WikiLeaks: Bringing the First Amendment to the World
Since 2011, from the Arab Spring and Spanish Revolution to Occupy, waves of global uprisings have been erupting as never before. The crisis of representation helped spawn decentralized movements as a manifestation of people’s aspiration to take the reins of their own destinies. For many, the presumption of legitimacy of their governments has been crumbling. What triggered this widespread global crisis?
Journalist Phillip Dorling traced the impulse behind the Occupy movement back to the release of the U.S. Army helicopter gunship Collateral Murder video and noted how it was strongly based on the work of the whistleblower website Wikileaks. Amnesty International pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC documentary WikiLeaks: Secret Life of a Superpower also attributed their revelations as the spark for Arab revolutions, showing how U.S. cable leaks shared through social networking sites in 2010 became a powerful force that finally toppled the corrupt Tunisian dictator Ben Ali.
We live in a globalized society where consent of the governed is often manufactured through domestic propaganda or denied by military forces of authoritarian regimes or foreign powers. This use of coercive force is well-hidden from the vast majority of people in the world. The global crisis of legitimacy that seeded the cycle of protest movements revealed the interwoven structure of Western economic and military power, which in many countries imposes a kind of corporate dictatorship under the guise of liberal democracy.
WikiLeaks was a game changer. Their publication of disclosed documents along with established media reaction showed the true face of liberal institutions and the waning effectiveness of the politics of representation. Western media outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian engaged in sensational tabloid hit pieces on Julian Assange and other truth tellers showing themselves to be servants of the managed pretense of Democracy Inc.
In late 2010, political activist and essayist John Perry Barlow tweeted: “The first serious info-war is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops”. Following the massive release of U.S. diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks became a target of fierce retaliation from the Pentagon and aggressive corporate media rhetoric attempting to incriminate the whistleblowing site along with extrajudicial banking blockades by private companies such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard.
We the People as the Ultimate Source of Legitimacy
Journalist and WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, who assisted the safe passage of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from Hong Kong and his asylum bid, spoke at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum keynote address about how the attacks on WikiLeaks revealed “the greatest unaccountable power of today — the United States and our Western democracies”. This battle against WikiLeaks was an assault on the fundamental principle of the First Amendment. Here we have seen the U.S. government declaring war against the very founding ideals of this country. Obama’s unprecedented war on both whistleblowers and journalists has revealed the escalation of this frontal assault on freedom of speech and the press for all the world to see.
The First Amendment of the United States reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
The First Amendment is the primary cornerstone of the Bill of Rights and was founded on the ideals that inspired the Declaration of Independence. It was a revolutionary spirit of equality and the aspiration of ordinary people to take control of their lives that fueled passion for the revolt against the human condition of monarchy, exemplified by the imposed authority of King George.
Despite all the flaws, contradictions and inherent inequality with the founders and the large gap between ideals and reality, the Bill of Rights was a groundbreaking move away from the single power of central authority, whether it be King, plutocrat or president. It was an attempt to create a shift from the centralized throne to a system of law, specifically with the U.S. Constitution as a mechanism for the balance of power.
This history-making document is a declaration of the supreme power of the common man. It recognizes everyday people as the primary active agent within any healthy society. No government, profession, politician or business owner shall be above the law; all are to be bound by the common law of “We the People” that was proclaimed in the preamble to the Constitution. This was based on the idea that authority of governance is only legitimate when granted, checked and balanced by ordinary people. From this there emerges a vision of the government as a social form that can become a manifestation of people’s free will to associate with others and organize their own governing structures based on mutual aid. The First Amendment was a crucial step toward deriving the source of legitimacy from ordinary people. It was to ensure citizens the right to choose who to trust and give authority to and when it is appropriate to withdraw that trust and authority.
Yet despite the ideals in the Declaration, from its inception democracy in the U.S. Republic was never intended to be direct, created of the people, by the people and for the people. The idea of equality self-evidenced in the Declaration was kept unfree as the Republic took representation as its formal governing structure. The true revolutionary force behind the First Amendment remained leashed. This was most apparent in the denial of rights for slaves, indigenous people and women.
Though in many ways it was a groundbreaking concept, American democracy still had a tendency for corruption and unchecked power of privilege. In this representative form of governance, some progress was made, but the fuller meaning of the First Amendment remained unrealized. The people as the source of all power as a concept seemed have been lost and the role of citizens has come to be defined as simply a check and balance on the existing power. Yet, over the last hundred years with the rise of corporate dominance, a deep decay in the system of government accountability has taken place.
The Corporate Coup d’état and Subversion of the Rule of Law
A little known incident took place in 1886, when a Supreme Court clerk made a notation from an off-hand comment of a Judge, which launched the legal fiction of corporate personhood. This was a silent corporate coup d’état of democracy, subjugating the concept of We the People as the highest law of the land and finally bringing it to its knees.
