporate deal that enforces US interests and corporate hegemony over other countries. A major controversy over this bill is how its documents and dealings have been kept in extreme secrecy. Fast-track authority written into it is part of the corporate takeover of basic lawmaking, as only a few members of Congress have seen parts of it. Upon releasing the documents, WikiLeaks provided their interpretation in a short statement:
If instituted, the TPP’s IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons. If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.
Critics call the bill “ACTA on steroids“ and a “super-sized NAFTA“, arguing that it violates privacy, sovereignty, internet freedom and effectively tramples many basic information and environmental protections. Its main elements undermine popular sovereignty and democracy and empower transnational corporations to change certain laws to suit their fancy. After WikiLeaks revealed this group of documents that seems designed mainly to expand US hegemony and corporate penetration, there was a serious backlash from civil rights groups and the other negotiating parties. Despite the Obama administration’s aim to reach a deal by the new year, disagreements boiled over and the time-line for the agreement is now delayed.
Once concealed information is revealed, conspirators lose the cloak of invisibility and the public can grasp the tails of the conspirators’ intentions. This begins a process that can lead to justice. In the case of the TPP leaks, people could see real corporate interests and agendas disguised as a governmental trade agreement. This is the formula: expose heavily guarded secrecy = correct public deception = bring about social and political transformation toward justice.
WikiLeaks’ “mathematical” formula to dissolve conspiratorial governance seems to have begun proving its validity. Yet, as the world engages with deepening political and moral dilemmas, a more complex problem has surfaced within this increasingly corrupt and corporatized civil society. What new variable was added to the equation?
The Death of the Fourth Estate
There is no question that after WikiLeaks, the world had changed. The organization published documents evidencing war crimes and government corruption, but this is not all it revealed. Over the years, WikiLeaks has become the acid test that unveiled how the Fourth Estate has degraded into a conspiracy of consolidated corporate media networks. It is now more clear than ever how mainstream journalism has become a guardian of conspiratorial power rather than performing any real check and balance on corruption for the public good.
Back in 2010, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, in an exclusive interview with Raw Story, declared that “the Fourth Estate is dead!” and described the US media’s complicity with the Pentagon: “The Fourth Estate in this country has been captured by government and corporations, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence apparatus. Captive! So, there is no Fourth Estate.”
Control of information and perception has become the real war of the 21st century. This year has seen the overreaching decay of the Fourth Estate as the ubiquitous Hollywood entertainment industry collaborated in character assassination. In contrast to powerful propaganda films about WikiLeaks, like the multi-million dollar DreamWorks film The Fifth Estate and Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets, WikiLeaks themselves released a documentary called Mediastan to reveal the trend towards globalized media corruption, which also put forward their own narrative of these game-changing events that WikiLeaks helped set in motion.
In many ways, WikiLeaks embodies a new form of this essential function of the Fourth Estate. In a span of three years, they disclosed more relevant authentic documentation than all corporate news media combined. Yet in the process, they faced another conundrum. Anyone who strives for truth meets challenges, and Assange is no exception. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he was asked by the interviewer what he expected and what he did not expect prior to the releases. He responded that after the release of two war logs he was surprised by the lack of public response to the leaked materials.
In a 2010 Time interview, Assange talked about the role of social media in assisting the work of WikiLeaks. He described how the analytical effort he expected from internet citizens around the world did not occur, so WikiLeaks, professional journalists and human rights activists had to do the bulk of the work. This relative lack of interest was also brought out during WikiLeaks Operation Cablerun, featured in their film Mediastan. The film followed a crew of WikiLeaks associates in a quest for media outlets to publish secret US diplomatic cables throughout Central Asia. One after another they met corruption, cynicism or apathy from publishers. With the undeniable global decay of the Fourth Estate, people’s sense of justice and morality seem to have become neutered.
Martin Luther King Jr once said that “the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of bad people, but the appalling silence of good people”. What prevails today, after decades of corporate and state propaganda, is a passive and apathetic populace.
Re-Awakening the Civic Duty of Resistance
Leaking concealed information is fundamental for humane governance, yet without a dedicated public willing to check and balance the inevitable and increasing abuse of power, there is little possibility of effectively transforming corrupt structures and dissolving any conspiracy of illegitimate authority. The problem of our age takes a new twist. There is now another factor that needs to be added to the equation: the awakening of citizens who are motivated to perform civic duty to hold the powerful accountable and demand justice in a rapidly changing global landscape.
This leads to the deeper impulses behind leaking. In his 2006 paper, Assange laid out insights to dissolve conspiracy and stated how “we must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling and effective action to replace the structures that lead to bad governance with something better.” Assange clarified his insight on transparency, saying that “it is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” Transparency through leaking is not a goal in itself, but a method for achieving an even higher moral goal. It is a way to break the shield of power that keeps citizens in the dark and to counter the kind of extractive and abusive behavior that human nature tends toward when working in secret.
