Sunday, August 4, 2013

Julian Assange Right or Wrong ?


This discussion is wider than Julian Assange. It brings in Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou – the CIA whistleblower who revealed that the US used waterboarding torture techniques, and received a 30 month prison sentence as a reward.

But the talk shall be confined to Assange, for it embraces the issues raised by all others
The talk also brings in those philosophers that have raised the question of a social contract – the contract that we, the governed, have with those who govern us - Thomas Hobbes., John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known.  Machiavelli and Montesquieu have also added their contribution; Machiavelli on the power of the prince and Montesquieu  in "The Spirit of Laws" 1748,  on the separation of powers. Montesquieu advocated the freedom of thought, speech and assembly. He also left us with
..constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go
All, except Hobbes, and Machiavelli, treat the social contract as a contract between equals. Hobbes argues that we ought to be willing to submit ourselves to political authority. In The Leviathan 1651.That authority, for Hobbes was a powerful king.  "The war of all against all" he argued, could only be averted by strong central government.
Locke 1632-1704 views the basis of all morality, that we not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions in  Two Treatises on Government.. 1689.  But does not  set out who , the people or the government , is the ultimate decision taker.
 Rousseau 1762  in The Social Contract has perhaps the most useful concepts for today’s world: In the  Discourse on Political Economy, he sets out that the law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation.
My own construct is simple. I have a contract with those who are in government. When I come to vote, I have the right to know what that party and that representative believes, and how they act  - in dealing with  other politicians, and with other powers. I vote for the  representative and the  party that best represent my values. Although neither may be elected, I still have that right.. If that information is kept secret from me, that contract has been broken
In general I wish to know if the extent to which they reflect my own values, so that I make my choice as fully informed  partner .  Among many values I seek to identify, I would wish to know if they had behaved immorally, for I would like to believe that I would reject unacceptable behaviour.
On this basis, I believe that I have the right to the information released   by Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou.
 I place, however, two reservations or conditions on this assertion:

!. Whoever releases the information believes it to be true
2. That no harm is done by the release

Julian Assange, through Bradley Manning, released four sets of documents:

April 2010                  The Apache helicopter gunship video, killing Reuters correspondents and civilians
July 2010                    The Afghan war logs
October 2010            The Iraq war logs. It was about this time that the Swedish sex allegations arose
November 2010        The Embassy cables
Under the concept that a social contract exists between us and those who govern us, I would argue that we all have a democratic and moral right to the information that was provided by Wikileaks. Some will claim that political discussions between members of say, cabinet, or between the diplomatic representatives of two powers, should not be public information. They argue that the process of reaching a decision is tentative, that political representatives would be unable to reach decisions if all their tentative negotiations were to become public. I disagree.  
I answer that tentative discussions would be recognisable as such  And in any case , the end position of that political leader  will come out over time, and that is the position I would like to know,
Before reaching the conclusion that I am entitled to the information released by Assange and Bradley Manning  I need, however, first to check that my two conditions –the validity of the information and the avoidance of harm.- have been met.
There is little doubt that the information was true, for it was presented as actual documents - Official US documents.  There was editing of the releases, but   they were obviously from the sources that they were claimed to have come from.
There has been much controversy, however,  over whether the editing was sufficient to eliminate harm to any Afghani or Iraqi who had worked with the US and allied forces, and particularly Assange’ s statement that  those who collaborated with the allied troops deserved to be named  ( Charlie Beckett with James Ball “Wikileaks;,2012, Polity ,p.86, quoting a Guardian Newspaper source).  Assange has denied this allegation but has argued that the risk “was the greater good”.
If the allegations against Assange are true, they raise serious questions about my willingness to support Assange’s actions. .There certainly was editing of the releases, although sketchy with the first set on Afghan. Also there has been no evidence since that any names were released to the detriment of the persons concerned. “.It should also be noted that after Manning’s trial, , Brig Gen Robert Carr, an intelligence expert who led a Pentagon task force investigating the damage done by the leaks, stated on the first day of the sentencing hearing in a military court in Fort Meade, that no-one named in the Afghan war logs was killed (BBC blog, “ Manning Sentencing”,1 August 2013,
A related issue is whether the information gave aid to the enemy. We need to acknowledge that in times of war, to provide such information is not acceptable. But it has not yet been shown how the information has been of value to the enemy..Bradley Manning was absolved of this charge
The issues of harm to collaborators must also be raised in the case of Bradley Manning , who had no ability to check the documents . I turn to that issue in a moment for they affect how we regard Assange,
One final concluding sentence:. Assange has been described in many unfavourable terms He has also fallen out with many of his colleagues, The editors of The Guardian, Daniel Domscheit Berg ,who has published a very critical memoir, in particular. He is described and comes through in the movie “ We steal secrets” as egotistical, uncompromising, self –opinionated.
My final statement is that it matters little, even if all these statements are true, One’s like or dislike of Julian Assange is immaterial,
To return to Bradley Manning:. He has stated that he could not keep quiet about the issues he saw in the documents -  the Apache helicopter; the US condoning the torture of captives by the Iraqi military, innocent people at Guantanamo Bay. Manning could not check all documents He therefore released information, some of which had  the potential to harm, both Afghani collaborators as well as US diplomats who were withdrawn after the embassy cables were released

The alternative for Manning was not to release the information . I trust that you join with me in saying that the world has advanced one step further through Manning’s release of that material. It has also moved forward, by Assange in publishing it.  Moving forward in the sense that we are all now better unformed on what our governments may do. And to take such action as we see fit.  We now have the information to say, publicly, “I disagree”. 


At August 21, 2013 at 1:10 PM , Blogger Richard Schmidt said...

Peter, this is a strong argument supporting these men. I believe firmly that overall more good than harm was achieved by them. Good in this case refers to the overall health of a democratic society. We have been harmed by what I now regard as a rogue agency--the NSA. It also seems clear that we did more harm than good in Iraq and are probably repeating that experience or perhaps repeating our own Vietnam experience in Afghanistan. Thank you for this posting.


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