As I write this, Julian Assange, the founder of web-based WikiLeaks, is stuck in England awaiting extradition charges from Sweden. Assange is accused of sexual assault, a charge he says is part of an elaborate plot to silence his site. As most people know, Assange is releasing through WikiLeaks and selected mainstream media a quarter million documents that detail the realities of American foreign policy as gleaned from leaked U.S. diplomatic cables. Assange did not write those cables, nor did he simply release them without taking precautions to protect certain vulnerable individuals mentioned therein. All he did was make them public. But here in the Land of the Free, we have a serious and growing problem: Our political leaders would rather shoot the messenger than allow their own citizens to know the truth.
The content of the cables Assange released spans the spectrum of foreign policy issues. Particularly interesting are those dealing with American corporate machinations in the various petroleum-containing regions of the world such as the massive gas and oil fields in the various "Stans." Where pipeline routes will go, who will pay and build them, and who has to be coddled or bribed to achieve the profit-driven ends of those corporations.
For those who wonder why American tax dollars are supporting government workers smoothing the way for petro exploitation, the cables are both revealing and disturbing. If you had any questions about why we're in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the communications from our embassies will pretty much vanquish any illusions about spreading democracy or rectifying injustices. We're there, as we are virtually everywhere, for money and oil, and we're ready to do whatever it takes to get both in large quantities.
Likewise, if you're wondering why all the sword-rattling about Iran seems to dominate D.C., the cables from our Saudi embassy will prove illuminating. Ailing 86-year old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told the American ambassador the United States needed to "cut off the head of the snake" in Iran to protect its interests in the Gulf region.
That wouldn't be such a startling revelation except the same Arab leaders have been lying to their own people about not supporting a devastating American military strike on fellow Muslims. Simply put, they've been saying one thing in public and quite another behind closed diplomatic doors.
And like so much of the façade that passes for American foreign policy these days, we're supposed to believe that Saudi Arabia is our friend and ally and that the massive shipment of state-of-the-art fighter jets we recently agreed to sell them will somehow cement that friendship. Meanwhile, we're supposed to forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers on 9/11 weren't from Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan—they were from Saudi Arabia.
The WikiLeaks cables reveal a lot more than that, however, and if you believe rabid war hawks like Sen. Joe Lieberman, Assange should be tried for espionage by the U.S. government, tossed into a cell and forgotten—just like the truth Lieberman doesn't want us to know. Other equally benighted members of Congress think the United States should just put out a contract on Assange and assassinate him.
But in the end, it comes down to killing the messenger rather than dealing with the thorny issues the messages reveal. Why shouldn't the American people get to know what's being done with their tax dollars? While President Obama cuts a backroom deal with Republicans to plunge us another $700 billion in debt by extending tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, why shouldn't the average Joe get to know what's really happening and whose interests are really being served abroad? Considering we're now borrowing 40 cents for every dollar we spend—and passing that staggering debt load on to future generations—what's so terrible about knowing where America's priorities really lie?
In short, the single biggest reason this nation launched a worldwide manhunt and propaganda war against Assange is because he embarrassed us. Most of the talk about how he gave away state secrets is baloney. Of the 250,000 cables Assange made public, only 15,652 were "secret," 101,748 were "confidential" and the other 133,887 were simply "unclassified." Many of the cables went out to various recipients throughout government agencies and were available to tons of people without regard to their security clearance.
But a few, such as those from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling diplomats to gather personal, financial and bio-metric data on people such as the head of the United Nations, didn't just talk about the day-to-day meetings with foreign diplomats and business interests. No, they revealed the depth and perfidy that is now de rigeur in American politics. That the cables showed the world how we "do business" these days will undoubtedly impact future diplomatic relationships globally. But what's wrong with that? If foreign diplomats know our representatives are spying and lying on a regular basis, so what? Ever since George W. Bush became president most Americans know that we, too, have been spied on and lied to on an equally regular basis. Anybody remember Dick Cheney's energy task force, warrantless search and seizure, the sudden and senseless death of habeus corpus, or the torture conducted at Guantanamo?
It would be convenient if we could forget those infamous episodes in American governance. But we can't. Likewise, it would be more than convenient if the information WikiLeaks revealed would just go away. But it won't. The sad truth is that we have gone from the high ideals of transparent government in American democracy to operating in darkness and secrecy—even from our own people. And we have morphed from the open hand to the iron fist—even with our own people.
Assange may currently be in jail, but what he has done will never be removed from public purview. That we find the image in the mirror he has held up to our society disturbing is perhaps to be expected. But shooting the messenger doesn't change the message—and it would behoove us all to wonder if this is the country we wanted to become.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.