THE SPINE JULY 29, 2010
I'm in Spain and my copy of the Daniel Ellsberg edition of the Pentagon Papers is in Cambridge. So I do not have access to what I recall as the five volume edition he gave us. He had inscribed in the first volume his "personal thanks for your help in ending the Vietnam War." Unlike Ellsberg, I never was for the Vietnam war. I was against it from the beginning...and worked (not so modestly) to end it. Still, I recognize the importance of Ellsberg's turning. After all, he had been in the small Washington entourage of Robert McNamara and later in the Vietnam circle of Edwin Landsdale. He was an obsessive, of course. And an obsessive on both sides of the issue.
The sudden arrival of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and his documents immediately reminded me of Ellsberg, who in very short order also arrived from wherever he was and whatever he was doing to inform us that Assange also reminded him of himself. And, of course, Pfc. Bradley Manning was hovering in the background with his leak of a rocket attack in Afghanistan. While drawing distinctions, Ellsberg relates the two others to himself.
Assange and, to a lesser extent, Manning are already heroes. So here is roughly my view of them...or at least of Assange. Well, it's not exactly my view but that of Tunku Varadarajan who writes brilliantly and regularly for the Daily Beast.
When asked at a London press conference whether he thought his leaks would compromise national security, Assange’s “visibly annoyed” response (per this report) stripped bare the adamantly adversarial quality of his mind-set: “You often hear that something may be a threat to U.S. national security. This must be shot down, whenever this statement is made.”
For the security of the numerous Afghan informants who work with U.S. troops, he cares not a jot. As The Times of London has pointed out, hundreds of names of such local collaborators in the war effort can be found in the documents in the WikiLeaks archive, including details of their villages. How does Assange justify putting these people at mortal risk? Predictably, he does not, taking refuge behind a weasel-worded insistence that he and his team had edited the material so that there was “harm minimization,” a morally teasing phrase that might, so ironically, be part of the Pentagon’s own lexicon. So are we to assume that the Afghan informants whose names were left in the WikiLeaks texts amount, in Assange’s reckoning, to an acceptable quantum of collateral damage in his Quixotic war against the warmongers?
What does Assange want? Does he really want the free world to cringe under constant threat from al Qaeda? If we fail to defeat this threat, what does Assange think will happen? Do we have any sense that he cares? Or is it the case, frighteningly, that Assange doesn’t really “want” anything, in a programmatic, civilizational sense, and that these explosive episodes of “gotcha” leaks are an end in themselves, a personal moral terminus, a sort of self-righteous, self-congratulatory onanism?
I believe that the outbursts of unfiltered history will be a big problem for the president. To be sure, there are people in his entourage who are thrilled by what will end up being an enormous embarrassment for Obama. He cannot be seen to be surrendering the whole category of military secrets. More important, he cannot and should not give up the argument about tactics and strategy impelled on us by the terrorists in whose defense the lawyers have accepted the aseptic definition of asymmetrical war.