Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Debate on WikiLeaks

The Facebook status update that started it all:

Matthew Rozsa
- Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) articulated perfectly the position that needs to be taken against Julian Assange.
Here is the conversation that followed:

Tiguhs OndaBayou
I'm a big fan of wikileaks

Matthew Rozsa
You're practically an anarchist, so I'm not surprised. lol

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Big fan of freedom of the press

Matthew Rozsa
As Senator Feinstein so accurately put it:
"Just as the First Amendment is not a license to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, it is also not a license to jeopardize national security."

Tiguhs OndaBayou
That's just dumb. bogus analogy

Matthew Rozsa
Clearly you're not up on your analogy construction. ;-)

The reason it's illegal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater is because your use of free speech, in that situation, needlessly endangers the lives of innocent people. This is precisely the same reason why you don't have the right to jeopardize national security on First Amendment grounds.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
A lot of media could potentially fit that definition, fyi

Matthew Rozsa
I'm not sure what specific examples you're referring to, but it is entirely possible that I'll agree with some of them.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
jepardizing national security is pretty broad, use your imagination. It shouldn't be so subjective [main point] freedom of the press should be understood as something fundamental [an ideal we should aspire to achieve in reality] and not particular to a certain situation, place or time (such as Wikileaks) otherwise we might as well go after Ellsberg for the pentagon papers, that there is a line I don't like to see crossed. Throw him in jail for good you say, I don't see it as right

Matthew Rozsa
While I agree that the term "national security interest" can be used too broadly, the same can easily be said of "freedom of the press." All liberties, to be truly sound and just, must include inherent limitations, all of which begin at the precise point when the freedoms which they endow to one individual violate the rights of others. This is a basic principle upon which our founding fathers, from Jefferson and Madison to Franklin and Hamilton, staunchly agreed.

The question, therefore, insofar as the WikiLeaks controversy is concerned is not WHETHER it is right to prosecute speech on the basis of national security, but rather WHEN it is right to do so. In cases such as those of Seymour Hersh (who exposed the My Lai massacre), Daniel Ellsberg (who exposed the fraudulent basis of the Vietnam War), and Joseph Wilson (who exposed the fraudulent basis of the Iraq War), those leaks were distinguished by two facts:

(a) They achieved a greater social good by enlightening the public about serious moral wrongs perpetrated by the state.

(b) They could not be reasonably construed to have either directly harmed or caused potential harm to other human beings.

Neither of these criteria apply to the Assange leaks:

(a) Assange did not expose great lies about why we went to war or of acts of mass murder that had been covered up. Indeed, the worst moral offenses that he brought to light involve the kind of diplomatic chicaneries and backbiting in which every nation in the world engages - and, what's more, needs to be able to pursue without worrying about public exposure. As liberal pundit Christopher Hitchens pointed out:

"One of civilization's oldest and best ideas is that all countries establish tiny sovereign enclaves in each other's capitals and invest these precious enclaves of peaceful resolution with special sorts of immunity. That this necessarily includes a high degree of privacy goes without saying. Even a single violation of this ancient tradition may have undesirable unintended consequences, and we rightly regard a serious breach of it with horror."

(b) Assange's leaks have directly imperiled our nation's ability to effectively fight real terrorist threats. As conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer observed:

"The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they're letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government's doing... this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its (al-Qaeda's) Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security."

Remember that Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric in Yemen with close ties to al Qaeda, has been connected to the Fort Hood shooting, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bombing attempt, the attempted assassination of a British cabinet minister, the recent bombing attempts on several Chicago synagogues, and even the Manhattan kook who threatened the creators of "South Park" (al-Awlaki also issued a fatwa on the head of the woman who orchestrated "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" in response to the "South Park" incident). Considering that he has repeatedly made efforts to attack the United States, it stands to reason that he will continue to try - and may very well succeed - until he is stopped. There can be little doubt that Assange's revelation has just thrown a serious kink in our ability to achieve that result... and this, by the way, is just one example from WikiLeaks.

The reason so many people are defending Julian Assange, as I see it, is that we live in a world in which people with an anti-establishmentarian ideology find it impossible to believe that a so-called "underdog" could be wrong when it takes on an institution that (correctly or otherwise) is perceived as having great power. Unfortunately, such a knee-jerk assumption ignores the fact that reality is much more complicated than any simplistic designations of "good guys" and "bad guys" would have you believe. Yes, the use of our government's power can be wrong (slavery, the genocide against American Indians, federal support of segregation, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the My Lai massacre), but it can also be used to achieve great good (Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second National Bank, Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt's trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman's reconstruction of Europe and Japan under George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur, Lyndon Johnson's passage of civil rights legislation in 1964, 1965, and 1968). Even though it is chic to have a default cynicism toward the American government, that doesn't mean that approach is factually or morally correct, just as the fact that it was fashionable to be blindly patriotic in the 1890s or 1950s doesn't mean that THAT mentality was the right one. Truth, because it is so nuanced and convoluted, will always defy simplistic categorizations, and people who fail to recognize this do so at their own peril.

