Sunday, June 30, 2013

Is WikiLeaks Now An International Political Party?

6/30/2013 @ 9:31PM

Is WikiLeaks Now An International Political Party?

Earlier this month, Julian Assange marked a full year of living in political asylum within the compact confines of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. The flight from U.S. charges of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen contractor assisted in his headline-making travel by WikiLeaks itself, overtook the retrospectives on Assange’s year in Knightsbridge, a self-inflicted hibernation in order to avoid the legal process inherent in accusations of sexual assault by two women in Sweden.

Yet there was an important angle about WikiLeaks’ continued evolution that was understandably ignored in the Snowden chase and WikiLeaks’ involvement in that ongoing international drama.

Asked whether he regretted seeking asylum and the resultant year living in an Embassy office, Assange responded clearly: “Strategically, it’s been exactly what I had hoped for.”

Mark those words. As a high tech anti-secrecy organization processing government leaks through a secure online dropbox, WikiLeaks’ days appeared to have been numbered in 2010. Yet Assange’s position as the global spokesman for what is (loosely) an Internet-based international political movement in opposition to the United States has never been stronger.

Indeed, it’s only grown since the secure anonymous pipeline went down. And the active partnership that Assange revealed between WikiLeaks and Ecuador in managing Snowden’s possible asylum situation and his travel made him look almost like an Ecuadorian Minister Without Portfolio, headquartered in London.

Aside from the revelations about U.S. security, perhaps that’s the story here – for those interested in WikiLeaks, the organization. What began as a social enterprise modeled along the lines of an international nonprofit organization has evolved into a political organization, perhaps a global political party. Consider these developments:

To state the obvious, WikiLeaks is already a political party. What many saw initially as a gambit to change his legal status and perhaps gain safe transit to Ecuador has grown into a small but feisty officially registered political party in Assange’s native Australia, with the WikiLeaks chief himself an absentee candidate for a Senate seat from Victoria. But even beyond the Australian elections – where the effort is being run in part by Assange’s father John Shipton under the slogan “Transparency, Accountability, Democracy” – its founder is looking internationally. According to The Australian, asked about global expansion, Assange responded: “Yes … We have had many requests from people in the US, the UK and India to start a WikiLeaks party there. Can the lessons of the Australian campaign be applied to these other countries as well? Our economic and political problems are global.”

Oppositional political language. When WikiLeaks first partnered with news organizations to released more than 250,000 U.S. State Department cables in 2010, Assange’s public statements were pretty curious. He called on President Barack Obama to resign, and attacked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with similar language.

At the time, it seemed a bit strange – the head of WikiLeaks calling on the President to resign, almost like a member of the opposition party. But it was only the beginning. Though WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson insisted as recently as yesterday (in an MSNBC appearance) that the organization wasn’t politically opposed to the U.S., Assange himself (and WikiLeaks publications over the last three years) has focused almost exclusively on the Obama Administration.

Indeed, last week Assange seemed to channel some of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign language in his statement on Snowden’s flight from U.S. charges – “Who was it who promised a generation ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ only to betray those promises with dismal misery and stagnation?” he wrote.

Political alliances. During his year in Knightsbridge exile, Assange has built what appears to be a semi-official status within the Ecuadorian government, staging visits with celebrities at the embassy and speeches from the office balcony, all with the cooperation of the administration of President Rafael Correa, whose own political positioning favors opposition to the United States.

Then came the Snowden affair, and the Booz Allen contractor’s hazy status in Hong Kong. Enter Assange and Ecuador as a coordinated team. As the New York Times‘s Eric Schmitt noted, “WikiLeaks played no role in Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, but since joining forces with him, the organization has used his case to raise its own profile again.”

While there are indications that Correa may be uncomfortable with the public perception of joint policy-making with Assange, there was the WikiLeaks founder on ABC’s This Week this morning, speaking in the carefully couched terms of a government minister: “It’s a matter of international diplomatic negotiations, so there’s little that I can productively say about what is happening directly.”

WikiLeaks apparently turned down a leak of documents about Ecuador’s own domestic spying efforts. And there’s Assange’s relationship with the administration of Russian president Vladimir Putin – his public affairs show appeared on the state-sponsored RT and the organization appeared to be in contact with Russian officialdom in the Snowden affair.

“We appreciate President Putin’s supportive comments on #Assange and # Snowden,” tweeted Wikileaks last week. That’s a politician’s tweet.

Image management. As the political side of what constitutes WikiLeaks has grown – and as Assange, the Senate candidate has emerged – so too has the organization’s interest in message control and image.

Consider the reaction to crusading progressive director Alex Gibney’s acclaimed new film We Steal Secrets, which presents a warts and all account of WikiLeaks’ rise to prominence while maintaining a generally supportive stance toward its mission.

Given Gibney’s bonafides as a cinematic muckraker – he made Taxi to the Dark Side, an Oscar-winning film about a taxi driver tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base - you might expect Assange and WikiLeaks to overlook some of the criticisms inherent in the film, including the suggestion that the assault charges against Assange in Sweden are serious. Instead, the organization launched a crowd-sourced attack on Gibney and his documentary that was, frankly, reminiscent of recent American political campaigns and their in-house truth squads, which leap to correct any misperceptions, errors, or slights.

So should WikiLeaks, typically described as “antisecrecy advocates” or “leaks publisher” or “open government organization” now be routinely referred to as a political party?

I think that may depend on how well Assange and his slate of candidates fares in Australian elections, and whether chapters in other countries take flight.

The Pirate Party International, a global confederation of political groups and advocates favoring radical data transparency and copyright reform (among other issues), may well be the model for a real global WikiLeaks Party.

Clearly, WikiLeaks embraces policy goals and political outcomes – not solely a commitment to telling stories and releasing data.

In the past, Assange has talked of using information to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.” That is unquestionably a political goal – not a journalistic mission.

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