Wikileaks: The Free and Responsible Search for Truth

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, January 16, 2011

Above the door of the entrance to this hall is an old sign which expresses a motto of this Church; "Seek the Truth and Serve Humanity". Note that the two components are joined; what does not simply seek the truth without the purpose of serving humanity. Nor does one simply serve humanity without being well-armed with facts. Good intentions alone can often cause more problems that they solve, one must have a hard head to go along with a soft heart. There is another equivalent statement, from basic principles the Unitarian Universalist Association; "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning".

A search for truth that is free is one that is not hindered by censorship or by allegiances to all other principles than truth itself. A search for truth that is responsible is one that is committed to unearthing those crimes against humanity that others would prefer were not known. But there are people who do not have such responsibility; their idea of responsibility is to hide the truth if it damages those powers that they worship. For some it is their state, for others their nationality, for others their religion or church, for others their political party, for others to company their work for. In contrast Mahatma Gandhi wrote "truth never damages a cause that is just".

Consider the great lies of the twentieth century.

Consider the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an supposed Jewish plan to take over the world written by the Tsarist Russian secret police. Despite being exposed as a forgery as early as 1921, it was widely used by the Nazi regime who made it compulsory reading for students; a regime that that was directly responsible for the deaths of six million people of Jewish heritage. Even today there are leaders of in Arabic and Muslim countries who regard the Protocols as authentic, and it is referred to in the 1988 charter for Hamas.

Consider the Holodomor, "Death by Hunger", the human-caused famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. The chief causes were a combination of unrealistic grain quotas, forced collectivisation, livestock acquisition, and the sealing of the country's borders and the finally the declaration that all food was State property. Up until the late 1980s massive denial and suppression of the facts was orchestrated, including the manipulation of official census records, the destruction of birth and death records. Indeed, it was only in 2006 when the Security Service of Ukraine declassified more than 5 thousand pages of Holodomor archives did the full and true extent of this state-caused famine become truly known. Approximately three and a half million people died in the Ukraine and approximately six and a half million throughout the Soviet Union, by sheer starvation or associated diseases such as typhus.

Consider, in a similar light, the Great Famine of China of 1958 to 1961, still officially denied and described instead as the The Three Years of Natural Disasters, with the implementation of the Great Leap Forward as the primary cause of mass starvation (poor weather did have a minority effect). The sheer scale of this famine is only now becoming known, with the fortunate access of previously suppressed documentation held in scattered individual villages and communes, Party offices and the like. During the period farming of private plots was prohibited with all work organised into communes - again forced collectivisation. Attempts to radically industrialise the country led to the risible efforts to produce poor quality iron and steel in backyard furnaces, forcing millions of peasants from their agricultural work to this pretence of light industrial. A combination of malice, indifference and sheer incompetence has led two very recent quality studies to argue respectively for a death-toll of 36 or 45 million.

Consider the Pentagon Papers, the collection of top-secret United States Depart of Defence material of that government's political and military involvement in Vietnam from from 1945 to 1967, consisting of 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents. Eventually a copy was leaked and published, revealing the extent of the U.S. intervention, including the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, none of which had been previously reported. Most importantly the Papers revealed that four administrations had deliberately misled the public about their intentions, including the faked second Tonkin Gulf Incident which resulted in the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, a conflict resulting with some two to four million dead.

Consider the tobacco industry, who successfully defending itself against litigation from between 1954 and 1996 from refusing to admit that smoking caused any disease, to placing the onus on smokers for choosing to partake in an addictive substance despite government-mandated health warnings. Whilst industry representatives have been found to have internal memos dating back for decades confirming knowledge of damaging health effects of this addictive and carcinogenic drug from scientific studies conducted in Germany and the United States as early as the 1930s. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that tobacco caused 5.4 million deaths in 2004 and 100 million deaths over the course of the 20th century.

There are, of course, just among the most well-known Great Lies of the twentieth century. There are of course many others conducted by the same regimes just mentioned, and others by those deemed less significant. But the important question raised amidst this atrocity exhibition is the following: If the world had Wikileaks then would these Great Lies be successful as long as they were? Would it have been possible that the truth would have become known, the lies exposed, before the millions died?

Wikileaks is a relatively new organisation. Founded by Melbourne computer hacker Julian Assange the Internet domain was acquired in October 2006 and the first leak published in December that year with a stated aim to expose unethical behaviour in governments and corporations. By January 2007 it had acquired over a million documents, most of it transferred by anonymous networks of clients and servers that relay information, ensuring that at no one point is possible to determine the sender and the receiver of the information simultaneously. One inspiration of the site was a means for whistle-blowers and journalists to email sensitive documents, following the jailing of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who received a ten year jail-terms in 2005 for having the temerity to publish an email from Chinese officials about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The first major leak consisted of documents in August 2007 outlined the corruption by the former President of Kenya Daniel arap Moi who, through a collection of front companies and trusts, had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds to nearly thirty countries. His support for the incumbent lead to a twenty percent swing to the opposition leader in elections. After the disputed election was narrowly won by the incumbent there was a range of extra-judicial killings, which was also reported by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights and republished by Wikileaks. In 2009, Amnesty International UK gave WikiLeaks and Julian Assange an award for the distribution of the report. Later that year, in November 2007, Wikileaks published a copy of the U.S. Army protocol at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp revealing that some prisoners were considered off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross, something that the U.S. military had in the past repeatedly denied. In March 2008, Wikileaks published thirty five videos of unrest in Tibet which had been censored by the Chinese government.

