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Journalism Is Not an Attack, Wikileaks Is Not Warfare

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Wikileaks is under attack!

Journalists and politicians are calling for the criminalization of Wikileaks, or worse, the assassination of its members. The US government is coercing companies into blocking access to Wikileaks, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is normally very strong on internet freedom, has been forced to "evolve" her positions.

If you're a supporter of Wikileaks, or even a relatively dispassionate observer, you likely find these actions to be offensive, or even downright criminal. How dare the US move so arrogantly, so aggressively, against Wikileaks for what seems to be nothing more than the second coming of the Pentagon Papers? We believe in free speech, in transparency and accountability for our government. It's outrageous that Washington would move so decisively to crush a project like Wikileaks.

But are Wikileaks' supporters actually feeding this response from the government? In our rush to rationalize and defend Wikileaks and their actions, have we inadvertently opened the door to attacks by the US government?

The answer can be found in how we've chosen to frame the debate so far.

My friend Bob Morris has been studying the writings of Julian Assange closely, and he writes this of Assange's motives:

I also think there are whole levels here we aren't seeing, including what Assange is doing. It is however, a classic example of asymmetrical warfare, where a tiny player has huge impact against a state power. [...]

[Assange's] writings clearly show he thinks all governments are corrupt which by most any criteria makes him an anarchist, and the digital equivalent of a bomb-thrower.

Why is Wikileaks only publishing a mere sixteen cables a day when they have 250,000+? Who is choosing them and what criteria is used? Why did Assange announce in advance he has info that could take down major banks? Because that's just begging for retaliation both from banks and the federal government. Why not just publish all the data at once? He may be lobbing digital bombs at governments, but his methods seem unfocused and he a bit megomaniacal. The cables have already had a profound effect, and this indeed is the first real infowar, but I'm guessing he will be smoking rubble soon, even as the leaks continue. [emphasis added]

This is all rhetorical, just metaphors. But the implication is there: Wikileaks is attacking the United States.

And naturally, if the United States is under attack, it absolutely has the right to defend itself. Just as we target Al-Qa'eda, the US should move immediately to arrest those involved, shut down their web operations, and block their financing.

But only if it really is an attack. I don't think that's what we have with the Wikileaks case.

Asymmetrical warfare, anarchist bomb-throwing, and "digital vandalism" are all forms of attack. But dissent is not an attack. Activism is not an attack. And most importantly, journalism is not an attack.

Let's be clear about exactly what happened. Pfc Bradley Manning allegedly leaked the cables to hackers involved with Wikileaks. Wikileaks then elected to share them with various news agencies, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and others. Those media outlets then chose which documents they would report on, and Wikileaks followed by publishing those specific cables. That's why there have only been around a thousand, out of some quarter million, cables made available to the public.

If anyone committed a crime or did anything wrong, and again that's not yet been proven, then it would be Bradley Manning, no one else. Wikileaks, along with newspapers and blogs who report on and link to them, are simply engaging in journalism, in free - protected - speech.

I understand the desire of Assange and others to portray themselves as freedom fighters battling the evil state. I am constantly having to criticize my fellow liberals for calling themselves "insurgents", it's almost second nature for some of them. I get it, though. It's neat to imagine yourself as heroically slaying the dragon of the empire. It's neat to be a warrior for a cause, laying your life on the line and throwing your body into the gears of the machines of aggression and oppression.

But the problem is that war is real. Terrorists don't leak cables, they murder people. Insurgents don't campaign for legislation, they kill the foreign soldiers occupying their lands and the puppet governments working for them. It's not cool to be in their shoes, it's terrible, the worst thing you can imagine.

War, whether asymmetrical or not, is not something you want to be a part of, not something you want to support like transparency and accountability. It is instead the complete destruction of society and basic human decency. As Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, war is the opposite of civilization.

The act of publishing information is not warfare. Wikileaks is not warfare. Just because Julian Assange thinks of himself as a freedom fighter, and just because Wikileaks' supporters like to imagine themselves fighting an "Infowar", doesn't make it true.

If we allow our definitions of war and conflict to blur, then we bring the government's aggressive response on ourselves. How easy is it for the authorities to claim that Wikileaks is an enemy of the state when even Assange's most strident supporters refer to him as a bomb thrower waging asymmetrical warfare against the American empire?

Look at the misery and disasters wrought by our other rhetorical wars -- the War on Crime, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror. They lead to oppression, violation of rights, and in some cases, horrific violence. We should think twice before choosing to define Wikileaks -- and transparency and accountability -- as some kind of War on State Secrecy. That's not what free speech is, and that's not what journalism is either.

If you support Wikileaks, if you support transparency, accountability, or even just basic free speech, you should not be playing into the government's semantic game that presents itself as a victim, and Wikileaks as an attacker. As someone who engages in journalism, as someone who engages in activism and dissent, I don't want these things re-defined as an attack on the state.

I am not an insurgent, and neither are you. Until we realize that, until we understand the difference between journalism and war, then the government will continue to claim it's acting in self defense.

Stop giving the government an excuse for repression. Stop calling Wikileaks "warfare".

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.