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The Political Animal

Edward Snowden and the Question of Authority (a Surveillance of Terms)

Edward Snowden received the Integrity Award from the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence this week, and WikiLeaks has posted several videos of the rarely-seen whistleblower during the event.

The Huffington Post

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As opinions about Edward Snowden have flown wildly back and forth, the vocabulary of public debate has suffered woefully. The sorry truth is that well beyond striving politicians, those who pretend to a journalist’s precision of detail or an analyst’s wise counsel in policy have no less the tendency than the politicians to throw words around like jalopies in a demolition derby. Last one still moving its lips wins.

Much of the debate over Snowden, supporting the leanings of whole ideologies, has resorted to the use of four terms: leaker, whistle blower, spy, and civil disobedience. There are variant terms, such as “traitor” and “illegal,” but those four words have formed the parameters of the debate. Find your point on the grid among the coordinates of those four terms, and your position on Edward Snowden is significantly revealed. Yet few people who have publically discussed Snowden’s act and sometimes used those words have troubled themselves to clarify for themselves and others what precisely they mean by the words and how the words relate to each other. Common slapdash efforts have tended to comfort the comfortably certain, and afflict those afflicted  with uncertainty, with the continuing sense that the matter is all one great subjective political confusion: you know, one person’s spy is another person’s whistleblower.

Shall we cry, “Not”? Let’s.

To begin, three of the terms are conceptually separable from the fourth, all of them not, truly, equal end points on a grid. Civil disobedience stands apart. To leak, to whistle blow, to spy are all categorically related, each a distinguishable, individuated subclass of the more general notion of leaking. If we think of that general notion as one of porous escape from an area of containment, then we manage to separate, to start, the various political actions and moral charges that later attach to types of leaking. We might also think of the concrete barrier of containment that inhibits leakage in the physical world, whatever its material form, as akin to authority in the world of human interaction, especially, here, of government. They are the ideal institutions and the operating protocols of government that seek to erect the authority which, put into practice and respected, establish the containment – the concealment of sensitive information – to prevent leakage.

To leak, in its specific use, is part of the vocabulary of the political classes. As the term is commonly used, people leak information as practical political acts. Sometimes, oddly, contradictorily, a leak is authorized. That is to say that someone who exercises authority over the keeping and containment of the information is the one who creates the leak – releases the information – in order to achieve, by subterfuge, some political effect.  We presume, generally, when we allege such an act, that it is performed, though outside of protocols, with the knowledge or tacit acquiescence of the very highest level of authority, the President or other top executive figure. Thus we see created a fissure in the wall of authoritative containment. To break the rules is to defy authority. Yet we probably most believe that presidents and other leaders must in the exercise of leadership have freedom of movement at the boundaries of action, in order to contend with the contingencies of the real world. Many people clearly, to offer an extreme instance, have made their peace with presidential authorization of torture at the height of the post 9/11 era. What contends in these cases is the authority of law and protocol with the authority of executive leadership. We all have some sense of how the two should balance or one should predominate, but the more marginal we imagine the infraction to be, the less clarity we are likely to have in the matter, and the less many of us will care about attempting to establish a wavy line of demarcation.

When we believe that the leaker is high in the chain of authority, but is acting without some belief in Presidential support, even knowingly against what the President would wish, then we approach the distinguishing boundary of the whistle blower, but we are still not at it. Just as with “authorized” leaks, the person who operates at a high level of government, but who acts surreptitiously to release information in some way counter to the desires of presidential or other executive administration is committing a practical political act. Such a person is not challenging the legitimacy or moral authority of the nation or its government. Such a person is not necessarily challenging the legality of a government policy or act, as the whistle blower tends to do. The “non-authorized” leaker does, however, seek to influence policy by force of public reaction to the leaked information. One might say that the non-authorized leaker accepts the system as it is, in its ideal and real-world constructions, and willingly works within it. Depending on one’s beliefs about an array of matters, one might think the acts of both kinds of leakers to be either dishonorable or the wily operation of the shrewd political player.