The notion of corporate personhood with rights equal to (or more than) human beings was slipped in without much examination. Soon, corporations were granted the rights of personhood under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, which was originally passed to grant rights to former slaves, was now being used to create a new class of personhood that would stand above all people under the Constitution.
In the article “Destroying the Commons: How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta”, Noam Chomsky described what happened:
“The post-Civil War fourteenth amendment granted the rights of person to former slaves, though mostly in theory. At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations. In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the fourteenth amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability”.
This was a pivotal moment that can be traced as the beginning of ever-increasing spread of corporate dominance and this took place mostly without the awareness of the people.
The First Amendment was the first casualty of this corporate coup d’état of the U.S. Constitution. Over the years, the principle of equality before the law has been effectively diminished and many have been excluded from the circle of We the People. The consolidation of media corporations took over public airwaves and began to filter the flow of information. With the control of money through a privately owned Federal Reserve and corporate trade agreements such as WTO and NAFTA, bankers and transnational corporations have been imposing regulation and restricting the flow of finance and labor to subvert the sovereignty of whole nations. Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, this blatant takeover of governments and economies by hidden private interests can no longer stay under the radar.
Following their revelation of the secret trade deal known as the TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership) last year, on June 19 WikiLeaks published a secret draft chapter for the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) a Financial Services Annex that covers 50 countries and over 68 % of world trade in services. This deal was classified and intended to be secret, not only during the negotiation but also for five years after it became law. It was meant to serve transnational corporations by forcing deregulation of global financial services markets for commercial interests and was promoted by the same governments and central banks that were responsible for creating the global financial crisis 5 years ago.
In a nutshell, this proposed global trade agreement is just another tactic for corralling the global population into a new peasant class. Its only purpose is to constrict the free flow of capital by setting centralizing rules to benefit oligarchs under the guise of political representation, by way of fast-track trade authority.
This corporate hijacking of governments and democratic processes nullifies the power of people to guide their own lives. It results in the stagnation of imagination and turns the will toward apathy. The remedy for this continuous assault by of this corporate coup d’état first requires the freeing of the First Amendment from the very foundations on which it was born, namely the U.S. Constitution, which over the past decades has been subverted by corporate power. How can we liberate free speech from this corporate propriety and release its true force into the world?
The Liberation of the First Amendment
The efforts to free the First Amendment have come from outside the U.S. Since 2010, the rise of WikiLeaks and politicized youth on the Internet have started to intervene in the expanding imperial power of the corporate state.
In a sense, WikiLeaks was an experiment of free speech with the world as laboratory, testing the hypothesis: What would happen if the First Amendment is really applied to all people? Assange once noted that their task was “taking the First Amendment and giving it to the world.” Through placing its operation upon the ether network, this journalist organization broke down the firewalls of nation-bound laws. By making servers run through various countries that have strong source protection laws and bouncing encrypted information through dozens of computers, they created an autonomous zone that would function as a new global Fourth Estate.
This encryption technology that secures communication made it possible for this organization to create systems of anonymous drop-boxes, helping those inside a large corrupt organization to step forward and reveal wrongdoing without being exposed. This way, the worlds first truly transnational publisher crossed borders and challenged the barriers to free speech that exist in a similar way to boundaries in ideas and language that restrict free thought. How does WikiLeaks unleash the true revolutionary force of the First Amendment around the world?
WikiLeaks by way of its infrastructure of stateless untraceable whistleblowing open-sourced the principle of free speech, making it possible for silenced and oppressed voices to find their expression.
With their source-driven journalism, they support the equal application of the First Amendment. This publishing organization typically does not solicit and actively seek information. After the release of the Afghan War Diary, when asked about his stance on the War in Afghanistan, Assangesaid, “This is not a role our organization has. We don’t have a pro-war, antiwar [stance]. We are an organization that represents what our confidential sources want to say to the world.” He described that their foremost duty is to be true to the source, to give voice to the information that comes through them.
This organization does not play favorites or target specific groups or governments or discriminate against submissions based on a particular political bias or agenda. Their job is to simply verify the authenticity of the submitted materials and if it fits the criteria for publication then find a way to best represent and manifest the wishes of the source. Through a platform for publication of leaked documents, WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech that had been very abused by the U.S. government, ironically from the very birthplace of this idea. Through freeing information for the common people, they counteract interlocking corporate-state led globalization.
Their fidelity to the First Amendment far exceeds other journalistic entities. This was exemplified by the organization’s extraordinary commitment to source protection. At re:publica14, Harrison, the acting director of Courage Found, described the reason for her courageous act, saying how it was important to create another example of how one can safely tell the truth and participate in the ensuing debate.
