What the WikiLeaks scandal tells us about the US government

My first exposure to WikiLeaks, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, came from the April release of the “collateral murder” video, which showed US soldiers arguably lying to their commanding officers in order to get permission to fire on unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists, then firing on a van carrying children when the adult passengers tried to evacuate wounded from the area. The official military report of the incident from 2007 claimed the reporters were killed during a skirmish against local militia forces; the video exposed that as not just factually inaccurate but something like mythology-level liberality with regard to the truth; if the US government had been bullshitting any harder on that one they would have invoked stories of giant wooden horses and blue oxen to explain what happened that day.

The most damning thing about the video from a policy perspective wasn’t the events of the video itself–though the video’s more chock full of awful than a week old roadkill omelet–but the fact that the US government covered up the incident and hid the video, presumably to save face. Reuters had been trying to get the US government to honor a FOIA request for the same video for two years before WikiLeaks released it. Having seen the video, do I think the US government would have ever willingly released it? It’s extremely doubtful; they would probably have used the “interests of national security” defense, as they do so often when questioned about their actions, especially when scrutiny of those actions makes them look bad or hinders their grasp on power. Even if the US government had eventually honored Reuters’ FOIA request, the video probably would have been redacted to uselessness.

I’m not here to talk about the April video, but I bring it up because it marked the point at which I personally took an interest in WikiLeaks, and it was around that time the US government apparently started taking them seriously as well. The WikiLeaks story is ongoing; I can’t say much about it at the moment because there’s no way of knowing what will come out in the WikiLeaks insurance file, how the “okay maybe it wasn’t really rape and we know we dropped the charges earlier but we just want to question him and we can’t do it over the phone for some reason so please arrest him” case against Julian Assange will go or whether or not those calling for Assange’s assassination will get their wish. I can’t say if the Sweden inappropriate sex case is being manipulated by the CIA like parts of the Internet are suggesting or it’s just a matter of ill-timed coincidence and prosecutorial incompetence; my personal version of Occam’s razor tends to side with incompetence over conspiracy when it comes to governments fucking people over, but then again, who can say for sure at this point? I can, however, comment on the way the US government has responded to WikiLeaks and what that method of response suggests about the ideas those in the government have about government’s role in the United States of America in the year 2010 CE.

The United States of America is a republic, which means the federal government has substantial power to run the country but is all the same subject to, and exists for the sole purpose of serving, the American public. I’ve heard the US government referred to as “our rulers,” which always sends a shiver down my spine, for it represents a crucial and damning misunderstanding of the role of government in a free nation. The US government is not a collection of rulers, but is in fact a collection of employees of the American people, no different from the lady behind the DMV counter who renews your driver’s license (well, except in the sense that the lady at the DMV is probably a lot more honest and probably puts in a solid eight hours of real work every day). Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner–these are not authority figures, but public servants. An American citizen meeting an elected official is not a subject meeting his or her ruler, but the boss meeting one of his or her employees.

In a proper republic, the government is not an ends to itself, but rather a means for the protection of the people. There should be no sense of “government interests” apart from the interests of the people represented by that government. The government is a non-entity, a tool; perhaps it could be said that, ideally, government should be more verb than noun.

This does not seem to be the way the Washington, D.C. establishment sees things. Certainly the reaction to WikiLeaks suggests otherwise, for the government’s hostile reaction to WikiLeaks seems to come not from any threat to the American people, but rather a threat to the pride and power of those within the government. There are calls to detain, torture and/or assassinate Assange coming from within the government, and they’re prompted not by him, say, killing people or stealing millions of dollars, but by forcing them to be honest about their opinions on other world leaders and exposing instances when the American government has acted for the benefit of those in power to the detriment of the citizens it supposedly serves. In short, Assange has taken away the government’s ability to lie and get away with it. For this, they are calling for his head.

This belies an attitude within the federal government that the government has the right to lie to the American people, and that attempts to curtail that “right” are to be met with severe legal repercussions. Remember, we’re not talking about matters of “national security” here, though that’s the first defense always trumped up for government secrecy; we’re talking about instances such as the US government lying about its involvement in bombings in Yemen (certainly something the voters should know about) and using its international clout to kill a Spanish investigation into the Bush administration’s use of torture against terrorism suspects (again, something the American public should know about), just for a couple examples that have come out of the recent batch of cables released. These are not facts that members of the US government hid from the public in order to better protect us; these are facts that members of the US government hid from the public in order to maintain their own grasps on power, evade public oversight and pursue their own agendas. As we see from the two examples above, those agendas apparently fly in the face of what would actually serve the American people (which is to say, not engendering overseas hatred of the USA by killing civilians in other countries and then lying about it, and not acting in a way that allows the torturers from the previous administration to continue walking scot-free and thus encourages future administrations to trample peoples’ civil rights with the knowledge they’ll go unpunished for it).

The US government’s response to WikiLeaks has nothing to do with WikiLeaks posing a threat to the American public. It has to do with WikiLeaks posing a threat to the US government establishment as an ends in itself. That is what the people in Washington care about, and that is why they want Assange’s head on a platter. Blow up a few buildings and they’ll kind of half-assedly look for you for a while until they get locked into another meaningless war. But expose them as liars and frauds using records of their own words? Then the gloves come off and taking you down is priority number one.

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