These four friends, D, A, P and S, whose names are being withheld for professional reasons, have all followed the Wikileaks saga from the beginning. D is on one side of the debate, as he wants to eventually go into the diplomatic service. A is on the far other side and wants to be an international investigative journalist. P has worked in public policy and polling. S is in health care policy, both international and domestic. A and P have worked in advertising and social media.
All have backgrounds in debate, public speaking and position paper writing.
Two are male and two are female. Three are from New England. One is from California.
All have American passports and all have studied abroad (some more than once), one in the Middle East, one in Central America, three in Europe.
All have graduated with Bachelor’s degrees. Two are currently in masters programs.
All voted for President Obama, although one of the four is a registered Libertarian who only votes Democrat because of a crippling fear of Sarah Palin.
The rules of the debate were as follows:
- There were three talking points for that night’s salon:
1. Was it responsible to leak the documents? Is Wikileaks right or wrong?
2. Is Wikileaks a journalistic endeavor? Is Julian Assange a journalist?
3. What is rape? Is Julian Assange a rapist?
- Because debate sometimes gets out of hand, if fun to mix it with drinking:
1. If you vehemently disagree with something, you must knock on the table twice and drink.
2. If you agree, you knock and say, “rabble rabble,” like in the John Adams HBO miniseries, and the person speaking drinks.
3. If you’d like to make a point of order or ask a question, you must raise one hand and hold the other one on your head, such as in the English parliament where they would practice holding their wigs on – and then drink.
(Other drinking games by this group include “Everything I Know, I Learned From West Wing, You Paranoid Shiksa Feminista” and “Wookie Noise, Take a Shot”)
The transcript that follows is that night’s discussion.
FIRST POINT: Was Right or Wrong to Leak the Documents?
A: Alright, we’re recording. First off, leaking docs. You start.
D: I want to start by saying that I think that Wikileaks would still be covered by the First Amendment. Straight out, I’m not talking about the legality of reporting documents. If a thief gives you documents, the First Amendment still covers you. It might not be wise to cover that, it might not be good for the country, and as someone who’s trying to enter the State Department, I have this national interest consideration going on. But, I don’t think that if Julian Assange were completely independent of Bradley Manning, like if he just received these documents, I don’t think that he should not be covered by the First Amendment. We could discuss whether Julian Assange was linked to Bradley Manning. I know they had conversations at least four months before the leaking of the documents.
P: I don’t want to get into too much speculation.
A: Yeah… I don’t know.
D: No, there is a conversation of Bradley Manning speaking to Lamo that says, “oh, you don’t contact him, he contacts you,” through encrypted chat. [Pauses]. No, fuck this, Julian Assange is a tool and I don’t like him. [Laughter]
A: No, focus on the docs. Was is responsible to leak not only Collateral Murder, but the Iraq War Logs, the Afghanistan War Logs, the State Department Cables? Those are the American ones. On top of the Kenyan election documents, the Icelandic banking documents, and all other things that have been released?
D: OK, clearly, I’m not going to argue that the United States government does everything right all the time. There is certainly wrong-doing. But I will say that in every single profession, every single one, there is an idea of privacy, that is essential for the job to get done. There’s a level of privacy necessary. This is true for doctors, lawyers, and even for journalists. Julian Assange himself talks about how it’s necessary to keep sources anonymous and he doesn’t even want to know who his sources are. Although he was in contact with Bradley…
A: That’s beside the point.