Leaks are a way to break down walls, yet dissolving the conspiracy needs something more than simply releasing information. It requires an active force to confront and transform the centralized power necessary for those who conspire against the public good. Transparency in the form of whistle-blowing is a courageous act. It opens locked doors, bringing air into the deep reaches of a rotting system. It allows those close to or within it to breathe fresh air. What transformative variable arises when an individual decides to act on this principle of transparency that is crucial for dissolving conspiracy?
The Conscience of Chelsea Manning
In his formula for achieving fundamental change, Assange points to inspiration as a critical factor when combined with knowledge. It is indeed this inspiration from sources that is the fount of WikiLeaks’s contagious courage. In an interview on Democracy Now! when he was asked what gives him hope, Assange responded:
What keeps us going is our sources. These are the people, presumably, who are inside these organizations, who want change. They are both heroic figures taking much greater risks than I ever do, and they are pushing and showing that they want change in, in fact, an extremely effective way.
Now the equation advances: courage and conscience of the source + means of transparency = movement towards justice. In 2013, we have seen this contagious quotient of inspiration prove itself vital to the equation of dissolving conspiracy. Two weeks after the court-martial proceeding of Chelsea Manning began, an unauthorized audio recording of her initial courtroom statement spread through social media, despite the extraordinary secrecy surrounding her trial. For the first time after three years of silence, the world heard Manning’s voice of conscience. In it, Manning laid out why she chose to release the massive trove of documents. After admitting that she was the source of the largest leak of classified information in history, Manning spoke about the motivation behind her actions:
I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.
As she had hoped, her courage sparked new waves of insurgency. Manning’s role in inspiring the Arab Spring was praised by Daniel Ellsberg, the former US military analyst and America’s most renowned whistle-blower. On the first day of Manning’s pretrial hearing, Ellsberg acknowledged her act as the impulse behind critical global movements that have quickly risen as tides of change for our time:
The TIME Magazine cover gives … an anonymous protester as “Person of the Year,” but it is possible to put a face and a name to that picture of “Person of the Year”. And the American face I would put on that is Private [Chelsea] Bradley Manning… And, the combination of the WikiLeaks and [Chelsea] Manning exposures in Tunis and the exemplification of that by Mohamed Bouazizi led to the… non-violent protests.
In September of this year, Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia paid homage to Manning for her role in inspiring the Arab Spring. He said the revolution “had to start somewhere, and the release of the cables started with Private Chelsea Manning, alone in the Iraqi desert”:
After she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Chelsea Manning said in her statement that “Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” I don’t know if she knows that she helped us, in this part of the world, to move toward that noble goal. Closing a cell door on a prisoner with a free mind has opened a thousand and one doors for a free society.
The Contagion of Courage
While Manning’s act of conscience became a catalyst for the global uprising, it also paved the way for other whistle-blowers to courageously step forward. In 2013, the world saw a new wave of dissent. 28-year-old political activist Jeremy Hammond hacked into Stratfor, the Texas based global intelligence company to expose the inner workings of the insidious and pervasive surveillance state, including their spying activities on activists around the globe.
Right after his sentencing hearing this year, WikiLeaks finished publishing the Global Intelligence Files – over five million emails from Stratfor. In pleading guilty to one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for his role in hacking into the computers of this private intelligence firm, Hammond stated that “people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors,” and indicated clearly that he did what he believed was right.
At his sentencing hearing, Hammond spoke about how his act was inspired by his forerunner Chelsea Manning and her courage in exposing the atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan:
She took an enormous personal risk to leak this information — believing that the public had a right to know and hoping that her disclosures would be a positive step to end these abuses … I had to ask myself, if Chelsea Manning fell into the abysmal nightmare of prison fighting for the truth, could I in good conscience do any less, if I was able? I thought the best way to demonstrate solidarity was to continue the work of exposing and confronting corruption.
Then came Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who blew the whistle on the most powerful surveillance entity in history. In a video interview with former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden spoke of the motives behind his action:
I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity…. My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.
Snowden admired Manning and learned from his young forerunner. Behind the NSA leaks are others who were infected by their courage. Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras — who was the first media contact on the story — and Glenn Greenwald were both inspired by Chelsea Manning and Snowden’s contagious courage.
In a statement he made one year after entering the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange called out the US government for framing those who speak truth to power as “traitors” and criminalizing them. He defended these whistle-blowers, describing them as “young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed,” and “the generation that grew up on the internet, and were shaped by it…” Assange then urged the public to help Snowden in his quest for asylum.
This past year we have seen WikiLeaks continue to walk their talk. When the US government revoked Snowden’s passport, journalist Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks helped him escape Hong Kong and inevitable jailtime in the United States. Months later, Snowden remains free to speak and engage in the public debate he unleashed.
“Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance. To tell the truth is not a crime,” Snowden wrote in his letter to the German government. On Christmas day, Britain’s Channel 4 televised his message: “Privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.” In an interview with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, Snowden expressed his sense of victory and stated that his mission had already been accomplished. The genie was not going to be put back in the bottle. This contagion of courage cannot be stopped as people have begun to inspire each other.
The Courage to Inspire
Snowden’s pursuit for asylum has created a new discourse. WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison played a crucial role in making this possible. Referring specifically to Chelsea Manning, who is now serving decades behind bars, Harrison explained the reason for risking her life and liberty to accompany Snowden thus: “there needs to be another narrative … There needs to be a happy ending. People need to see that you can do this and be safe.” In her November 6 statement, Harrison articulated her conviction of the importance for transparency that was demonstrated in her extraordinary commitment to source protection:
When whistle-blowers come forward, we need to fight for them so others will be encouraged. When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. This is our data, our information, our history. We must fight to own it.
The 30th Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) held in Hamburg in the last days of 2013 saw a significant increase in the number of participants, which showed how this whistle-blower support community is thriving. In the opening keynote speech, Glenn Greenwald shared with the audience the profound impact Snowden’s act had on him and on people around the world:
The courage and the principled act of conscience that he displayed will shape and inspire me for the rest of my life, and will inspire and convince millions and millions of people to take all sorts of acts that they might not have taken because they’ve seen what good for the world can be done by even a single individual.
Later he reminded the crowd of Harrison’s heroic act as well. Greenwald empowered the audience, noting that there is now a huge network of human beings around the world who believe in causes for transparency and who devote time and sacrifice for it.
Assange joined the CCC talk ‘Sysadmins of the World, Unite!’ via Skype with Jacob Applebaum, independent journalist and security expert, and with Harrison, who was welcomed with a standing ovation by more than 4.000 people. Assange spoke to the audience about how high-tech workers compose a particular class and how, as system administrators, they are part of an important administration of interconnected individual systems. He encouraged these administrators to unite in their fight for internet freedom, reminding them how they “have extraordinary power, in a way that is really an order of magnitude different to the power industrial workers had back in the 20th century”.
Applebaum asked the audience “what is it that you feel like you can do?” and emphasized the positive contribution one can make, each in their own way. He used Harrison’s action as an example that embodies individual courage and creates a link that inspires others.
Inspiration is an antidote to conspiracy. It is like a compassionate bullet that brings down the walls around armored hearts and breaks up the conspiring of narrow interests. In solving the problem of illegitimate governance, we are now waking up to the fact that ordinary people are the vital quantity for the equation. The numbers are growing as the new network of awakened and impassioned individuals expands.
Activist Gregg Housh pointed to the decline of true investigative journalism and noted how the failure of the press in holding the government accountable has created a vacuum. He noted how “that void grew for years, and finally when we could stand it no more it got filled … by Anonymous, WikiLeaks, new whistle-blowers, and a new prevalent culture of transparency.”
On November 15, Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison and three years of supervised release at the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. As he was escorted out of the courtroom, to the crowd of supporters, Hammond pumped a fist in the air and said “Long live Anonymous!”
Online and off, the trend of civil disobedience refuses to go away. In response to the brutal indiscriminate shelling of Gaza in November 2012 by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Anonymous engaged in DDoS attacks and took down hundreds of Israeli websites. On November 5th 2013, protesters wearing Anonymous Guy Fawkes masks gathered all around the world to rally in over 400 cities for the Million Mask March.
In her impassioned speech after Hammond’s sentencing Bria Grace of JeremyHammond.net spoke of how Hammond “is the reason a flame has been lit in so many of us.” The torch of justice is carried through his courageous acts, and its light burns ever stronger.
Three years after WikiLeaks came to public prominence, where are we with the equation in Assange’s Conspiracy as Governance? Has it been tested and its solution enacted? As leaked documents continue to shed light on the darkness of the world, illegal wars, drone attacks, bankster heists and corporate dirty deals continue. Yet thanks to Manning, we now have a clearer picture what modern war really looks like and the extent to which the military-industrial complex has morally bankruptcy itself. Thanks to Hammond, we are more aware of the collusion of governments and corporations in a network of spying on activists. Thanks to Snowden’s NSA files, we are now only beginning to see the latent tyranny of an out-of-control surveillance state.
2013 was the year that we saw the courage of individuals who speak truth to power become truly contagious. There is no doubt that in this past year, WikiLeaks and other budding organizations have helped the world move one step closer toward a more humane form of self-governance. More and more people are counting themselves into the equation. In the presence of love, hatred cannot last. In the light of transparency darkness dissolves, and in the presence of inspiration people can no longer conspire. Each person’s act of conscience breathes into the other, eventually becoming the critical mass needed to solve the critical moral math of our time.
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