As predicted just a few days ago, Queensland-boy Julian Assange is now in police custody and has been denied bail pending his extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of having had consensual sex without a condom. In Sweden, American prosecutors will no doubt try to have him extradited to the US where he would face trumped-up charges of willingly damaging national security. Whether he will be extradited to the US seems unlikely, but you can be assured that a whole raft of further allegations will emerge in the coming weeks to keep him occupied with legal issues. It is ominous in that regard that Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, reported to be in an ‘active, ongoing criminal investigation’ into WikiLeaks.
In a previous blog I discussed what the long-term impact was of having private citizens trying to hold whole administrations accountable for their dealings with other countries and for the way they ran their administration. The ensuing thread uncovered differences of opinion on whether whistle-blowing sites had something of value to offer over and above the usual checks and balances in the form of ombudsmen, constitutional protection, and the existing media.
In this blog I want to highlight the behavioural and political economy aspects of the wikileaks saga, including the question of whether Australia should put in formal protests at the American embassy due to senior American politicians like Sarah Palin calling for the assassination of an Australian citizen who has so far not been convicted or charged with anything. It is ironic, but it is probably Rudd’s current duty to defend his countryman against unconstitutional death threats made by foreigners.
Some salient observations to be made on the current saga:
1. The wikileaks affair has made it clearer than ever before that the Internet is the new Wild West, i.e. a self-regulating social entity that lacks a police force. Within hours of the arrest of Queensland-boy Julian Assange, a group of hackers calling themselves ‘Anonymous’ launched cyber attacks on organisations deemed to have abandoned wikileaks, including the Swiss post, and PayPall. It now also appears as if some of these organisations or their sympathisers retaliated by launching cyber attacks on the group of hackers. We thus find ourselves in an age where vigilantes and particular vested interests fight for dominance on the web. One would expect from history that after a few such skirmishes, some kind of Internet Police will arise. If governments wont set it up, then private organisations will band together to create a kind of Internet Watchdog that uses whatever methods available to silence troublemaking sites via blacklists and the like.
2. The wikileaks affair has lead to surprisingly hostile US reactions in camps you would normally think would favour it. The Tea Party in particular, which purports to defend the US constitution and that is purportedly sceptical of big government, has swung right behind the administration and vilified wikileaks, blatantly ignoring the 1st amendment of the US constitution and calling for illegal acts of violence in support of the discretionary power of the government. Those who drew up the constitution would turn in their graves! Make no mistake though: should Julian Assange be extradited to the US and face charges there, the civil rights movement will have no choice but to swing behind him and an army of American pro-bono lawyers will probably defend him all the way to the Supreme court.
3. The latent US-European divide on press freedom has opened up. The web-sites that mirror wikileaks after its original URL (wikileaks.org) was disrupted are nearly all in Europe, first in Switzerland (wikileaks.ch), but then all over the continent, run by all kinds of organisations. In the Netherlands, for instance, it is a public media organisation (the VPRO) which now openly supports and hosts wikileaks.nl.
4. When push comes to shove, national media feast on the wikileaks saga and focus on what the cables reveal about their country. This has happened in Australia, where the Sydney Morning Herald has announced it is going to run several stories, and it seems to be happening in many countries. It is probably a one-off media-fest, but a fascinating one.
5. The saga is a classic case of ‘shoot the messenger’. The criticism of slack American protocols surrounding their diplomatic cables has been muted even though it should be clear that so many people had access to these cables (the Guardian alleges it was millions) that all the real enemies will have known all the bits important to them already. Instead, American politicians are falling over themselves to accuse wikileaks of being irresponsible, showing remarkable disdain for freedom of information. The witch-hunt is intense enough for private companies to fall in line out of fear of further retribution, as witnessed by Amazon pulling back from wikileaks, and Visa and PayPal pulling the plug too. The vice-president of Pay Pal reports to have been sent a letter by the US state department on November 27th, i.e. before the latest round of leaks, telling him that wikileaks’ activities were illegal. If true, such a letter would seem to be a clear-cut case of political interference with free speech. The psychology of this is truly fascinating: instead of thanking wikileaks for pointing out the major security breaches in its system and the generally positive image that the cables give of American diplomacy and America’s role in the world, there is a blind lashing out at the messenger of sensitive news. Would the same American politicians have preferred it if slack security would have gone on, so that all the major enemies would have continued looking over their shoulder? The logic of shooting the messenger in this case is very primal. Animal spirits are on display. Some do recognise this even within the US, witnessed by the following quote in a BBC interview:
Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers which detailed government lies and cover-ups in the Vietnam War, is sceptical of whether the government really believes that lives are at stake.