In January 2009, WikiLeaks released 86 telephone recordings of politicians and businessmen in Peru, and lobbyists wanting a Norwegian company to win contracts. After publication, streets protests spread throughout the country resulting in the resignation of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers. In March 2009 documents various tax minimisation and avoidance measures carried out by Barclays Banks were published on Wikileaks. In 2008 and 2009 Wikileaks has published various lists of various Internet websites prohibited in Australia, Denmark and Thailand. In September 2009, internal documents from Kaupthing Bank were leaked, which showed that that just prior to the collapse of Iceland's banking sector the Icelandic financial crisis that large sums of money were loaned to various owners of the bank with these debts subsequently written off. In September 2009, after the Guardian was legally preventing on even discussing, let along publishing, the Minton Report, Wikileaks released it. This was an internal document from commodities giant Trafigura which outlines a toxic waste dumping incident in the Ivory Coast three years prior which had affected over 100,000 people.

With some sense of irony, in October 2009 Wikileaks published Joint Services Protocol 404, a British Ministry of Defence document containing instructions on how to prevent information being leaked to the public. The following year, in March 2010, a U.S. Department of Defence report describing how to minimise leaks and marginalise Wikileaks was published. The following month, Wikileaks released the dramatic video of an airstrike carried out in Baghdad three years prior, where three airstrikes were carried out against non-hostile civilians, killing 18 people including two Reuters journalists - their cameras mistaken for assault rifles and RPG launchers. The month after that, Wikileaks released to The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel some 92,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, detailing so-called friendly-fire and civilian casualty incidents. In October, 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq War were released. In November 2010 Wikileaks, along with five major international papers, has began to publish over a quarter of a million confidential diplomatic cables from over 270 embassies around the world, with material dating from as old as 1966 to 2010. Wikileaks and the newspapers plan a gradual release schedule over several months. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Julian Assange was the Readers' Choice for Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year.

The response of various governments, corporations and churches worldwide has been predictable. Since 2007 the People's Republic of China has attempted to block access to Wikileaks. The U.S. Army, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department are reviewing the possibility of criminal charges against Wikileaks, and has asked for assistance from Britain, Germany and Australia, and some U.S. politicians have described him as an "enemy combatant" and a "high-tech terrorist". As early as 2008, companies have attempted to prevent Wikileaks publishing, starting with the Swiss Bank Julius Baer after allegations of illegal activities at the bank's Cayman Islands branch appeared on the website. Iceland's Kaupthing Bank obtaining a court order preventing that country's national broadcaster from releasing a risk analysis report previously on Wikileaks. The Church of Scientology has attempted to attempted to prevent Wikileaks from publishing their "Operating Thetan" internal manual. Most notably the person who released the diplomatic cables and the Baghdad airstike videos, Bradley Manning, has been arrested. Julien Assange has also been arrested having turned himself in after a European Arrest Warrant was issued on allegations of sexual assault from the Swedish Director of Public Prosecution. Assange has claimed innocence and considers the allegations as part of a political campaign. A number of commentators have noted wryly that this an unusual effort on behalf of the Swedish government.

It is arguable that Wikileaks has not always done the right thing. Individuals are not organisations, and whilst complete transparency in the latter is required for a genuinely democratic society, the former are deserving of privacy. The release of the contents of Sarah Palin's email account in September 2008, in the midst of the presidential election campaign, was not appropriate. Whilst many fervently disagree with their politics, the release of the membership list of the British National Party also falls under this category. But by the same token, when it is a life and death situation, Wikileaks has been a lot more careful. When releasing the Afghan War documents, Wikileaks has ensured that a number of been vetted to protect individuals and families from potential reprisals.

In the coming months, we can be sure that there will be more released from Wikileaks and similar organisations, with Russia, the Bank of America and News Corp. already cited for future disclosures. As various governments have put the squeeze on Wikileaks, attempting to take the site down, individuals around the world have mirrored the website - there are now over 2,000 publicly available copies of the Wikileaks site. Alternative whistle-blowers sites have also been established such as Indoleaks, dedicated to distributing documents in the public interest from Indonesia. What is clear about these events, and these new sites is that this is what governments and companies will have to deal with in the future. The people are armed with the technology to disclose and distribute. More importantly, in an era of particularly weak and compliant media, Wikileaks has provided greater success in public disclosure than the previous thirty years or more of official journalism. Although aided and made possible by the technical infrastructure, it is actually a principles moral commitment that transcends socially constructed loyalties that has provided the spirit and the motivation. It follows the words of Malcolm X who wrote: "I've had enough of someone else's propaganda. I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole."

We can help Wikileaks and related organisations. We can raise information, disclosure and knowledge about our organisations above and beyond that which their representatives have deemed appropriate for us to have access to. We can promote, especially donate and even - if some of have access to such material - engage in safe, anonymous discloses, and knowing that Wikileaks will not publish until it has confirmed authenticity of what it receives. In doing so, we are actually promoting a better democracy and a more responsible government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.... If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be." That is why Wikileaks stands for a free and responsible search for truth.