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Commentary: WikiLeaks brings out the worst in U.S.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2010 - Recent calls to designate WikiLeaks a terrorist organization (Rep. Peter King), to compare Julian Assange to Osama bin Laden (Sarah Palin) and to call for his assassination (Jonah Goldberg) represent the worst kind of irresponsible rhetoric. This raises serious questions about elected officials and the corporate media who cover them. What is it about WikiLeaks that brings out the authoritarian instincts of both elected officials and the corporate media?

Both entities maintain they are concerned about safety: the safety of not only U.S. citizens but of Afghani and Iraqi civilians, too. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the most recent leak of diplomatic cables an attack on the international community. Bush administration CIA director Michael Hayden declared that innocents will die as a result of WikiLeaks. Similarly, Adm. Mike Mullen claimed WikiLeaks has blood on its hands.

In spite of this, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell stated  that there had been no evidence of any harm to any person due to WikiLeaks. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the consequences of the most recent release for U.S. foreign policy are "fairly modest." The Pentagon and the Department of Defense both say that there is nothing to show that WikiLeaks' releases have hurt anyone and that the damage to our foreign policy, if any at all, will be negligible. If Geoff Morrell and Robert Gates are right, why is Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., calling for Wikileaks to be designated a terrorist organization and why is Jonah Goldberg calling for Julian Assange to be "garroted in his hotel room?"

Goldberg fits seamlessly into a category of pundits  and journalists who beat their chests ferociously  in cheerleader like support of virtually any U.S. policy that promises to protect national security. One may reasonably argue that Goldberg is more of a fringe pundit, operating in the far right wing of conservative media. However, even purportedly liberal outlets such as CNN  have almost unanimously concluded that the government must be allowed to operate in secrecy and that WikiLeaks should be punished for exposing the government's actions. As Glenn Greenwald  pointed out, the New York Times' Bill Keller believes that he should seek the government's authorization before publishing any WikiLeaks documents.

For King, the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, the answer may be as simple as politics. Ratcheting up the rhetoric will play well with his conservative supporters. However, elected officials across the political spectrum  have shown a willingness to follow suit and attempt to hold Wikileaks accountable for the possible damage they may cause to unnamed citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Contrast these safety concerns for innocent foreign nationals to an almost complete and total lack of concern for those who have actually been killedinjured  or displaced as a direct result of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. If concern for the mere possibility that innocent people will be harmed as a result of WikiLeaks actions motivates our government and media, they should express their concerns for the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who have died in Iraq  and Afghanistan, the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have died there, and the 20-some odd thousand permanently disabled U.S. combat veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similarly, when former President George Bush repeatedly and publicly admitted  that he authorized torture, where were the calls from Wolf Blitzer for prosecution or even accountability? Doesn't an admission by the president of the United States of America that he authorized torture bring embarrassment and shame on us? The legal case here is even clearer: the U.N. Convention on Torture obligates to prosecute torture dating back to President Reagan. If President Bush authorized torture, and make no mistake about it waterboarding  is torture, then not only should he and his administration face prosecution for those crimes, but President Obama is also violating U.S.  and International Law  by not prosecuting them.

Given this contradiction, it simply is no longer plausible that concern for the safety of foreign nationals motivates the attacks on WikiLeaks. So, what explains it?

WikiLeaks directly threatens the power and credibility of both government and media. Governments seek to control information and bristle when anyone threatens their dominion. While the media historically played this role, (and ended up on enemies lists as a result) they now see their role as patriotic defenders of government secrecy. At its best, WikiLeaks lays bare government lies as well as the media's failure to point them out to us. Ultimately, the unseemly collusion between government and media in the defense of secrecy threatens more than just WikiLeaks and Julian Assange; it threatens our democracy.

Thomas Harvey is a lawyer in St. Louis. 

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