D: Alright. The point is that for diplomats, I mean, I know a couple of very honorable diplomats who say, this is necessary. You need to have frank conversations – and I’m talking mostly about the diplomatic cables here – with your diplomatic counterparts in other countries because if you don’t, you can’t express your national interest, you can’t negotiate, you can’t do things that need to be done. That being said, these leaks expose instances of our government doing wrong-doing. I do know somewhat about Afghanistan. But I feel weird talking about this because it gets into the whole, was it news? Was it not news? We already knew civilians were getting killed in Afghanistan; civilians get killed in every war. Is that the deal? Or is the deal that Assange doesn’t believe in Secret classification? His philosophy is that there are governments that are oppressive that use the Secret classification in order to perpetuate their corrupt and wrong-doing ways and that the most cost-effective way to deal with these issues is to leak documents, leak sensitive material, showing off the wrong-doing. I would have less of a problem with Assange if he exposed specific instances of government wrong-doing. Like the cases where we failed to report how many civilians we killed in Afghanistan. Like the instances where the State Department is tracking credit card information, as opposed to intelligence organizations. All this other shit. I would have less of a problem with Assange if he was like, I’m out to expose specific wrong-doing by the government and he goes and releases X government cables and X documents showing off these problems. But instead, he says, no, the Secret classification shouldn’t exist [two bangs in disagreement, laughter] he says the only way to deal with this is transparency. And I don’t know… I think it’s wrong.
P: There are two things you make me think of. First is, we’re not talking about making the diplomatic process transparent. We’re not talking about a law that says we have to have it open all the time. There were instances of communication that were then revealed. So I think there are some instances of secrecy, of privacy, I think you point was very well taken, that that privacy was important. But this is a one-time thing. While there was a lot in those documents that was perhaps superfluous and didn’t really matter and was just plain embarrassing, I think the point you made about the transparency, that’s his deal. He’s not going to say, I have all these documents, I’m only going to release this one and this one because it seems the most pertinent. Then he would be contradicting himself. Once he has the leaked documents, he has to release all of them, based on his own belief system. Because no one can judge who gets what information. So if he has all that information, he’s going to leak all of it. We can argue about if that was right, but since his whole deal is transparency, I think that’s why he leaked it. It wasn’t to be vindictive, it was to be like, I can’t decide who gets to know what, so I’m just going to leak all of it and let the cards fall where they may. And this is the last point I’ll make: I do believe that if there was something in there that jumped out at him, in saying, this I absolutely cannot release, he probably would not. He’s not into having people die, he’s not into having the names and identities of secret agents and specific locations… and in the letter from him, he says that no one has died and that the Pentagon has actually publicly stated that no one has died and no operations have been significantly hindered based on any information that has come out. You can say that those diplomatic negotiations, possibly, but what’s more important is a lot of the illegal stuff that those cables revealed that’s what’s not being talked about in the media that much.
A: Yeah. I would like to piggy-back on that and just agree with your [P] statement that in Assange publishing the secret cables, I think we can all agree, a lot of them were straight-up ridiculous. They were silly, petty gossip and attacks on individuals and served nothing in anyone’s national interest, be it the United States, the French, the Russians, the Iraqis –
D: You’re talking about the Sarkoszy…
A: Yeah, the whatever, those kinds of things, yes, you have to release those if you’re going to release everything else. However, in declassifying those documents with their release, he went through… and not just him, Wikileaks as an organization, went through and redacted information, marked it out, because of what they had learned in the case of the Afghanistan War Logs, where they did publish peoples’ names and had a severe backlash, even though no one was hurt. This is a new organization and they are learning. And they took caution and care to redact names and information that they knew should be kept secret in the interest of saving lives and allowing diplomats to do their jobs.
S: The one thing to add about transparency, though, is that it equals the whole truth. If you want transparency, if that is your mission, you can’t be specific, you have to let out the whole truth. The one question that I would ask Assange if I could, and ask his supporters, if I may, is, what or where is the end game? What’s the purpose? What’s the goal? You have a mission statement and a system of values you’re trying to do and I’m all for releasing information and understanding government transparency and giving out as much information to the American public as you can, but like you [A] said, there’s absolutely no national interest, at all, to any country, so I don’t understand where he’s trying to go. What is he trying to accomplish by doing this?
D: I went onto Wikileaks , which is now like numbers 10427… whatever….