As a press for people, WikiLeaks performs the role of adversarial journalism as a watchdog on those in power. WikiLeaks specifically offers an avenue for those voices likely to be persecuted or ignored, making it often the publisher of last resort. In the website’s publishing policy, WikiLeaks spelled out the criteria for their publishing, saying that they accept material that is of “diplomatic, political, ethical, or historical significance, which has not been published before, which is being suppressed …”
Assange described how they are most interested in a particular quality of information and pointed out that concealed information has greater potential for just reform because those who hide it spend energy and resources in concealment for a reason. He pointed out how this signal of suppression is a sign of opportunity, showing how “there something worth looking at to see if it should be exposed and that censorship expresses weakness not strength”.
What sets WikiLeaks apart from other media organizations is their discipline of scientific journalism. They always release the full source material related to a story, whether the story is published by them or someone else. This makes it possible for them to work in a manner that is in line with the spirit of free speech, to act as the people’s press. Assange explained:
“Everything we do is like science. It is checkable, independently checkable because the information which has informed our conclusions is there, just like scientific papers which are based on experimental data and must make that experimental data available to other scientists and the public if they want their papers to be published”.
When the information that led to a conclusion is made available to the public, people can follow the process themselves and examine the validity of the disclosures and analysis so they can make their own independent conclusions about the material. This places the role and task of journalists and press as a servant of people rather than purveyors of propaganda spin or shaper of perception. Instead of journalists dictating what the public should know and mediating public opinion, journalism for the people upholds ordinary people’s right to know and treats freeing of public information as a vital application of the First Amendment, allowing all to participate as peers.
Behind this approach is a premise that we are all equal; no one is above the law and allowed to govern others without their consent. In addressing the issues of redaction, Harrison talked about how through their past publication experience, WikiLeaks learned that the best approach is to start with the premise that the public deserves everything and thus everything should be given to them.
She stated how WikiLeaks holds a view that information itself does not create harm and names of individuals that cause imminent threats of course may need to be redacted. Nevertheless she noted how the organization believes that the public should have access to full source documents in order to see pieces of information in context as each part can change meaning. Along with scientific journalism, Harrison also noted the ethics of preserving history and providing people with full archives in a searchable format, allowing “the public an ability to engage with their own history”. She argued how information can empower the public, using an example of a particular German citizen who was mistakenly treated as a terrorist and how he made his own court case to bring justice because of access to such information.
Not so long ago, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald engaged in a debate out in open on Twitter regarding a decision by Firstlook (owned by eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar) which is the online magazine of Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Their interaction, widely portrayed as a Twitter stormrevolved around the redaction of a name of a fifth country that is a target of the NSA spying in the latest revelations in the Snowden stories. Upon
Firstlook’s publication revealing the NSA interception of phone calls in the Bahamas, WikiLeaks began a series of tweets: “We condemn Firstlook for following the Washington Post into censoring the mass interception of an entire nation”. Then WikiLeaks continued, “It is not the place of Firstlook or the Washington Post to deny the rights of an entire people to know they are being mass recorded”. In the interaction with the editor-in-chief of the Intercept John Cook, they told how “the peoples of an entire nation have the right to choose their destiny” and reminded that history does not belong to him, journalists and organizations. Then WikiLeaks announced that they would in 72 hours reveal the name of the fifth country that has been a prime target of the NSA mass surveillance. As promised, they identified the fifth country as Afghanistan and provided the reason behind their publication.
Some might argue that compared to the Washington Post that completely complied the U.S. government’s request to withhold name of all five names of the victim states, the Intercept published all names of countries except the Afghanistan. Yet in principle there is no half application of the First Amendment, it is either we have it or not. As long as journalists or the government are in control of who gets to practice free speech, we don’t have free speech or press and instead have governance without informed consent.
As intelligence agency for the people, WikiLeaks respects anyone’s rights to form their own opinions, to freely associate and express themselves. Through committing to provide archives, they make journalism a participatory experience in which they do not claim to be the final authority. Rather, WikiLeaks engages people in a collaborative and inclusive process of facilitating the court of public opinion to draw their own conclusions.
With scientific journalism we can now free people from the pretense of authority inherent in the corporate media model and its false creed of objectivity. This empowers people to question authority and discern for themselves the legitimacy of those who claim to represent them.
Once this system of check and balance is in place, we can all act as equal participants in a democracy. With the ability to hold those in power accountable we are now questioning the current form of representation itself. This creates an option of representation where anyone can check the legitimacy of those who claim to represent them. Whether it is WikiLeaks or another media organization, we can choose for ourselves who we want to grant authority to represent our interests. It makes outer authority not so much a necessity or something to be imposed, but just an option where the public can elect professionals such as journalists, lawyers and politicians to perform the tasks on their behalf.
The battle of free speech continues and organizations like WikiLeaks are at the frontline in this battle. This is an experiment of democracy and we are now seeing the unhindered revolutionary force of the First Amendment. What could happen if we start exercising the right to freely speak and associate with one another to claim our own uncompromising power?
Dr. Nozomi Hayase is a former WikiLeaks Central contributing writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movement. Her work is featured in many publications.