Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Assange v. Snowden - how to leak

There is a lengthy account in a recent London Review of Books by writer Andrew O’Hagan on his job ghosting an authorized autobiography of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks star now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Together with the Alex Gibney film on Assange’s doings, We Steal Secrets, it paints an unflattering picture of the architect of leaking as a modern antidote to our increasingly Orwellian world. Assange is described in exasperating detail faking his way through the collaboration, shirking his chores and deadlines, speaking imprudently and then disclaiming himself, abusing his aides and generally acting like a brat.

What emerges from all this information about the first round of massive revelations via electronic contraband is how brilliantly Edward Snowden, by contrast, has managed his contribution to it. Snowden, unlike Chelsea (ex-Bradley) Manning, Assange’s alleged megasource, entrusted his files to seasoned reporters with strict instructions to vet and cull the material to prevent potential harm to intelligence sources. Snowden is being trashed anyway as a traitor, turncoat, foreign mole and whatnot, but those hysterical accusations are easily seen as the flailings of the secret spy state as being caught out.

Greenwald in this summary piece posted at his new outlet, The Intercept, lays out with precision how it worked: Snowden made the files available, Greenwald and many others working on specific pieces of the data (The Guardian, O Globo in Brazil, Der Spiegel in Germany, etc.) then turned it into reportage as an appropriate utilization of the public’s democratic right to know what is being done in our name. While the revelations are embarrassing to the powerful, they are no more damaging than the Pentagon Papers harmed the Vietnam war effort. By showing us how we are being lied to, we, the sovereign people, can determine whether we want to pursue things like the destruction of Vietnam or mass vacuuming of cellphone data—or not.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that Assange and Manning made Snowden possible and illustrated, through their errors, how better to bring needed information to the light of day. It must have dawned on Snowden that he was sitting on a cache of information at least as devastating to the hidden schemes of our rulers as Manning’s video of U.S. soldiers mowing down a cameraman or embassy cables on the Tunisian dictator’s massive thefts.

I’m not a fan of the personality theory of history or the psychological interpretation of people’s reasons for doing the right thing—we’ve heard too much about how the abolitionists were somehow oddballs for wanting to eliminate slavery. But reading about Assange’s erratic approach to something as clearcut as producing a book to outline his life and work is awfully telling. The contrast is stark: Snowden is prudent, systematic and astute in his choice of allies; Assange is none of those things. Yet each has had tremendous impacts, the outcomes of which will only become clear in time.

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