Tuesday, December 07, 2010

So Julian Assange is arrested. And not granted bail.

Anyone want to give odds on the likelihood of him a) being extradited to Sweden, b) then being extradited to the US? c) then being sent off to Guantanamo Bay for an indefinite period of extra-legal torture and imprisonment?

The thing is, the second and third are unimaginable. We think "this couldn't possibly happen". The Swedes wouldn't let it. The US wouldn't really have the face (or "bad taste" or something) to do it.

The problem is, while I still find it unthinkable, we know that the unthinkable has been happening over and over recently. Why would the US not try to get Sweden to give him up? Why would US diplomats who already pressurized Germany not to investigate and prosecute CIA operatives over extraordinary rendition, not feel like pushing for Assange to be given to them? Why would Obama, with his hands on the next best public enemy to Osama Bin Laden, not feel pressurized by a rampant Republican Congress, mass right-wing wing uprising and Fox News, to toss them Assange as a distraction?

I feel frustrated and angry with myself for succumbing to such paranoid fantasies. This must be mere romanticizing and scare-mongering. And yet I don't know where to find the surety to comfort me that such events are impossible.

While on the subject of paranoia, there's an interesting quote that's been going around recently from Evgeny Morozov in the Financial Times.

There are two paths [wikileaks] could now take. One would see a radical global network systematically challenging those in power – governments & companies alike – just for the sake of undermining “the system”. Its current quest for transparency, however sloppily executed, could soon become an exercise in anger, one leak at a time. Alternatively, WikiLeaks could continue moving in the more sensible direction that, in some ways, it is already on: collaborating with traditional media, redacting sensitive files, & offering those in a position to know about potential victims of releases the chance to vet the data. It is a choice between WikiLeaks becoming a new Red Brigades, or a new Transparency International. And forcing Mr Assange to go down the former route would have far more disastrous implications for American interests than anything revealed by the current dump of diplomatic cables.

The proposal is interesting, but one thing nags me. If you were a government (or better yet, a conspiracy of the powerful, networked across governments) who were afraid of everything wikileaks represented and determined to stamp it out, which would you rather it became? A discredited, violent, almost universally reviled, group of romantic failures? Or a respected, diligent, permanent feature of the political reality? Would you rather wikileaks burned itself out in a spasm of indignant attacks on privacy, winning world-wide enmity? Or would you rather it became a permanent new check on the abuses committed by those in power?

In other words, I think there's very little chance indeed that Assange will be treated well by the authorities in order to help stabilize and normalize the relations between wikileaks and world governments.

Just saying ...


John Powers said...

I think your analysis of how Assange's fate is hard to fault. But the question to what degree Assange is WikiLeaks seems still open; I think even to national authorities.

I haven't read "One Thousand Plateaus" and am hardly an analyst, but I do have some variety of witchgrass in my garden. I often feel proud thinking I've eradicated every bit of root on a patch of ground. But always a green shoot emerges and somehow the ground is overtaken.

Of course I could just mow the grass down, but I want flowers and productive stuff to grow there, so mowing won't do.

The stash of leaks WikiLeaks now has is held in a distributed way. There are enough "shoots" to cover a lot of ground. WikiLeaks as an organization may be organized well enough to maintain a disciplined release of documents even without Assange.

In the garden the best I can do is to discourage the witchgrass, I can't stamp it out. It took me a while to figure that out. By way of analogy there are people in government smart enough to know Evgeny Morozov isn't talking nonsense. In the longer view Morozov's second path is more manageable all around. It may take a while for them to figure that out.

I doubt even knowing the more sensible path will prevent serious abuse of Julian Assange.

Composing said...

Absolutely. Assange isn't wikileaks, and I don't expect the idea or even the organization to be seriously damaged by his removal. Indeed, it's more than likely that new rhizomes will spring up too.

John Powers said...

Complex systems are a popular subject in business circles, eg. the Cynefin framework. Dave Snowden talks to military people often.

Evgeny Morozov comes at the subject from an academic perspective--that is not how I tend to frame things. Snowden frequently points out that you can't manage complexity.

This message is a hard sell for business and the military because they're all about control. Still Snowden's point that you can't manage complexity is a little like saying "It's too bad cigarettes cause cancer." We might not like it, but sooner or later come around to that's just the way it is.

I think Morozov takes it for granted that you can't mange complexity which is why he points to a more sensible approach. And I think quite a few in business and the military quite understand what Morozov is saying and think he's right.

The lust to do the not sensible thing though is powerful. I ought to know because I smoke.