With Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and whistleblower Bradley Manning facing a full-blown military prosecution, it is tempting to regard the WikiLeaks saga as in its final chapter.
Whatever happens to Assange’s operation, however, it is really just the prologue of a wider story, writes Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. “We’re headed for an even bigger showdown over secrets.”
It’s not just the “incredible act of institutional vengeance” upon WikiLeaks source Manning, who faces charges including aiding the enemy and “could, theoretically receive a death sentence”.
There’s also “the horrific case of Aaron Swartz, a genius who helped create the technology behind Reddit at the age of 14, who earlier this year hanged himself after the government threatened him with 35 years in jail for downloading a bunch of academic documents from an MIT server”.
Taibbi notes a number of other examples of “fervent, desperate prosecutions” by US authorities in the cause of secret-keeping.
These prosecutions reflected an obvious institutional terror of letting the public see the sausage-factory locked behind the closed doors not only of the state, but of banks and universities and other such institutional pillars of society.
The WikiLeaks episode, therefore, “was just an early preview of the inevitable confrontation between the citizens of the industrialised world and the giant, increasingly secretive bureaucracies that support them”.
And, writes Taibbi, “the secret-keepers got lucky with WikiLeaks”, with the story playing out as “one about Assange and his personal failings”.
The main event, he reckons, is to come.
Sooner or later, there’s going to be a pitched battle, one where the state won’t be able to peel off one lone Julian Assange or Bradley Manning and batter him into nothingness. Next time around, it’ll be a Pentagon Papers-style constitutional crisis, where the public’s legitimate right to know will be pitted head-to-head with presidents, generals and CEOs.
Taibbi’s piece was prompted by seeing a preview of Alex Gibney’s new documentary film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. He loved it (“brilliant … beautiful and profound”) but many of Assange’s supporters have been ferociously attacking the film, as Greg Mitchell notes in his Nation column. Even before going on release, the documentary has become “a media sensation”.