SURELY SOME MISTAKE?
EPISTEMICS RHETORIC REALPOLITIK

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Hysteria for Women, or: What has Julian Assange got that David Aaronovitch hasn't?



So did Wikileaks really help spark the Tunisian revolt? Probably. I think commenter 'eleny' on some messageboard I was looking at had it right:

"Maybe people believed that there was corruption. But when they had concrete examples in the words of their leaders it infuriated the citizenry."
Believing is one thing but knowing is all important. And facts appear to be what WikiLeaks provides.

Secrecy, its degrees and varieties and its penumbra of deniability and doubt, is a favourite topic in these my sporadic and desultory remarks. I haven't attempted anything approaching thorough investigation or analysis of the situation in Tunisia, but the idea that a credible source certifying previously penumbral factoids can catalyse latent resentment seems fairly plausible to me. (One aspect is the idea that publicity provides a standard around which previously private opinion can rally, as in the Emperor's New Clothes parable.)

But letting that issue dangle unargued, I'll turn instead to the burning question of the moment: what would Serious Political Analyst and unwonted but determined Radio 4 colonist David Aaronovitch have to say about this? I don't know the answer to that either, which is probably good for the old equanimity. I imagine he subscribes to one of the 'power to the people as long as they do what we want' arguments that have emerged among the neocons and all the usual suspects, but again, I don't actually know, and don't intend coughing up whatever it costs to find out.

What I do know, though, thanks to a recent foraging expedition among some old chip wrappers, is what Aaronovitch was writing about Wikileaks in his Times column a few months ago. And in light of some evidence that Wikileaks is capable of having a role in some pretty spectacular and broadly welcome events, it seems worth looking at what he was saying then in some detail.

The Times, Thursday December 9 2010, Opinion, p33


This is no Robin Hood. They were our secrets

The Assangeists don't trust the State to run foreign or defence policy. So why do they trust it to run everything else?

David Aaronovitch

I had the same conversation half a dozen times yesterday in different forms and on different media. Wasn't there something strangely "convenient" about the legal process under way to investigate sexual allegations against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks? What this must mean, if anything, is this: is there some kind of plot whereby Mr Assange's enemies have somehow procured these charges to silence him? In other words the Yanks have secretly (ha!) leant on the Swedes, the Swedes have silently manipulated two women, and there we are, halfway to the fourth Stieg Larsson novel, The Girl with the Badly Constructed Condom.

Aaronovitch has approximated accuracy here: what people were saying - huge numbers of people who are not normally interested in observing conspiratorial behaviour - is that Mr Assange's enemies have had a hand in these charges. But not necessarily to silence him - perhaps to spoil his attempt to gain permanent residence in Sweden, perhaps to taint his reputation, perhaps to hobble, disrupt or undermine the work of Wikileaks, and perhaps of course - watch this space - in order to get him into custody while they decide on the best way to inveigle him into the US penal system or its Kafkaesque shadowland. The latest development in the extradition proceedings against Assange have an irrelevant magistrate giving his decision (against Assange), in the certain knowledge that appeal proceedings will begin with his words still hanging in the air. [Edit: since that was written, a District Judge has taken the appeals procedure another unedifying step closer to exhaustion.]

Anyone who is interested in the motivation and merits of the action taken against Assange by Swedish prosecutors can find plenty of material on the web; I'm not going to analyse it in detail here. One can certainly say, though, that these suspicions are not exactly tinfoil-hat territory - the US is indisputably out to get Assange, the charges are incredibly dubious on a large number of counts, and the announcement that Assange had surrendered to custody was followed with amazing swiftness by an announcement from the US state department that they 'may' seek to extradite Mr Assange - out of the Anglo-Swedish frying pan and directly into the inferno, Stateside.

Aaronovitch does his best to isolate a weak and paranoid-sounding strand from the web of evidence: so his chosen quote is "convenient" ( not that he is necessarily quoting any actual words he has actually heard, of course). "Isn't this a bit convenient?", as in 'isn't it convenient for the international Jewish Illuminati that this earthquake should keep the West Kettering UFO Working Group's inaugural conference and buffet off the front pages?'. The idea is to suggest a very weak circumstantial case, one so weak that it can only be hinted at. But Aaronovitch is really pushing it here - not many are going to fall for his Emperor's New Clothes schtick this time. Avert your eyes, gentle reader, for the Grand Panjandrum Aaronovitch stands before us, naked and quivering with indignation. (My concern is not of course to spare his ample blushes, but to save you from a disturbing and, I fear, indelible image.)

