Is WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a Hero? Glenn Greenwald Debates Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News

3 December, 2010 — Democracy Now!

WikiLeaks is coming under attack from all sides. The U.S. government and embassies around the world are criticizing the whistleblowing group for releasing a massive trove of secret State Department cables. The WikiLeaks website is struggling to stay online just days after Amazon pulled the site from its servers following political pressure. The U.S. State Department has blocked all its employees from accessing the site and is warning all government employees not to read the cables, even at home. “These attacks will not stop our mission, but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in the United States,” said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. We host a debate between Steven Aftergood, a transparency advocate who has become a leading critic of WikiLeaks, and Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and legal blogger for Salon.com.


Partial Transcript follows:

Guests:
Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political/legal blogger at Salon.com.

Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. He directs the Project on Government Secrecy and runs Secrecy News.

JUAN GONZALEZ: WikiLeaks is under attack. The whistelblowing group’s website has effectively been killed just days after Amazon pulled the site from its servers following political pressure. Wikileaks.org went offline this morning for the third time this week in what the Guardian newspaper is calling “the biggest threat to its online presence yet.”

A California-based internet hosting provider called EveryDNS dropped WikiLeaks last night, late last night. The company says it did so to prevent its other 500,000 customers from being affected by the intense cyber attacks targeted at WikiLeaks.

This morning, WikiLeaks—and the massive trove of secret diplomatic cables it has been publishing since Sunday—was only accessible online through a string of digits known as a DNS address.

Earlier this week, Joe Lieberman, the chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security, called for any organization helping to sustain WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.

Meanwhile, the State Department has blocked all its employees from accessing the site and is warning all government workers not to read the cables, even at home.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told The Guardian the developments are an example of the, quote, “privatization of state censorship.” Assange said, quote, “These attacks will not stop our mission, but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: Just what is WikiLeaks’ mission? On its website, the group says, quote, “WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public.” The website goes on, “We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices,” unquote.

But not all transparency advocates support what WikiLeaks is doing. Today we’ll host a debate. Steven Aftergood is one of the most prominent critics of WikiLeaks and one of the most prominent transparency advocates. He’s the director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists. He runs the Secrecy News project, which routinely posts non-public documents. He is joining us from Washington, D.C. We’re also joined by Glenn Greenwald. He’s a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com who’s supportive of WikiLeaks. He’s joining us from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Steven Aftergood? You have been a fierce proponent of transparency, yet you are a critic of WikiLeaks. Why?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I’m all for the exposure of corruption, including classified corruption. And to the extent that WikiLeaks has done that, I support its actions. The problem is, it has done a lot more than that, much of which is problematic. It has invaded personal privacy. It has published libelous material. It has violated intellectual property rights. And above all, it has launched a sweeping attack not simply on corruption, but on secrecy itself. And I think that’s both a strategic and a tactical error. It’s a strategic error because some secrecy is perfectly legitimate and desirable. It’s a tactical error because it has unleashed a furious response from the U.S. government and other governments that I fear is likely to harm the interests of a lot of other people besides WikiLeaks who are concerned with open government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say—when you list some of the main errors that the organization has made, could you give some examples of what to you are most troubling, when you talk about the invasion of privacy rights and other—and the others that you’ve listed?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Last year, WikiLeaks published a thousand-page raw police investigative file from Belgium, investigating a case of child abuse and murder. And as one would expect, the police file included lots of unsubstantiated allegations that later turned out to be false. But by publishing the raw allegations in their original state, WikiLeaks brought embarrassment and disgrace to people who were in fact innocent. It got to the point where the Belgium government was looking into the possibility of blocking access to WikiLeaks, not as an act of censorship, but as an act of protection against libel.

WikiLeaks has also published what I think is probably the only actual blueprint of a nuclear fission device that has been made available online. It’s not an artist’s concept, but it’s an actual blueprint of a real nuclear weapon that they posted online. I think from a proliferation point of view, that was a terrible mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to bring you in before the break with a response.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, it’s interesting because we led off the segment with you, Amy, detailing a whole variety of repressive actions that are being taken against WikiLeaks. And one of the reasons for that is because people like Steven Aftergood have volunteered themselves and thrust themselves into the spotlight to stand up and say, “I’m a transparency advocate, but I think that what WikiLeaks is doing in so many instances is terrible.”

If you look at the overall record of WikiLeaks—and let me just stipulate right upfront that WikiLeaks is a four-year-old organization, four years old. They’re operating completely unchartered territory. Have they made some mistakes and taken some missteps? Absolutely. They’re an imperfect organization. But on the whole, the amount of corruption and injustice in the world that WikiLeaks is exposing, not only in the United States, but around the world, in Peru, in Australia, in Kenya and in West Africa and in Iceland, much—incidents that are not very well known in the United States, but where WikiLeaks single-handedly uncovered very pervasive and systematic improprieties that would not have otherwise been uncovered, on top of all of the grave crimes committed by the United States. There is nobody close to that organization in terms of shining light of what the world’s most powerful factions are doing and in subverting the secrecy regime that is used to spawn all sorts of evils.

And I think the big difference between myself and Steven Aftergood is it is true that WikiLeaks is somewhat of a severe response, but that’s because the problem that we’re confronting is quite severe, as well, this pervasive secrecy regime that the world’s powerful factions use to perpetrate all kinds of wrongdoing. And the types of solutions that Mr. Aftergood has been pursuing in his career, while commendable and nice and achieving very isolated successes here and there, is basically the equivalent of putting little nicks and scratches on an enormous monster. And WikiLeaks is really one of the very few, if not the only group, effectively putting fear into the hearts of the world’s most powerful and corrupt people, and that’s why they deserve, I think, enthusiastic support from anyone who truly believes in transparency, notwithstanding what might be valid, though relatively trivial, criticisms that Mr. Aftergood and a couple of others have been voicing.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’ve just gotten word from a tweet that the WikiLeaks website is now being hosted in Switzerland, again taken down over the last hours. We are seeing here the WikiLeaks tweet says, “WikiLeaks moves to Switzerland, “http://wikileaks.ch”>http://wikileaks.ch.” We’ll bring you the latest as we go through this broadcast. We’re speaking with Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com and Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. Back with them in a minute.

[break]

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