As good an example of the “non-authorized” leaker as can be offered, if current suspicions are confirmed as correct, would be  retired Gen. James E. Cartwright of the Marines. Cartwright, reportedly while in service a favorite of President Obama, served before his retirement as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest military position in the land. Yet according to multiple sources back in June, Cartwright is suspected of being the source of a leak to The New York Times revealing United States involvement in the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program computers. In response to these reports, according to National Public Radio, the general’s attorney released a statement using language strikingly relevant to matters in question in the Snowden debate.

General Jim Cartwright is an American hero who served his country with distinction for four decades. Any suggestion that he could have betrayed the country he loves is preposterous.

Whistle blowers will tend to be individuals of far lesser authority than Cartwright, often more functionary than authority, though in government and intelligence work the gradients between the two might seem infinitely to recede into the horizon. The young Edward Snowden may serve as a prime example of that perception. Whistle blowers, properly speaking, see an ideal or operational wrong and believe themselves to be functionally powerless to alter practice or policy in order to right the wrong. They do not have sufficient authority. They are not even, as Cartwright may have been, active participants in the shaping of policy or procedure who lost out in debate. They have no power to formulate, only to execute. As we imagine whistle blowers to be, they are people of conscience who, otherwise voiceless and powerless – thus whistle blower protection laws – blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

This is certainly how Edward Snowden and his supporters portray him. Even many people not fully supportive of Snowden perceive him as someone acting on conscience, however they might judge a range of his actions to be misguided. The individual acting on conscience may be motivated only by moral qualms, but just as likely, when it regards matters about which to blow the whistle, the moral compunction is attached to what is perceived to be illegality. That seems at best a muddy area in Snowden’s revelations. Certainly, many think the programs and procedures Snowden revealed, beginning with their secrecy, to run counter to a spirit of civil liberty and appropriate legal procedure. We find not secret FISA court orders, for instance, but undemocratic, secret interpretations of law. Few legal minds have argued that any of the NSA programs – authorized by legislation and clarified in scope by those court findings – are themselves illegal.

The question of illegality and the matter of how one blows the whistle – whether in report to superiors, along special protective avenues, or by going public directly through the media and thus bypassing protocols – all complicate evaluation of the whistle blower’s act. For many, Snowden and his outright supporters argue very credibly that the last course was the only one effectively open to him, as Daniel Ellsberg similarly felt about the Pentagon Papers.

There is, however, an additional consideration involved in attempting to classify, in order to properly regard, however complexly, Edward Snowden’s actions. Back on June 25, the South China Morning Post reported,

For the first time, Snowden has admitted he sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the US National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media.

“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he told the Post on June 12. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”

During a live global online chat last week, Snowden also stated he took pay cuts “in the course of pursuing specific work”. He said: “Booz was not the most I’ve been paid.”

….

Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: “Correct on Booz.”

Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous whistle blower in U.S. history and a supporter of Snowden, nonetheless serves as a marked contrast to Snowden in several ways. Ellsberg, working for the Rand Corporation after service at the Department of Defense, contributed to the study of the Vietnam War commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that later became known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was one of the few people who had access to the entire study. He was, on these terms, the classic whistle blower: a government or government-affiliated employee who becomes disillusioned by the mission in which he is a participant, but on which he is powerless to effect change. However, Ellsberg did not seek a job at the Rand Corporation with the specific purpose to obtain information to which he otherwise lacked access and then to leak it.

While Edward Snowden and supporters consider him a whistle blower, and he does in some respects fit the description, in others he does not. The United States government has, in fact, charged Snowden with espionage. Is that charge simply institutional vindictiveness, bureaucratic anger at the unauthorized disclosure of information, as Snowden and his Wikileaks and other supporters charge? There are the intricacies of law on which most people are not expert to comment, but there are definitions in the common language. Merriam Webster tells us that a spy is “one that spies; one who keeps secret watch on a person or thing to obtain information.” Wiktionary identifies espionage as the “act or process of learning secret information through clandestine means.” Whereas Daniel Ellsberg leaked information to which he had access as part of work in which he was already authorized to be engaged, Edward Snowden by his own admission sought employment with access to classified information purposefully in order to seek out that information, remove it, and publically disclose it without authorization.