A: Or Wikileaks dot D-E. It’s up in Germany.
D: Right. Well, I looked onto their main page and I couldn’t find a mission statement. They do have a “we are a website, we are a not-for-profit journalism organization stating we are here to facilitate leaks. We don’t know who our sources are and we don’t want to know.” I mean, we’re talking about leaking docs. Transparency is the mission – that’s the goal.
P: He’s for total transparency.
A: No, he’s not.
P: Well, that’s what he stands for.
D: Well, what’s the mission, then? He’s not showing off specific cases of wrong-doing, it’s the whole spectrum, even subjections of the whole spectrum, the documents he got from Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning I respect more than Julian Assange. I did want to mention one thing: redaction. Yes, they do do redaction, in the most recent ones, they learned from Afghanistan, where names of specific informants got revealed, which is harmful. They’ve had to move around, informants have had to go underground; they’ve stopped supplying information. So, they have tried redaction in the State Department logs, but it usually includes, “XXXX who worked for this person, in this year,” and….
This is where the Flip Cam ran out of room. The conversation continued for a few minutes, and then A grabbed a digital voice recorder. The rest was recorded on that device.
D: The only position anyone in the government has taken is one) Eric Holder has said that they’re looking into an investigation, and two) A brought this up earlier, that a staffer to Joe Lieberman, who is on the Armed Services and American Security commission called Amazon.com and then Amazon said…
P: And pressure has been applied to Verizon and Comcast.
D: Right, but pressure… The government is allowed to apply pressure. They’re allowed to make statements saying, we believe that this guy is doing the wrong thing. And it’s not a government instruction, it’s not a demand of any sort. Wikileaks has been shut down because people, through corporations, have said, this guy is shady and we think it could be associated to [disagreement bangs on the table]… And my point is, the government has taken no action, and thus far, has made no action, no law has been passed, no one has said Wikileaks needs to be shut down. It’s entirely on behalf of private corporations, and no one should say it should be shut down.
P: Alright, I have a follow-up question. You do acknowledge that a system needs to be in place so that if an extreme does occur, it is able to be revealed? Would you agree with that?
D: What do you define as an extreme?
A: Would you define Guantanamo Bay water-boarding and the breaking of the Geneva Conventions to be extreme?
P: Sure, absolutely.
D: And I’m saying, that needs to be revealed. I’m saying, the “Secret” classification does need to exist and it shouldn’t be the Australian-born founder of Wikileaks who makes the distinction of what it is. But of all those “Secret” classifications, none of them deserved to be Classified.
P: I’m for preserving that ability. That’s what I’m for. So that makes me have to be an absolutist, if I’m going that way, because I have to be ok with information that I shouldn’t know getting out, because the real information, down the line, that really matters, still needs to be able to come out. We have to be able to keep the government from having the power to stop that at all costs.
D: So I’d say, your philosophy has been reflected in the government’s action. Because so far, no challenge to the First Amendment has been made.
P: I know. You need to be loud about it now, though, to keep it that way.
S: But the one thing that your whole argument has been predicated on, something that really bothers me, beyond Wikileaks and everything else, is that the four of us here, and our peers, are in the minority. And I think what you’re talking about, P, is that if there was sort of a Bradley Manning or Julian Assange before Iraq and Afghanistan, who would leak this information, I think the ability of that information to save lives is predicated on having an informed electorate. And unfortunately, in this country, we don’t. And here’s my thing: I would argue, and I don’t have anything to back this up, so anyone can refute, but I would argue that we are in the minority of the country, having actually gone to the Wikileaks site and read the Iraq War Documents, or the Afghanistan Logs, or seen these videos. So a lot of the ideas about the good that can come from Wikileaks are based on having people that care about government accountability. Unfortunately, gravely unfortunately [rabble, rabble, bangs of agreement, laughter] in this country, the vast majority of our population could give two rats shits about what our government does.
