The WikiLeaks Files review: the truth will set you free – or put you to sleep
A collection of analytical essays on WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic bombshells is a damp squib, with little that is new or revealing, writes Ed O’Loughlin
The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire
Introduction by Julian Assange
Not so very long ago an obscure network of hackers, programmers, activists and journalists had a brilliant idea. They would set up a website on which whistleblowers could anonymously post documents exposing the murky activities of the governments, institutions and corporations that shape our world. Anyone would be free to post, to view the files and to comment on them. There would be no editors, no hierarchical control.
The WikiLeaks site went on to publish a torrent of groundbreaking disclosures, including war diaries of US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; revelations of the mass electronic snooping by American spy agencies; and leaks on political and financial chicanery in the likes of the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Iceland and the UK.
Journalism awards rained down on the site and its founder, the enigmatic Australian hacker Julian Assange. Stung governments put pressure on web-hosting companies and talked of prosecutions.
WikiLeaks has changed a great deal since it launched, only nine years ago. Under Assange’s increasingly centralised (his many estranged supporters would say authoritarian and egotistical) rule, the site no longer permits just anyone to post or comment on it. For reasons that may well be justified – raw data dumps might contain information that would threaten innocent lives – there is now full editorial control.
And the desire to shape the raw narrative now seems to be moving beyond the web: WikiLeaks, the original poster child for diffused online activism and unfettered flows of information, has decided to sell us a book. The WikiLeaks Files takes as its subject the 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released in 2010 and 2011.
To offset this Assange claims, reasonably enough, that the point of the book is not to grub for sensational angles but to begin addressing “the need for scholarly analysis of what the millions of documents published by WikiLeaks say about international geopolitics”.
Yet there then follows a three-part, 118-page treatise on the many present and historical crimes of the United States by a “scholar” who has “chosen to remain anonymous”. This last is ironic and somewhat baffling, given the lack of new revelations in his or her rather heavy-handed sermon.
Our strangely shy thought guide then cedes the stage to 13 specialists (mostly academics and journalists with regional experience) who examine the relevance of the leaked diplomatic cables from Europe to Venezuela and all points between.
Did you know, for instance, that the US has lobbied hard behind the scenes to get Europe to permit its genetically modified food products, despite strong public and political opposition?
Did you know that the US conspired to subvert and replace democratically elected regimes in Latin America and the Middle East, funding death squads and coups and insurrections?
Did you know that the US played a two-faced game in apartheid South Africa, publicly condemning white rule while doing everything it could behind the scenes to prevent the imposition of sanctions?
Well, yes, of course you did. Here we come to a second problem with The WikiLeaks Files. The release of the cables was embarrassing to many, not least in the Irish political classes, whose greed, ineptitude and shiftiness (the latter in the case of Eamon Gilmore’s private support for a Lisbon Treaty that he publicly opposed) were skewered by the US embassy in Ballsbridge. At the macro level, however, they reveal little or nothing that was not already known about the United States’ policies and activities. These are relatively low-grade documents. None is top secret: at least three million Americans have the clearance to read this stuff online, although one suspects that few of them do. You can get the same kind of information and raw analysis – although not, of course, the anti-imperialist interpretation – in more succinct form from, say, the neoliberal Economist.
“War on Terror” The s
tate department is, moreover, only one of many organs of US government active in the international sphere, and often the least egregious. For much of the key period dealt with in the cables, George W Bush’s “Global War on Terror”, the career diplomats of Foggy Bottom had little or no influence on the raging hawks in the White House and Pentagon. All too often, reading these chapters feels like the wrong phones are being tapped.
This is not the fault of the writers. All struggle, with varying degrees of success, to draw meaningful narratives from the material in the cables. Too often, though, the supposed scholarship lapses into blindly one-sided anti-Americanism: for instance, a chapter on US power games in east Asia portrays a region in which China and North Korea seem to have no agency at all.
Vladimir Putin (whose Russia Today gave Assange his own TV show before he holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape charges) is mentioned only three times in the book, never unfavourably. The provocative former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad does not appear at all.
The greatest of the many ironies overhanging The WikiLeaks Files is that its supposed strength – access to restricted material – becomes one of its weaknesses. The authors are forced to build conclusions on quite anodyne leaked cables where other, stronger sources might have served their purpose better.
This is not to say that the book is without merit. Assange’s well-written introduction has some interesting things to say about the nature of the American empire and its absurd ritualisation of secret knowledge.
Leftist critiques of the United States’ ruthless empire may be nothing new, but the WikiLeaks brand could help to introduce this thinking to a younger generation whose political consciousness was born online. The book seems to be well indexed and well sourced, and it will be a useful reference. But as a work of nonfiction, intended to promote and influence wider debate, it makes for a laborious and uninspiring read.
Many interested parties, one suspects, will prefer to go straight to the cables themselves, fully searchable by clicking Public Library of US Diplomacy under the quick menu at wikileaks.org. Skim-readers might opt for the ebook, although the price – £17.27, or about €24, on Amazon – will surely drive some of these to the internet, where, alas, The WikiLeaks Files can already be downloaded illegally for free.
Ed O’Loughlin is a novelist and a former Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age