More detailed encyclopedic and intelligence-service definitions of espionage accord with the fuller conception most people have of espionage commonly applying to corporate and nation-against-nation spying. There is no evidence of any such intent on Snowden’s part, nor is there any reason to suspect him of seeking personal gain. We tend also to think of spies as working for enemies, but that is not required. Friendly nations spy on one another all the time. Jonathan Pollard spied on the U.S. for Israel. The U.S., it just so happens Snowden has revealed, spies on its own European allies. Though Snowden seems to conceive of himself as a patriot, as General Cartwright’s lawyer reasonably casts him, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of that belief, he has, first, cast his lot with parties who present themselves quite antagonistically toward the U.S., and he has begun to make such comments himself.

As political contestants become more heatedly embroiled in deepening convolutions of motivation and act, and charge and counter charge about the motivations and acts of others, all may find idealized cause to elevate their own higher love of country or freedom above the cravenness of their adversary: nearly everyone is a patriot in his own mind, when he hasn’t spied for money or out of personal grievance. Sometimes, for some ballast against the upending waves of political agonism, we need to return to some existing standards: definitions, precedents, and law. Certainly, by some clear, existent standards, what Edward Snowden set out to engage in at Booz Allen, and against the U.S. government, regardless of his motivation, was espionage.

We have political leakers, we have whistle blowers of conscience, we have spies. Edward Snowden is not the first. There are arguments to be made for the second and third. Let us consider Snowden further on his own terms, as the whistle blower motivated by conscience.

The civil disobedient – what some have carelessly called Snowden – also acts from conscience, though it need not be against illegality. In some sense, civil disobedience based on conscience alone is even more admirable than exposing illegality, which is a great and perhaps even risky enough act itself. In a free and democratic society, we hope – but justice is always an uncertain destination – exposing illegality will receive its ideal and proper reward.  It is on the books. That a personal sense of justice will come commonly to prevail is a still riskier bet to make. When Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, it was not to oppose illegality. The injustice he went to fight was legal. He broke the law to oppose it. There are, he wrote,

two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

These high sounding words might be in practice quite capricious and self-serving, but for one highly salient fact – King wrote them from jail. They are found, after all, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

King was not the first to espouse this standard. Wrote Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience,

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her.

For all Thoreau’s sense of the tyranny of the state qua state, neither he, then, nor we now need be foolish enough to confuse that tyranny with the greater human tyranny effected by the state. We know the systems and societies where such noble figures as Thoreau imagines, upholding their personal measure of justness in prison, may sink into dark holes of history never to emerge from those prisons free or living again. It is, then, easier to justify flight from the system whose wrong one exposes, whose law one breaks, if one can cast it in such dire terms as those. If one can acknowledge no determinative difference between the United States and North Korea or Russia or Iran, one can tell oneself and the world that no obligation is owed to the country and system of laws one challenges.

Like King in the American South, Mohandas Gandhi faced levels of discriminatory oppression from the British Rule of India far greater than the generic tyranny Thoreau faced in the United States. King respected the American system as Gandhi did not the British in India, yet Gandhi, through the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience he fashioned as Satyagraha, nonetheless submitted to British law. In 1922, Gandhi was tried for “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India.”  He concluded his statement to the court with these words:

I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge and the assessors, is either to resign your posts and thus dissociate yourselves from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil, and that in reality I am innocent, or to inflict on me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is, therefore, injurious to the common weal.

All three men, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, staked their principles of civil disobedience in the ground marked off before them by Socrates. Like Edward Snowden, Socrates believed that truths were being withheld from the citizenry, in his case, of Athens. Socrates had endeavored throughout his life to shine the light of reality on the minds of all those with whom he conversed. Late in his life, it became the claim of the rulers of Athens that its citizens, like those of the United States, needed to be protected, in this case from Socrates himself, who was charged with “ refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the State and of introducing new and different gods” and with “corrupting the youth” of Athens.

