In the end, it’s all about information and who owns it.
Governments take information very seriously, believe that even though we pay for it, they own it — and therefore think it right and proper to keep it hidden from us.
Governments do that because they know that information truly is power. And if governments hold all the significant information, governments hold all the significant power.
In fact, governments take information so seriously that they only voluntarily release information that’s inoffensively bland or makes them look good. The other stuff they label secret and hide it behind laws which make it a crime for anyone to divulge.
But there are more and more people around the world who think information gathered by our governments actually belongs to the people who pay for it. And that the people, therefore, are entitled to know what’s going on in the corridors of power and, especially, what’s being done in their name.
Julian Assange the Australian who founded WikiLeaks is one of those people. For the past year he’s been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, a pale ghost charged by the U.S. with publishing huge amounts of its military and diplomatic documents, many marked secret (governments would mark laundry lists secret if they thought they could get away with it).
This, of course, seriously embarrasses the Americans and any allies mentioned in the leaks. Nobody likes their Machiavellian (“the end justifies the means”) connivings aired to the world.
(Not at all incidentally, a microphone has been discovered hidden in the Ecuador Ambassador’s office. I presume put there by Britain’s intelligence agency, MI5. James Bond and all that, you know!)
Another great whistleblower who believes that information belongs to the people is Pfc. Bradley Manning who sent Assange many of the documents he published on WikiLeaks. It was the largest leak of classified information in American history.
Manning is on trial in an American military court and could get a life sentence for “aiding the enemy” by leaking U.S. military secrets. He’s said he sent the documents to WikiLeaks because he wanted the world to know the truth about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He joins a whole lot of people who want to know the truth about those American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are examples of traditionally brutal big-power colonialism, long after we thought colonialism in the “send a gunboat up the river” sense was finished. In the glorious Viet Nam tradition, of course, the Americans lost both wars.
Then there’s Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who’s living in limbo in the transit area of a Moscow airport, trying to arrange refuge in South America. He too leaked secrets to WikiLeaks, including top-secret details about U.S. surveillance programs for which he’s been charged with various espionage-related crimes.
All in all, thanks to WikiLeaks and its whistleblowers, we’ve learned an incredible amount about how governments — particularly the U.S. government — scheme, conspire, collude, connive and lie, both to each other and to the people who elected them.
Which is why my nomination for the next Nobel Peace Prize is WikiLeaks and its three great whistleblowers — Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
Then there’s their president who already has a Nobel of his own, (although the requirements were obviously much lower back then) who has to handle all this whistleblowing.
Obama wasn’t helped recently when it was leaked that secret NSA surveillance programs give his government access to both phone records and data on how people use the Internet.
(Canada, not to be left behind, is in the same business — mass surveillance of citizens. Seems our government, just like the Americans, has approved a secret electronic eavesdropping program that checks our telephone records and Internet use. It’s the Harper government, you may remember which won the Canadian Association of Journalists much un-coveted Code of Silence Award last year.)
All this is the sort of state snooping that rightly enrages civil libertarians, privacy advocates and anyone who respects participatory democracy. Such folk believe that the state has no business knowing about our sex lives, our phone calls and what we do on the Internet.
Obama weakly defended the NSA snoops:
“They help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
Then he got to the core of the whole thing:
“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have hundred percent security, and also then have one hundred percent privacy, and zero inconvenience.”
He’s right, of course.
In the end, it’s all a question of balance.
At the moment, though, the balance — because of 9/11 and the rampant paranoia it caused — is far too heavily weighted in favour of government. Maybe in a ratio of around 95 for governments, five for us.
Of course, there are some secrets that government must keep.
I can’t tell you what they are, because they’re being kept secret.
But I do remember a hot-as-hell evening in the Congo, sitting with the American consul to Katanga province (graduate of McGill University, Montreal) discussing exactly this question over large bottles of the local Simba beer.
We were discussing why it was impossible to get accurate information from the United Nations who were engaged in an on-again, off-again war with the Katangese over who owned the province’s gold, diamonds and copper.
The consul put the government/citizen information imbalance better than anyone else I’ve ever come across. “When it comes to information, it’s like the bully in the nursery,” he said. “The more toys the bully can grab and hold onto, the more power he has, the more respect he gets and thus the more bargaining ability he has.”
The American consul added wryly “My government’s no exception.”
And we ordered another Simba and argued over the blatant misinformation the U.N. used to justify going to war to stop Katanga seceding from the Congo.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on July 19, 2013: Give the Nobel Prize to Snowden, Assange and Manning