Leave aside the fact that Aaronovitch has chosen the word himself, rather than have to face the unpleasant task of directy confronting bold assertions like 'this appears to be a honeytrap' or 'the Swedish authorities have been leant on'. 'Convenient' is presented here as a sneaky way of suggesting a hidden agenda, of turning coincidence into conspiracy. Of course this euphemistic usage is generally used as an ironic understatement, as for example in a 2003 article from Media Lens: With the convenient discovery of a deadly poison in Wood Green, London, Tony Blair has again made explicit reference to the "related" threats of international terrorism and Iraq - here we hardly need point out that the context made this discovery rather suspect - whether planted, provoked, or merely trawled for by an unprecedentedly thorough kidney-bean hunt.

We can be a little more precise here: the term 'convenient' implies motive. If some event is convenient for an actor, then it serves that actor's ends. This means that the actor would have had an objective motive to bring about that event. And the existence of an objective motive (as in the 'cui bono' principle) is some kind of evidence. The evidence is far stronger if it can be shown that the suspect believed that the event would be useful, that it could be brought about, and that bringing it about would have low costs in time money and foregone opportunity. (And if the suspect believed these things, then they need not even be true to establish motive.)

Conveniently enough for my purposes, the Media Lens report makes scathing reference to Aaronovitch's own contribution to the Bush administration's second burst of scattergun propaganda, in an article entitled 'A few inconvenient facts about Saddam. Inconvenience here is also used to impute motive - a motive assumed to be thwarted. (This is the poor man's conspiracy - the rich and powerful may be accused of carrying out a conspiracy, the powerless must make do with wanting or trying to.) The opponents of the war are presented as motivated by something other than the humanitarian imperative, which as any fool knows mandates immediately dispatching a horde of burger-eating murder-monkeys. So the 'facts' that Aaronovitch has pulled out of some noisome crevice are 'inconvenient' - they frustrate and expose the evil motives of the anti-war constituency1

It's no great shock to discover that Aaronovitch is unaverse to imputing motive to others while ever ready with the tinfoil hat quip for any opponent who may mention the M-word. Of course, for motive to be of much interest or the cui bono? question to be apt, there must be a crime, something identifiable with some plausibility as a human action of which we may ask - who would do such a thing? In the absence of anything that looks dodgy, there is little point in looking at motive. But the charges against Assange are dodgy - hugely dodgy. They're the dodgiest thing since Jammy Dodgers, they're Roger the Dodger dodging a dodgem, they're a hotwired Dodge convertible speeding through the dodgy end of Dodge City, they're the Grand Master of the Grand Dodge…you see what I'm hinting at here. And given that, it is not exactly a stretch to point the finger at the US as being involved.

But when pointing that finger, you had better be aware of a sneaky little pest at your elbow - yes, it's Aaronovitch again, tugging at your sleeve, pulling you insistently in the direction of a peculiar little scenario of his own devising. 'What this must mean...' he informs us, and '..in other words...' - oh, these are other words, all right. Other, entirely different, words, with an entirely different meaning. With studied incompetence, Aaronovitch has come up with a peculiarly specific, convoluted and implausible-sounding scenario, which he insistently presses us to accept - and immediately of course reject - as the only possible implication of all this crazy talk about how the US dirty tricks machine is trying to get Assange. The Yanks told the Swedes, and the Swedes told the groupies, do you have some honey for my trap? Of course there are plenty of other scenarios, which I hardly need to enumerate. Few of them involve a chain of command which goes from the CIA (say) to some Swedish government agency and thence to Assange's accuser.

Oh yes, and into this slim paragraph Aaronovitch manages to cram two suggestions that any behind-the-scenes manoeuvring is implausible because it would have to be 'secret' and 'silent' - 'ha!' he interjects, hoping perhaps to jab-and-move before the reader has a chance to reflect that he seems to be trying to suggest that Wikileaks now publishes live updates on CIA black ops.

On Twitter yesterday Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine, opined that "rape is being used in the Assange prosecution in the same way that women's freedom was used to invade Afghanistan. Wake up!" (But anyone actually awake in 2001 will remember that women's freedom was not at all the pretext for toppling the Taleban).

It was indeed not the pretext, though note that Aaronovitch now seems to accept that there was a pretext, rather than, say, a good reason honestly presented. But anyone who was awake in 2001 and had an interest in women's rights will agree that it was an issue used to bolster support for the invasion. The accumulation of inadequate reasons for war was of course to come to the fore in the case of Iraq, but it was already being used in the run-up to the Afghan war:

Orlando Sentinel, October 01, 2001: Spotlight Is On Taliban Oppression Of Women - Until the days after Sept. 11, most Americans knew nothing of the horrific treatment of Afghan women living under Taliban rule. But for longtime feminist Eleanor Smeal, the fight against the Taliban started years ago....