He told the BBC’s World Today programme that US officials made that same argument every time there was a potentially embarrassing leak.
“The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually, lives are at stake as a result of the silences and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal,” he said.
“The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid.”
6. The reaction of close American allies has been mixed. In the UK, there is embarrassment at the revelations of being seen to beg the US to acknowledge a mythical ‘special relationship’, but there are also positive messages in the media about whether the leaks are desirable. The Guardian, a UK newspaper, is one of the most ardent consumers of the wikileaks cables and runs many stories supportive of it. On the other hand, the current and former foreign affairs ministers condemned the leaks, particularly the leaked lists of strategic sites. A propos: the list of security critical sites, even if one doesnt think much of real interest was on the list, is an odd thing to publish because there is not much public interest in knowing this list. Wikileaks’ defense was that the list showed that it contravened the official position of the US government that its embassies are not involved in scanning sensitive sites. Whilst that may be true, it is so obvious to anyone that embassies spy that it must fall into the same category as exposing Santa. My best guess is that the pressure of continuous death threats to himself and his family clouded Julian Assange’s judgment.
7. (Australian response) The first reaction in Julian’s home country was to straighten the backs and fall in line with what our big ally seemed to be doing. The prosecutor general made threatening noises towards Julian Assange and several politicians condemned wikileaks in strong wordings, calling the publication of the leaks illegal even though Ben Saul argued quite quickly that the leaks were most likely not illegal. Yet, it is clear that, down the line, the Australian government and its departments will have to become involved in the defense of one of its citizens. Julian Assange has been demonized by foreign leaders and there have been calls for his assassination, even though he has not been charged with anything yet and even though it is very doubtful that he can be convicted of anything at this moment. What else is our government to do once the dust settles down, but to heed the demands that will undoubtedly come from his friends and family in Australia to insist on due process and freedom of movement for one of its citizens? We are hence at the moment in a little time bubble where our politicians and some commentators join in with the demonization of an Australian citizen by foreigners (though Gillard’s latest reaction was much more careful than her first one), whilst after the bubble bursts these same people will have no choice but to stand up for the rights and good treatment of this Australian citizen (calls for this have apparently already been made). I even dare say that there will come a time when Australia will be proud of an Aussie who is, like a lone outback crusader, trying to hold large governments to account by revealing their internal deliberations.
8. The game-theoretic arguments implicitly made by either side are fascinating. Consider first the case that can be made for secrecy in negotiations. The idea is that one should maintain one position in public whilst in secret offering deviations from that position in order to reach a compromise. In a game theoretic sense, one is secretly haggling about the division of a surplus whilst posturing. The interesting question for game theorists is where the importance of posturing might come from. In most economic models, posturing is cheap talk and serves no purpose to begin with. One possibility that rationalises the existence of posture is if public adherence to a tough stance creates an increased commitment to settle for nothing less than a large part of the surplus, i.e. posture creates it own adherents. Yet, at the same time, there must be limits to that commitment for otherwise no compromise will ever be reached and the surplus will remain untapped. I do not know of models that attempt to look at this, but it appears to be a quite difficult problem to mathematically capture to me. Consider next the case that can be made for government accountability via having many of its actions continuously exposed to the scrutiny of the public. To rationalise that argument you need a government that can take various actions, presumably with different degrees to which those actions serve the principal or the government itself; you also need some mechanism via which the public can punish governments whose actions are more self-serving and less public-oriented (like an election); and, obviously, you need hidden information important to the public that a government wishes to hide and for which there is a free-riding problem to uncover (i.e. a market failure in its provision). This seems a more straightforward model, in which the obvious optimal action is to have no secrecy at all. A model combining both elements, leading to a potential tradeoff, would seem beyond the realm of what would be tractable but I encourage any wannabee micro-economic theorist to give it a go!