Socrates did not flee his trial, but stood it. It was after he was unjustly convicted – and not before, in what might be deemed by some a convenient anticipation of injustice – that Socrates was urged by his friend Crito to flee. All necessary arrangements had been made by Crito for that flight to safety. In Plato’s dialogue called Crito, Socrates offers the many reasons why he believed it would be wrong for him to escape. He questions what commitment to justice he might rightly claim, and to a regulated system of laws aimed at establishing justice, were he to flee a judgment that might go against him. Argues Socrates, in the voice of the Law, personified as all whom it represents,

“Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you

about? Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us — the

50b      laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you

imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in

which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside

and overthrown by individuals?” What will be our answer,

Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially

a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the

evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be

carried out; and we might reply, “Yes; but the State has

50c      injured us and given an unjust sentence.” Suppose I say that?

Socrates defied what he thought unjust law, law that required he acknowledge the existence of gods in which he did not believe. But he accepted his punishment for that defiance and declared his respect for law itself. A foundation for that respect was laid in the argument Socrates made of implied consent.

                 But he who has experience of the manner in which we

order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has

entered into an implied contract that he will do as we

command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain,

thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying

his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his

education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us

that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys

them nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we

do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of

obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer, and he does

52a      neither.

Though he appears, in his defense of Snowden, no longer to recognize this standard today. Ellsberg did recognize if for himself.

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

Of course, one may take a radically subversive or revolutionary stance, by which state institutions and the system of laws are challenged in their very legitimacy. Some of those who have become associated with Snowden – Julian Assange and Wikileaks, for instance – frequently make characterizations of the United States in this spirit, though they have yet to outright declare themselves subversive or revolutionary enemies of the state. Edward Snowden has made no such declaration, and if he did he would then reasonably lose any basis for complaint of his treatment by an avowed enemy. If, rather, he claims to be acting from conscience, morally committed to a higher enactment of the idea of America, then he has an existing standard of civil disobedience against which to measure himself and be measured by others. That standard is

Refusal to obey government demands or commands and nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment. … Civil disobedience is a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law, rather than a rejection of the system as a whole. The civil disobedient, finding legitimate avenues of change blocked or nonexistent, sees himself as obligated by a higher, extralegal principle to break some specific law. By submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful political, social, or economic change.

If Edward Snowden and those who encourage him in his present course think themselves able to marshal not just the impassioned recalcitrance of critics, but compelling arguments fit to contend with the ancient and continuing legacy before them, and the intellectual authority of that legacy, they should make them. For it is not only what they oppose for which they will be remembered, but also what they promote, and whatever clear, coherent, and compelling case they make, or do not make, for how to act rightly in the face of wrong.

AJA

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This Is Bradley Manning’s Idea of Whistleblowing

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This is his defense.

According to the defense, Manning was motivated “to do something, something to make a difference,” after arriving inIraq in 2009 and hearing of the carnage that was going on around him.

But Army prosecutor Capt. Joe Morrow outlined how the short, bespectacled Manning fell into a partnership with the silver-haired media celebrity Assange. He said they quietly exchanged personal contact information and crafted Internet chat logs as they exposed about 700,000 pages of classified material, including secrets in the fight against terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

….

Coombs said Manning’s decision to release classified documents came in late 2009, when he was new to Iraq and learned to his horror that a family of five had been grievously injured in a roadside bomb attack.

On Christmas Eve 2009, Coombs said, a vehicle with two adults and three children pulled to the side of the road to let an Army convoy pass, only to hit a roadside bomb. “All five of the occupants were taken to the hospital,” Coombs said. “One died en route.”

What troubled Manning more, Coombs said, was that U.S. soldiers cheered because their convoy had missed the hidden bomb. “He couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

He noted that Manning placed the word “Humanist” on the back of his dog tags, signifying his religion, and said the decision to leak material was his, not Assange’s. “He felt he needed to do something, something to make a difference, from that moment forward,” Coombs said. “He started selecting information he believed the public should see and should hear, and that that would make the world a better place.

A young army PFC discovers that in war innocent people horribly, randomly die. “He started selecting information he believed the public should see.”

Rather than clear knowledge of specific wrongdoing, we have one young man with an emotional response to what he witnesses in war. On this basis he substitutes his judgment for that of the American people, their system of government, and their elected leaders. His defense says he “started selecting information.” He passed “700,000 pages of classified material” to Julian Assange. One wonders if court documents include the written, considered protocol by which each of the documents were “selected” by Manning and Assange and judged suitable for declassification and public exposure. One does not wonder too long.