A: Let me jump on that.
S: But you understand what I’m saying – that this information could be invaluable, could have been invaluable before Iraq and Afghanistan, if there were people who were aware of it.
A: We, the four of us, as the minority in the U.S. electorate –
D: - who care about problems –
A: Right, we’re talking about how these documents, had they come out earlier, could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Well, they came out. Who’s to say what could have happened had they not?
S: Hindsight is 20/20.
A: Right. We’re now in a place where we’re having this conversation, and we’re obviously passionate about getting to the bottom of these issues. And one day, we’re going to be the people in the room. We’re representative of the different forms of government, places in government that we’ve seen ourselves working in, working with. Now, I’m saying that when we get there, we’ll have the knowledge of these leaks, they happened, and it really made us think about what the government does, what they should be allowed to do, and that they should inform the public about what they’re doing. Regardless of whether the guy in his armchair with the beer belly in Kansas watching Katie Couric is saying, “what the fuck is Wikileaks and who is Julian Assange and what does it mean,” who hasn’t read the documents, we have read the documents. We know what they say, and why they’re important.
D: I think too much of the debate about Julian Assange is about the symbolism of Julian Assange.
A: Can we stop referring to Julian Assange, when we’re talking about the organization?
D: The leaks, then, the symbolism of Wikileaks -
P: I think the symbolism is valid, because it’s symbolizing the future.
D: Right, but symbolism simplifies, when the reality is that in order to make real decisions… That’s the problem with politics today. Partisanship is simplified down to symbolism. People say, yes, small government is the best kind of government, or you go the other way, for a liberal perspective. But the reality is what’s the best way is complicated. And Julian Assange…
P: Rabble, rabble, I agree. We live in a complicated world, it’s complex.
D: So, the core of Wikileaks is transparency, and I’m all for transparency, but the thing is, if you take transparency too far, if you bring it to an extreme, it doesn’t work.
S: Well, here’s my argument, then: If you want transparency, if that’s your endgame, why is it not ok? Why is it not applicable for government officials to say, “here’s what I know, here’s what I think you should know, and over here is some sensitive information that you don’t know.” Why can’t they come out and honestly tell people, say, “I’m going to tell you this portion, I’m going to tell you as much and be as informative as I feel is appropriate for your safety, and I’m also going to tell you that there are certain things that I’m not saying?”
P: The problem with that, though, is that they do bad things, and you can never actually trust them to be giving you [the information you need].
D: At the State Department, though, every single one of those leaks, every single one of those diplomatic cables is released in a document called “Foreign Service of the United States.” It’s a book that’s released year by year, eighteen years after each publication… no, not eighteen years, it’s actually closer to thirty. But every one of these is going to come out. Every single one of them is going to be published by the United States government. Also, every single of these documents is available, if you prove a case, under the Freedom of Information Act. You can apply, as an American citizen, to receive these documents.
S: But you cannot apply to receive information that is classified or confidential…
D: Confidential is the lowest level of security. Top Secret is high.
S: I’m sorry, that’s what I meant. If it has been deemed Top Secret, the Freedom of Information Act will not give you access.
A: Nothing that was declassified by Wikileaks was Top Secret. Not one thing. They did not release Top Secret documents. Despite what the press says, there are documents that were classified as “Secret,” that detailed Muammar Gaddafi’s four blonde and busty Ukrainian nurses. Why was that labeled Secret? No one will know. But at the end of the day….
D: It’s political gossip. It’s ridiculous.
A: Exactly. Of course it’s ridiculous. But your argument is, these documents were going to be released anyway, eighteen years from now. If these documents are going to be released in the future, they’re not going to do any good then. The point is, had documents been released ten years ago about the Vietnam war, had the Pentagon Papers been released ten years ago, what good would that have done? You know? Who cares is they’re released twenty years late? Right now is when they’re relevant and right now is when they can do the most good.
