The world being what it is, we cynics get little respite. Once in a while, though, something makes your heart soar. I felt that in April, when I saw a YouTube video called ‘Collateral Murder’. Now I’d like to find Julian Assange and give him a big hug and a kiss. And maybe a sandwich and a clean t-shirt. And maybe donate my life savings to his website WikiLeaks.org, which this week was to Rolling Stone’s general-slaying report what a nuclear bomb is to a firecracker.
The big deal is not what the 92,000-document ‘Afghan War Diary’ reveals, which is, in sum, that Pakistan is a creepy double-dealer and that the United States prefers to be bitch-slapped than to risk a geostrategic alliance, even as it hushes up its own indiscretions on the battlefield. Everyone knew that. The big deal is that graphic official evidence of it could impact US public sentiment, thus far contained by the curt phrase ‘national security’, and maybe prompt policy change.
But the much bigger deal is that WikiLeaks itself, in concept and execution, has come to the world’s notice as a game-changer in journalism and the way information is accessed and processed. For the first time, whistleblowers across the world have a relatively safe, technologically sophisticated platform where they can anonymously expose secret documentation—military, political, corporate or any other kind. Information thus declassified and released to the public is potentially volcanic. Is it even legal? Assange’s response to that is a metaphorical middle finger, and several wins in court. That, I like to think, should make the abuse of power a little less easy, or at least a little less carefree.
Some of WikiLeaks’s techniques strike me as similar to those of terrorist networks: armies of anonymous volunteer workers; cells of activity, each of which has knowledge of only a limited part of the system so that any compromise is also limited; an individual, mobile, guerrilla style of operation. Hundreds of people work with Assange, but WikiLeaks is more or less synonymous with the 39-year-old Australian, and almost nobody knows where he is until he surfaces for a TED Talk here or a press conference there. The New Yorker magazine calls WikiLeaks “not quite an organisation; it is better described as a media insurgency”.
And indeed, Assange—a tall, baby-faced, low-voiced, steely-eyed mathematician, physicist and hacker—is an extremist, a crusader for the just individual against the dodgy institution. He despises the cosy mutual back-scratching between journalists and ‘official sources’ that so constrains mainstream reporting. And he takes the fall for the whistleblowers he protects, so, paradoxically, this champion of transparency is paranoid and slippery as an eel himself, living an almost impossibly transient life. In his youth he went through 37 schools as he travelled with his mother; spent days in the wild by himself, has slept in parks and on floors. Today he lives out of a knapsack, sleeps in the houses of friends of friends or in hotels, and constantly changes his phone number and email address. Home is any of four places where he holes up if he falls sick.
WikiLeaks could well be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse itself; but Assange is something of a modern-day hero in a world that has too few. If you hadn’t heard of him before, chances are you’ll hear of him again. I wish him ever-greater paranoia and elusiveness, because I can just see shadowy officials in dark corridors trying to figure out how to get rid of him.
WikiLeaks has an India page. May many more Indians use it, and may many more keep track of it. God knows we could use some help with transparency.