Matthew Rozsa
PS: Please post your responses on my blog article. I want to keep this conversation going (assuming you're interested, of course), but it's a pain-in-the-ass to reformat and copy-and-paste everything from Facebook to Blogspot. If you just posted your thoughts in the comments section of the article on that website, it would make my life a lot easier.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Assange has put the the TRUTH out there for all to see, whether the impact is good or bad, is not a concern to me.

Also, anytime I see you reference Krauthammer, I know u are reaching.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Should we also prosecute the many mainstream news orgs, including the AP, for working in tandem with wikileaks?

Tiguhs OndaBayou

Matthew Rozsa
‎1) If something is true than it automatically ought to be said, regardless of whether its impact is positive or negative? Boy I hope your future wife never asks you how she looks on an off day.

2) I may not agree with Krauthammer ideologically, but he is still an intelligent and honest source of information.

3) Prosecuting the members of mainstream news organizations who abetted him would be impractical, although I frankly feel they are complicit in this crime.

After this I repeated my request that Tiguhs post all future comments on my blog article.


Anonymous said...

Why do you favour govt secrecy?

Matthew Laszlo said...

That's a very black-and-white way of looking at this issue. While I don't believe the government should keep secrets simply for the hell of it, the reality is that some secrets are necessary for our national security. What if someone had leaked that we were using the Navajo language as a military code during World War II? What if it had been published that we were planning on invading Normany on June 6, 1944? What if it had published our strategies in trying to capture terrorists who are trying to kill Americans (oh wait, it did)?

Those are just two examples that illustrate my larger point, i.e., that in order for the government to properly do its job of protecting the public, certain types of information can't be made available to the public. Idealists like to talk about how "nothing should be secret," but such a notion is naive.

Anonymous said...

Those are the same Bush-era arguments the right wing used to levy against certain NY Times articles. Have u considered the legal implications of convicting Assange with the espionage act? Ellsberg said he would be indictable if SCOTUS were to uphold such a thing

Matthew Laszlo said...

Just because my arguments were used by the Bush Administration in the name of an unjust cause doesn't mean that those arguments are never valid. After all, the Bush people also used the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as the entire basis of their (ultimately successful) case to have Florida stop its recount in the 2000 election. Even though they were wrong for using it in that situation, does that mean the Equal Protection Clause is NEVER valid?

I mention this because, although the government did try to use national security interests as an excuse to prosecute Ellsberg, they were wrong for doing so because the Pentagon Papers didn't reveal anything that actually jeopardized the safety of the American people. Assange, on the other hand, has revealed information that has the definite potential to harm soldiers and civilians alike, thus making his actions an undeniable threat to national security. In short, the reason the government was wrong for using the "national security" argument against Ellsberg wasn't because the position itself is invalid, but rather because they cited it in a situation where it did not apply. To argue that that means they also shouldn't use it when it clearly DOES apply is absurd.

Incidentally, your responses have utterly failed to rebut - hell, to even ADDRESS - the central thesis of my article, which was repeated by British columnist Margaret Wente earlier today:

"Julian Assange is no champion of openness, transparency and democracy. His stated aim is to bring down institutions of government and business by crippling their ability to communicate internally and share information. He’s no Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. He’s more like Ted Kaczynski, who didn’t care what he blew up."

The problem with the radicals championing Assange is that they are so busy being wrapped up in opposing "the establishment" and supporting "the underdog" that they forget that sometimes the underdog is wrong and the establishment is right.

Anonymous said...

You turned this into something about Assange and not the fundamental issue of free press/speech. If we prosecute Assange under the espionage act we may open the door to further prosecution of media, past and present.

While prosecution makes sense in your moral universe it certainly does not in the realm of the judiciary branch of the US

Matthew Laszlo said...

"You turned this into something about Assange and not the fundamental issue of free press/speech."

This statement contains the classic logical fallacy known as "begging the question" - i.e., an argument that is flawed because the premise upon which its advocate is basing it acts under the assumption that its conclusion is already true. In this case, you assert that I am wrong for focusing on the details of Assange's case instead of the larger questions of First Amendment rights, but that claim only holds water if one takes for granted that the Assange controversy is purely a free speech issue. Considering that many on the left and right feel otherwise, and I have already devoted quite a bit of language to explaining why I think it is otherwise, you are not in a logically sound position to make that assumption.

"If we prosecute Assange under the espionage act we may open the door to further prosecution of media, past and present."

First, it is impossible to prosecute a case 'ex post facto' (after the fact), so any past offenders will not need to worry. As for future prosecutions, I strongly doubt that they will be nearly as fast and thick as you fear. After all, you act as if Assange's actions constituted a standard journalistic scoop or expression of opinion; in fact, they willfully endangered the lives of innocent people. Speech that threatens people's lives and is used with the knowledge that it has that potential is not protected by the First Amendment, regardless of whether one feels it is sanctified by a chic political cause. Just as deliberately inciting a violent panic is not legitimate free speech, so too is revealing secrets that endanger American lives not permissible.

"While prosecution makes sense in your moral universe it certainly does not in the realm of the judiciary branch of the US."

Because we live in a free society, you have the right to say that; however, if you want people who use logic instead of emotion to take it seriously, you might want to back it up with more than just self-confidence. Say what you will about me, but I have supported to the hilt every argument that I've made here, regardless of whether they ultimately turn out to be right or wrong. You have not done the same.