The nature of this defense account is fitting. This is what defenders of Manning so often represent as well – an emotional response to political realities they do not like. In place of the constitutional rule of law and over two centuries of legislative and judicial history, they offer their sense of righteous indignation. Give them the keys to the file lockers.

Along with their moral indignation, one encounters the incoherence of their thinking about nations and governance, openness and secrecy, the nature of order and of moral responsibility. They think Manning should be hailed as a hero. They find the government’s prosecution of him an affront. They often like to recall Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers. Said Daniel Ellsberg,

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney began working on “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” with the intent to make his film about Julian Assange. It did not work out that way.

Gibney penetrated the dense circle of agents, lawyers and journalists who surrounded Assange with the help of one of his film’s executive producers, activist Jemima Khan, who had posted some of Assange’s bail in a case involving allegations of sexual abuse by two Swedish women.

After months of discussions about Assange’s possible participation in his film, Gibney flew to England, where his subject was living under house arrest in a country estate, for a six-hour meeting. According to Gibney, at that meeting Assange told him the going rate for an interview was $1 million. When Gibney said he didn’t pay for interviews, Assange asked if instead the director would tell him what others interviewed in the documentary were saying.

“He didn’t see the irony at all,” said Gibney, 59, an unusually prolific filmmaker who often has multiple projects proceeding at the same time. “To him, he was … being attacked by big and powerful forces and he should have the right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself. The idea that spying on other interview subjects would be ironic for a transparency organization didn’t occur to him at all.”

Assange chose to keep what he knew to himself.

AJA

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Whistle Blowing and Blowing Smoke

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John Kiriakou Interview
John Kiriakou Interview (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

On Sunday, Scott Shane published an article in The New York Times about the prosecution of ex-CIA operative John C. Kiriakou for having revealed to a reporter the name of another, active and covert CIA agent. The back story is complex. I encourage you to read about it. Like many others, I think the context of the crime for which Kiriakou has been convicted – essentially, loose lips – not to warrant the severity of his sentence or the damaging effects, already, on his life. That is not my subject here.

Many supporters believe that Kiriakou has been prosecuted – really, persecuted – because he was the first CIA insider to speak publically about waterboarding, back in 2007. However, despite that charge, that is not what he has been convicted of – rather, the revelation of the covert agent’s name to a reporter. Nonetheless, supporters claim the prosecution is really about the waterboarding revelations, which were, second hand, mostly inaccurate, and regularly refer to and ennoble Kiriakou as a “whistle blower.”

Whistle blowing, properly understood, is not ratting, but an act of conscience. When committed in violation of the law, it is a form of civil disobedience. There is a long tradition of thinkers and actors far greater than anyone defending Kiriakou, going all the way back to Socrates, who have argued – and acted out their argument – that civil disobedience is committed in violation of a law, but out of respect for the rule of law, and thus entails a willingness to accept the punishment for one’s disobedience. Ideally, a self-conscious and ultimately just social and legal order will recognize the injustice – if such it was – giving rise to the disobedience, and mitigate the punishment.

The specific act for which Kiriakou has bees convicted even he claims to have been inadvertent and careless, no act of conscience. About the earlier waterboarding of which Kiriakou spoke publically,

He said he had been offered the chance to be trained in the harsh interrogation methods but turned it down. Even though he had concluded that waterboarding was indeed torture, he felt that the C.I.A.’s critics, inflamed by the new revelation that videotapes of the interrogations had been destroyed, were being unduly harsh in judging actions taken in the hectic months after Sept. 11 when more attacks seemed imminent.

“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he said in our first conversation. “2002 was a different world than 2007. What I think is fair is having a national debate over whether we should be waterboarding.”

His feelings about waterboarding were so mixed that some 2007 news reports cast him as a critic of C.I.A. torture, while others portrayed him as a defender of the agency. Some human rights activists even suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — that the intelligence agency was orchestrating his public comments.

Kiriakou is a surprisingly loquacious fellow for an ex covert operative, but we see here that he makes no claim to have been blowing the whistle on government crimes of torture, however much the, then, Bush administration, not the current Obama administration,  may have been displeased by his public talk. Still, at the website of Friends of John Kiriakou, it is argued that

this is a case that should never have been brought anywhere – let alone in a country that values free speech and the protections of the First Amendment.