D: Right. And that’s the transparency that I’m not against. I feel like we can wrap this up right now.
D: Ok, A, you are the present pro-Wikileaks, pro-Assange personality. Do you think there’s a case to be made for saying it’s more defensible to have a Wikileaks that exposes wrong-doing by the government instead of exposing everything by the government?
A: Absolutely. Except for the fact that in exposing the lower-level classifications of documents, you’re going to have a lot of silly bullshit that comes out too. And if you’re…
D: But those aren’t necessarily about wrong-doing.
P: Do you think he should have just released the five or six that –
S: But here’s a question: If you’re going to take “transparency” and you’re going to change it, honestly change it, from transparency to specific issues, then you’re putting a whole ton of trust into Julian Assange to understand and to choose what he feels, a single individual feels is important.
A: Yes, but this is up to a thousand volunteers who are looking through, legitimizing, and fact checking these documents before they get sent to the New York Times and before the American public even sees them. This is an organization that cannot be classified as “This is Julian Assange.” It’s not. It’s a lot of people. Like the guy, Daniel, who has a last name that’s about eighteen syllables long and German, which I can’t pronounce.
P: Ok, there’s one last thing that maybe doesn’t tie into the was-it-right/was-it-wrong debate that I just want to get your guys’ thoughts on: I think that the American consciousness right now is in a very strange place. And I think that a lot of the reaction [rabble, rabble, bangs of agreement, laughter] to these documents, even among the totally uninformed people we were talking about earlier, there is a sense that America is in decline and it can be felt and there can be all different kinds of opinion on that. Is it decline in that it’s actually going down the crapper? Or is it decline in that we are no longer in a uni-polar system and that we’re moving back to a multi-polar system? That alone makes some people uneasy. They like that America was this regional hegemony that understood, was organizing the world, and was making it better. I think some people have reacted to the Wikileaks documents in the way that they just don’t like the idea that American influence can be hurt. They actually don’t care that America was doing bad things because, I don’t know how to say this, they’re like, well, you gotta crack a few eggs to make a cake, or something like that… [laughter]
S: I think it’s about an omelet. [Laughter]
P: Right, well, they’re saying to themselves, at the end of the day, I believe that America is the greatest, best country in the world, or they believe that America is just or that the U.S. government has our best interests in mind. A lot of people think that. And I find myself disagreeing sometimes, especially in terms of history, when we see that the U.S. government did not have our best interests in mind. But I think that’s an interesting way to look at it. A lot of people just have no problem with anything that was revealed and that’s why they’re mad and that’s why they’ll never support Wikileaks, because all they care about, ultimately, are American interests.
D: I think that’s a good note to end on for number one.
A: I think so too.
S: I think there’s a solid corollary, the one thing I find myself coming back to time and time again, in examining Wikileaks and this investigation, is going back to McCarthyism and that you’re targeting individuals that you suspect of wrong-doing, but have absolutely no proof. That was such a horrifying time in American history, that we would target our own citizens for being unethical and betraying, and if we get back to that point, I think it’s only going to lead to a further deprecation of what we believe in as an American, idealized system. And I think P’s completely right, that the majority of us feel or understand that we are not what we were in the early 90’s and we’re not going to be there again. The problem is, we don’t know where we’re going to end up. And that’s a really, really scary idea. To have this uncertain future. So what we try to do as an American public is to try to find as many scapegoats as possible. And I’m gonna blame you and you and you. So for us, it was, I’m going to blame Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and Iran, and North Korea and then I’m going to go back to individuals and I’m going to blame George Bush and Julian Assange. And I’m going to force this blame on anyone who has anything to do with what’s going on in American society. It’s not my fault. It’s everyone else’s fault.
P: What I’m most interested in is once I do come to a conclusion about how I feel about Assange, it’s how do we persuade people? Well, you have to figure out where they’re coming from, which is why I’m…
Parts II and III coming shortly.