Los Angeles Daily News, Oct 14, 2001 : Speaking for Those Who Can't - Mavis Leno finally has won the attention of the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, major network news divisions, respected newspapers and the general public for the impoverished, oppressed women of Afghanistan.

Washington Post, Oct. 6, 2001: Text: President Bush's Weekly Radio Address BUSH: Good morning. Today I want to update Americans on our global campaign against terror. The United States is presenting a clear choice to every nation: Stand with the civilized world, or stand with the terrorists. And for those nations that stand with the terrorists, there will be a heavy price. America is determined to oppose the state sponsors of terror. Yet we are equally determined to respect and help the men and women those regimes oppress [...] Afghanistan is a case in point. Its Taliban regime has made that nation into a sanctuary and training ground for international terrorists--terrorists who have killed innocent citizens of many nations, including our own. The Taliban promotes terror abroad and practices terror against its people, oppressing women and persecuting all who dissent.

Aaronovitch though, was too noisily engaged in cheer-leading from the War on Terror bandwagon to hear the 'feminism' dog-whistle. Even on day two of the New American Century the tribal drums of war are audible, albeit decorously muffled:

The Independent, Sep 12 2001 David Aaronovitch: Anger is the first response, but understanding is better - This...was the terrorist's Pearl Harbor...we feel more vulnerable than ever, even here in Britain...perhaps we can destroy those who would attack us?...hell, this is war. The stakes have been raised beyond a point that any have imagined possible. I would love to do this. I want to see cross-haired pictures of cruise missiles smacking into terrorist bunkers; I want to see A10 gunships blast camps; I want to see mad mullahs and fanatic sheikhs dragged from their bunkers to trial in the United States and Europe. This is, after all, war....

But this is only the insistently belligerent subtext, shorn of the more-in-sorrow-than-anger platitudes that give it a sheen of judicious moderation. So in the interest of balance, readers who have not recently eaten are invited to follow the link, while for the rest, we note Aaronovitch's pious observation that In the middle of this great desire for revenge, we have a duty to the dead – and to those who will otherwise die – to remember that, even in the post- modern world, terrorism (and especially terrorism like this) always requires a context.

But hang on, what's this? Nine days later, the black crepe is off. Gone the velvet glove, gone the soft soap, Aaronovich has clenched his pudgy palms into a fist of furious fulmination. First - beep beep, flashing light - he reverses out of his parking bay:

The Independent, 21 Sep 2001 David Aaronovitch: Help! There's been an outbreak of Pinterism ...a part of their argument – that certain forms of military action could act merely to create more terrorism – seems to me to be mere common sense. But there is nevertheless something wrong here...There is a reflex reaction, an instinctive, almost involuntary response, the result of 50 years of Cold War. According to the nine actors and authors, children die in Iraq because of UN sanctions, not because of the way in which Saddam has used the resources available to him.

Now it's not the warmongers who are impulsively irrational, but the peaceniks (or 'Pinterists' - Aaronovitch likes to cultivate the appearance of a cult, and we'll see this stunt in action against Assange later). And only ten days into the New American Century, we're on the topic of Saddam. And what of the dangers of an 'angry' response?

In the past week I have watched mono-causalists like this get themselves into the incredible position of arguing that the US, alone among nations, should have no great reason to be hurt and angry when its citizens are butchered. The Afghans might have cause to go all blood-lusty if some of their folks are killed, but not the Yanks...Are the Americans...saints who we can call upon to forgive the extraordinary act of war of 11 September?...there has been no cowboy action by the US. Bush, far from going around stoking up anti-Muslim hatred, has been at pains to visit mosques and reassure the Muslims of America. In this country Blunkett has not rushed in to curtail civil liberties

Brilliant. Aaronovitch is really earning his money as a heavyweight political commentator and Very Serious Person with this analysis. 9-11 is an act of war, and since the Americans are not saints, bloodlust is fine. Concerns about anti-Muslim propaganda and the curtailment of civil liberties are unfounded.

I fear the consequences of inaction or incomplete action more than the risks of actually intervening. Those who opposed the Gulf War or the Kosovan actions would, if successful, have had more blood on their inert hands than the allies did. It was, in hindsight, a mistake not to topple Saddam back in 1991. So I want America there.