Of course, the free speech protections of the first amendment do not apply to revealing to reporters the classified names of covert CIA agents.

At Fire Dog Lake‘s Dissenter blog, Kevin Gosztola, a fervid supporter of “whistle blower” Bradley Manning, offers the same whistle blower defense of Kiriakou.

At Michael Moore’s website, Peter Van Buren states,

no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

Interestingly, it could be anyone, but not John Kiriakou who would call John Kiriakou a whistle blower. The ingenuous and impressively still patriotic Kiriakou, as we have read, does not claim to have blown the whistle on anything. Still, Oliver Stone supports him.

In their perpetual posture of smug dissent, these recorders of the whistle blow transcribe it as a free concert of their own inner music. One’s own inner conscience, to which one may rightly choose to be true, bears no responsibility to others. If one, as the sole decoder of the just and unjust law, rightful and wrongful acts, chooses to act in violation of the law, one is entitled to get off scot-free. One not only violates the law as an act of conscience, but one’s act of conscience by its inherent righteousness invalidates the entire system of a law by which one might rightfully be judged and held to account for one’s noble transgression.

Pretty neat, that: righteousness without risk, noblesse with no oblige, sacrifice without… sacrifice.

How, then, might we distinguish whistle blowing from ratting, an act of conscience from mere criminality, civil disobedience from treason? Don’t ask these defenders of the faith. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

AJA

 

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Amnesty’s Arrogance

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For those whose vision is not obscured by their own committed advocacy, the map of how Amnesty International lost its way over the past decade and more is there to be read. From irreproachable defender of human rights to clearly ideological activist on behalf of one vision of political development, an organization now easily impeached, the loss to human rights advocacy is profound. Once it was obvious that nearly only tyrants challenged an Amnesty International report. When a free nation did, it was an embarrassment for that democracy in the eyes of nearly all, its rationalized misbehavior an otherwise indisputable black mark drawn by an organization with an unassailable reputation. Now, those always unsympathetic to Amnesty’s work can point to its own clear biases in dismissing the NGO’s judgments. How much easier, for instance, to seek an accounting of a United States torture and war prisoner abuse regime in the immediate post 9/1 years were AI not chargeable as anti-American in its advocacy.

I won’t retread here well-known paths. The road AI has traveled is on the record, and I’ve written about it multiple times before. The markers are both subtle and as obvious as broken tree limbs. The former kind shows up in a sentence like this, from the introduction to Amnesty’s 2012 report.

At the heart of many of these conflicts were economic development policies that left many, particularly those living in poverty and marginalized communities, at increased risk of abuse. [Emphasis added]

The kinds of “economic development policies” to which this sentence refers – would those be “neoliberal” economic development policies; I think they would be – are certainly arguable and grounds for a debate on economic development policy as a basis for social development. That these policies are also highly arguable as a focus of attention for a human rights organization is now beyond AI’s institutional ability to recognize.

What kind of marker represents the more obvious variety? How is this?

Amnesty International Calls on Sweden to Assure Julian Assange Won’t be Extradited to the United States

(Washington, D.C.) — Amnesty International calls on the Swedish authorities to issue assurances to the United Kingdom and to Julian Assange that if he leaves Ecuador’s London embassy and agrees to go to Sweden to face sexual assault claims, he will not be extradited to the United States in connection with Wikileaks.

Now Amnesty International is the philosopher king of the free and unfree worlds, the NGO Solomon seeking to divide the mother of judicial possession from the grasping arms of selfish enmity. How wise AI must be to take itself for a vision of justice made politically flesh and infallible.

Amnesty International believes that the forced transfer of Julian Assange to the United States in the present circumstances would expose him to a real risk of serious human rights violations, possibly including violation of his right to freedom of expression and the risk that he may be held in detention in conditions which violate the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

No, that is not a paragraph about the Soviet Union in 1966. Yes, the “forced transfer” distortion is a conscious, prejudicial substitute for legal “extradition.” Is it now the postion of Amnesty International that the United States is illegitimately governed, its legal system not merely to be questioned, but opposed, with the organization advocating that other nations forswear action in accordance with legal treaties of cooperation with the U.S.?

