The future, eventually, will find you out

“It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret. In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner.

“This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.”

~ William Gibson, “The Road to Oceania”, 2003

There is something utterly compelling about the rolling cascade of WikiLeaks revelations, something much deeper than any individual scandal or piece of diplomatic gossip revealed hour by hour. With due caution that the real ramifications won’t be properly understood until we’re well and truly viewing these events through the rear view mirror, something big has happened.

Cold war style great-power diplomacy and war-making, meet the internet. The 20th century has collided with the 21st.

To start close to home, it is fairly clear that the Australian Government is well aware of the power of the internet to surveil its own citizens in the name of law enforcement and counter-terrorism.

In unspoken concurrence with the old aphorism ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, the Government is moving to ramp up its surveillance capabilities over its citizens – all of us – through the Attorney-General’s data retention proposal (#ozlog). This is intended to more completely map the otherwise ephemeral digital footprints we all leave with every online action, from credit card withdrawal to mobile phone call to email. If the majority of Australians are not currently engaged in planning acts of terrorism or transnational crime, goes the logic, we won’t have anything to fear from this subtle but powerful increase in non-consensual transparency.

2010 saw this same logic abruptly visited on the United States government, first through the extraordinary release of Afghan and Iraq war logs, as seen through helicopter gun cameras and frontline reports from all levels of the US military. They were confirmation of what most of us already knew. The Iraq invasion was premised on a calculated lie. In Afghanistan we’re propping up a government that is stretched somewhere between democracy and medieval crime syndicate, at vast human and material cost.

The heartbreaking accounts of accidental civilian slaughter and friendly fire debacles in Afghanistan are in bleak counterpoint to the one-dimensional support for war without end from the Australian Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

It is one thing to read opinion pieces by well informed military officials claiming that war is hell; quite another to read the primary source documents that map out the levels.

The high-definition wormhole that has opened up in the classified archives of the US State Department has even greater ramifications if that’s possible, through the implication and liberal quotation of the rest of Planet Earth’s diplomatic corps. The cables expose the general public to raw glimpses of the multiple tightropes of diplomacy and massive violence that nation states walk every day.

There are legitimate concerns that such a vast document dump will contain names and information that should be protected in the public interest. Colum Lynch notes on Turtle Bay that the cables contain names and identifiers of journalists and human rights activists working in dangerous parts of the world, and that the detailed process of redaction undergone prior to release is likely to have been imperfect. Grahame Bowland and Luke Miller write in Crikey on December 10 (paywalled) that some of the cables released thus far have been withdrawn, edited and released again, with around 15 cables withdrawn from the website altogether. WikiLeaks offered the US State Department the opportunity to assist in the process of scrubbing the documents of sensitive details prior to release, an offer which the US government refused.

Much of the material released is an amalgam of considered opinion and high level gossip that is presumably the bread and butter of modern diplomacy. Questions over which Australian MPs are the most reliable informants to US consular officials, and more evidence of Foreign Minister Rudd’s notoriously sharp tongue will drive the media cycle for a day or two and then be ploughed under.

The more serious releases go to nation-states and corporations behaving in ways they would rather we didn’t know about. To pick a couple of examples, the biometric profiling and surveillance of United Nations officials by the US government is quite clearly illegal. The US is running false flag cruise missile strikes in Yemen. Australia has offered Australian special forces personnel for combat operations inside Pakistan. Shell has successfully injected corporate operatives into the highest levels of the Nigerian government. We’ve seen only a tiny fraction of the total material yet to be released, and already the shock waves are profound.

Prime Minister Gillard’s stunning miscalculation in attacking the WikiLeaks organisation are likely to haunt her. Let us be completely clear. Julian Assange didn’t leak anything. The organisation of which he is a part received classified material from a source within the US military, which it is now making available to the world’s media organisations, who in turn are gorging themselves senseless on it. If WikiLeaks has committed a crime, then so have the publishers of the New York Times, the Guardian, and our Fairfax press.

Apart from the excruciating contribution of our own Attorney-General, very few of those offering legal opinions thus far have any qualifications to do so. If Mr Assange and his organisation have committed crimes, then let the arguments be heard in an open court. Given the tone of some of the more unhinged commentary from the United States and elsewhere calling for the extrajudicial killing of Mr Assange, it is far from clear what his extradition to the United States would actually mean.

Would it emerge as a powerful test of the First Amendment? Or would it look more like grainy footage of cold war show trials in the Soviet Union? Mr Assange has Australian citizenship entitlements. He deserves better than the cheap and misguided sound-bite politics offered up so far by the Australian Government as they scramble into long-term damage control on behalf of our wounded ally and own diplomatic reputation.

A lasting afterimage of the WikiLeaks affair may be the attempts by the US Government to rip the site offline, only to have the data ripple across the net like beads of mercury, mirrored a thousandfold. Is it even necessary to requote the ancient John Gilmore observation that “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it?”

The US government is the subject of this document dump. Others will follow, and the more secretive the regime the more it will have to lose.

Many have speculated that the internet, fully realised, would bring forward an era of global citizenship and the permanent fracturing of the nation-state. Whether this is folly or fact will only be understood in hindsight, but for now, we’ll have to be content with watching the world’s governments grappling with more immediate questions of what they have tried to hide, and what they now have to fear.