Why the US Can’t Change, Part 1

Posted on 15/01/2011 by

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As requested by Michael.

As the revelations mount from Cablegate, it becomes ever more difficult to defend the actions of the US government. The game plan of the US government is simple: shut down the source organisation, eliminate or discredit its spokesman, and prevent dissemination of already released material.

The simple-minded logic implies shutting down WikiLeaks ends Cablegate; discrediting Mr Assange ends WikiLeaks; and ending conversation about already released cables prevents people from learning about what has been revealed.

Even back in the old days, back when the bad guys wore great big red stars with the hammer and sickle, these techniques worked with questionable efficacy. Daniel Ellsberg, for example, was able to get the Pentagon Papers into the public’s eye, in the midst of the commie scare.

The techniques of the US government against WikiLeaks and Mr Assange are not all that different from what Mr Ellsberg faced. Because of this, it is clear that the US government is at least fifteen years behind the curve, and probably falling ever further behind. Its institutional thinking is set like concrete in the pre-Internet Soviet epoch, when information required physical printing presses and huge institutions, like newspapers, for wide dissemination. To the US government, the Internet is merely a series of electric typewriters linked by telephone.

What seems to have completely escaped the attention of the US government, is that the dynamics of information dissemination dramatically changed in the mid-1990s, thanks to the World Wide Web. No longer can organisations like WikiLeaks be simply silenced, because they exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The Internet represents a fundamental accelleration of information dissemination to speeds previously unimagined. People have more information potentially at their fingertips, and faster, than ever before. Additionally, the development of torrents and networks like Facebook has made wide dissemination instantaneous and unstoppable except by extreme measures. (oh, say, by disabling a Facebook account times one billion.)

Institutionally, the US government is antique and clumsy, and steeped in a sense of pride so profound it cannot see the irony of persecuting WikiLeaks on one hand and hosting the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day on the other. It does not understand that 1) its clamp-down methods are vastly out-matched by the capabilities of the Internet, and 2) it is rapidly losing whatever time it might have had to modernise.

To put it in the clearest terms possible, WikiLeaks represented a do-or-die situation for the US government: either it had to come clean, dismantle its empire, and admit all its wrongs; or it had to put all its powers and resources into a game-losing play to maintain the status quo. The US has, in short, chosen to die.

In Part 2, I will dissect why the US government’s decisions has taken it down this path, and why this was the only choice which the government thought possible.

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Posted in: WikiLeaks