Arrogance is always striking, regardless of the repetition, but AI’s defensive advocacy of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is neither new nor surprising. The introduction to its 2011 report began,

The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power.

Later it added,

This year Wikileaks, a website dedicated to posting documents received from a wide variety of sources, began publishing the first of hundreds of thousands of documents which were allegedly downloaded by a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst….

Wikileaks created an easily accessible dumping ground for whistleblowers around the world and showed the power of this platform by disseminating and publishing classified and confidential government documents. Early on, Amnesty International recognized Wikileaks’ contribution to human rights activism when Wikileaks posted information related to violations in Kenya in 2009. [Emphasis added]

The intellectual dishonesty of an organization with so exalted a sense of its own rightness should give one pause: imagine it as a nation-state and you might imagine it little different from any other in its process of blind self-justification. “Downloaded” is an awfully innocuous term. It masks the notions of theft and espionage and violation of national security, particularly as engaged in by a member of the military. “Whistleblowers” are cool; “spies” not necessarily so much, and what Amnesty elides in every presentation on the subject I have read is the nature of the relationship between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, which is precisely the area in which the legitimate consideration by the United States of criminally prosecuting Assange is to be found. Here is AI in a published Q & A on Wikileaks.

Would prosecution of Julian Assange for releasing US government documents be a violation of the right to freedom of expression?

The US government has indicated since July 2010 that it is conducting a legal investigation into the actions of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange for distributing secret documents.  A range of US political figures have called for a criminal prosecution of Assange.

According to Amnesty International, criminal proceedings aimed at punishing a private person for communicating evidence about human rights violations can never be justified. The same is true with respect to information on a wide range of other matters of public interest. [Emphasis added]

Notice that the focus here is on Assange’s releasing the documents and not on the process of acquiring them. What, also, if it is not only evidence of human rights violations that is released, but if this information is contained in what is really a much larger dump of legitimately classified and national security information? And what is the nature of this “information on a wide range of other matters of public interest” the illegal transmission of which AI justifies, on what legal basis?

Is it legitimate for governments to seek to keep their diplomatic discussions and negotiations confidential when they perceive it to be in their national interest?

Governments can of course in general seek to keep their communications confidential by using technical means or by imposing duties on their employees; it is not, however, legitimate for governments to invoke broad concepts of national security or national interest in justification of concealing evidence of human rights abuses.

Also, once information comes into the hands of private individuals, states cannot rely on sweeping claims of national interest to justify coercive measures aimed at preventing further public disclosure or discussion of the information. [Emphasis added]

“Comes into the hands of.”

Is Amnesty International concerned about the potential for harm to individuals as a result of the leaked information?

Amnesty International has consistently called on Wikileaks to make every possible effort to ensure that individuals are not put at increased risk of violence or other human rights abuses as a result of, for instance, being identifiable as sources in the documents.

However, risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct. [Emphasis added]

This last is very curious. The first sentence seems to warn against the possibility of individuals coming to “harm” – “increased risk of violence or other human rights” – as a consequence of unauthorized national security document releases. Let’s be clear, which AI is not, that what we mean by using such language in this context is death, and you would think, given the nature of an organization like Amnesty, and its hallowed history, that it would hold no higher goal than to work against such death. In that consideration “every possible effort” is pusillanimous, even deceptive, diplomatese. As it might be uttered by the nations committing the violations AI opposes, it means, “We tried, but in the end, other things were more important.” So the assurance-of-principles messaging is already muddled.

But the second, “however” sentence is totally incoherent. Given that the first sentence predicates the importance of protecting life (or, at any rate, making “every possible effort”), a “however” contrast would naturally introduce an exception to that paramount concern:

risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability.

Well, I’m confused. “Not the same” how, exactly? Are they greater risks? Lesser? Of more importance? Diminished importance, in the greater scheme of things? Given the preceding statement, the however contrast should logically be telling us diminished – the potential harm to individuals is of diminished importance when weighed against the greater goal of “calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct.”

But Amnesty International, the defender of human rights, of, in the good old days, individual human rights – every individual’s – cannot possibly mean that?

Can it?

AJA

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