On July 12, 2007, two US Apache helicopters attacked multiple sites in Baghdad during the insurgency that followed the American invasion of Iraq. The world hardly noticed until a leaked video in 2010 revealed what actually happened on that day.
In the footage, American soldiers are seen firing at a group of about 20 people, and later a van and a building, killing seven men and wounding others. They were all civilians – and those killed included two journalists. Two of the three children in the van were wounded. Upon observing that, one soldier commented, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into the battle.”
The video was leaked by Private Bradley Manning, an intelligence officer with the US Army. For weeks, Manning had been conversing anonymously with an individual at WikiLeaks using an encrypted channel. At the other end was Julian Assange, an Australian computer programmer who had founded WikiLeaks. The decisions they made in 2010 transformed their lives – Manning ending up in jail, and Assange spending the past decade fighting extradition to US.
For many people, Manning and Assange are considered activists and human rights heroes for their actions. The revelations of events such as the one above, plus many other American misdeeds, are used to substantiate that position. As a result, the duo have received countless awards for their standing and courage.
However, on June 17, 2022, a UK government minister signed an order to deport Assange to the US, the decision that would have brought to an end a decade-long legal saga about Assange. Assange appealed against the decision, and the world once again rose up in his support. The President of Mexico called for his release. In Germany, more than 70 MPs did the same. Amnesty International and other organisations have made similar calls.
It was, therefore, predictable to see many Africans adding their voices to the “Free Assange” chorus. Petitions have been signed and mobilisation is done through social media to put pressure on the UK and US governments to let Assange go. Africans are very tribal, especially if the matter at issue is against the US.
With every post by an acquaintance or a friend here or there announcing that they have signed such petitions and rallying others to do the same thing, I am reminded of how radically different my views are to theirs. From the very beginning, I have always considered Manning, Assange, and later Edward Snowden traitors who deserve to face justice.
On June 9, 2013, a video by Snowden appeared on the internet detailing how the US intelligence agency NSA, was spying on its citizens. Not surprisingly, the video catapulted Snowden into global stardom as a champion of citizens’ rights in an increasingly connected digital world. From Russia, where Snowden took refuge, he justified his actions as “(informing) the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.
Manning and Assange have used similar arguments to defend themselves, but it doesn’t add up.
A person who is motivated by ethical consideration is judicious. They will understand the gravity of their actions, and will be extremely careful in their approach. Considering the mercenary ways in which the documents released by Snowden and Manning were obtained, that is espionage. Moreover, considering the reckless manner in which thousands of secret documents are shared in the internet, without any regard for the implications, that is traitorous. Manning, for example, concealed the documents in a Lady Gaga CD case so as to pass through security and later sent more than 700,000 confidential documents to WikiLeaks – including over 250,000 diplomatic cables going back to 1966.
That is anarchy.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.
In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician, disclosed details of Israel’s nuclear programme to the British media, expecting to be paid $1 million in return. Vanunu illegally smuggled a camera into the Negev Nuclear Research Facility and took photographs of the facility and shared them with the British press. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, lured Vanunu out of the UK through a classic honey-trap method, capturing him and subsequently sending him to Israel where he spent 18 years in prison.
Like others of his ilk, Vanunu justified his actions on account of his ethical consideration, in his case, his opposition to nuclear weapons. There is nothing wrong in principle with that ethical position, but if one is opposed to nuclear weapons, why would they pick a job developing nuclear weapons?
The business of the state requires a certain degree of secrecy and confidentiality. Diplomats have to report openly, security officers use clandestine means to gather intelligence, and leaders make tough decisions to stop wickedness. Yes, these privileges are often abused, but the need for increased accountability is not enough justification for anarchy.
We live in the world where people have become increasingly vain. Traditional values of loyalty and integrity are considered secondary to fame and pseudo-heroism. How can anyone confuse whistleblowing with dumping of millions of confidential documents on the internet? Moreover, how can anyone expect to do that and face no consequences? Finally, is Putin’s Russia, arguably your nation’s biggest security threat, the place that you would take refuge in?
Truly, as it is said, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.