No wonder Aaronovitch didn't notice that the Bush administration's attempts to co-opt the feminist movement and the cause of women's rights - he had not only swallowed the case for the Afghan War; he had adopted it as his own, and was already getting started on Saddam - again, note this is only day ten of the War on Terror. And just in case anyone is in doubt:

I want more America in our lives, not less.

That was 2001. By 2010, Aaronovitch had so much America in his life that US Army war logs and State Department cables had become 'our secrets'.

So back to Assange and Wikileaks. Aaronovitch' seems for some reason to have rather underestimated Naomi Klein, assuming apparently without checking that she, silly cow, doesn't know what she is talking about. As a result his attempt to score points with an irrelevant gotcha fails. It does succeed though in inching him a little closer to the end of his screed without having to address the fact that allegations written down under a heading of 'rape' don't provide a throw-Assange-in-jail-free-of-scrutiny card.

For his next trick, another ephemeral remark from a female commentator, this time smallholder of bad puns, Kathy Lette:

Kathy Lette threatened tweeters with the information that: "Hubby Geoff Robertson has rushed back from Oz 2 represent heroic Julian Assange", adding, "Obviously America now believes in Freedom of the Suppress."

Aaronovitch rises to this new challenge by outdoing Lette with a particularly witless conceit of his own, filling a few more lines in the process:

One hopes that hubby can, at least, tell his DC from his Stockholm.

And so on. Other tweets linked to blogs, blogs to YouTube, and in minutes you could know the identities of the women accusers, and find their reputations, motives and physical appearances being torn to pieces by commentators, conspiracy theorists and freedom-of-information purists. If there was a lynch mob in town, it wasn't wanting to hang the celebrity WikiLeaks man, whom John Pilger declared to be innocent (as he may well be), and who Jemima Khan gushed over outside the court. As Mr Assange's Dickensian lawyer promised: "This is going to go viral. Many people believe Mr Assange to be innocent, including myself. [They] believe that this prosecution is politically motivated."

This is great stuff - the widely-held and justified suspicion of US involvement is - just as Klein suggests - presented as a witchhunt. The fact that one of the first things Assange's accusers did was to go to the press might be thought relevant to the issue of whether the scrutiny of their conduct and speculation about their motives really amounts to unfair 'tearing to pieces' (and Aaronovitch's mention of denigrating peoples' physical appearance is as far as I can tell just down to projection).

It's worth remembering that Assange is the one in prison, not his accusers. If we are to try to guess whether the charges are justified, awaiting the outcome of any trial that might occur would be too late - it is likely that the US would extradite him before that even happens. The court deciding his bail application has to prejudge the case in that way, the court which will adjudicate the Swedish extradition application must do so, and so must anyone who has even the vaguest intention of arguing or protesting about the case. And if one is going to try to assess the case, it would be ridiculous to be squeamish about the obvious possibility that the charges are unfounded. Instead, we address the probabilities unflinchingly - and if our conclusion happens to support the conclusion that two false allegations have been made, and even that the allegations were, nominally at least, of rape, then we will have to live with it.

Aaronovitch dislikes this Telegraph piece, twittering Brilliant, now the Telegraph insinuates a conspiracy in #wikleak Assange charges - though in fact the article quotes Wikileaks, not insinuating but openly asserting strong suspicion of such a conspiracy. But most of the story is a report of Wikileaked US cables stating that Sweden's Justice Department were involved in a secret deal with US intelligence, hidden from the Swedish Parliament and public. This is obviously relevant to the matter of whether Assange was the victim of a political prosecution, because a Justice Department that is already engaged in a conspiratorial pact with US intelligence is, other things equal, more likely to instigate a political prosecution on its behalf than one that has no such murky relationship. (Just as someone who has been hanging around with the Cuban opposition has ipso facto, knowingly or not, almost certainly been hanging around with agents of the CIA - and is therefore more likely to have been recruited or manipulated by them than the general population is.)

Nate Silver attempts, with some success, to use the analogy of the Bayesian calculus in illustrating some of the issues here. Aaronovitch Watch's Daniel Davies even tweeted his way though a conversation with Aaronovitch on the topic of that analysis:

daaronovitch  Brilliant, now the Telegraph insinuates a conspiracy in #wikleaks - http://goo.gl/7sLDa  - and admire the way it is implied, not stated.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  you say "insinuates a conspiracy", I say "actually describes a decision to undermine parliamentary oversight", potato, tomato?
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  I was talking specifically about the bracketing together of the desire to avoid oversight and the Assange charges.
dsquareddigest  Nate Silver explains why you have to look at the Assange charges in context of the political angle  http://tinyurl.com/2f589jy  @daaronovitch
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Does that not simply come down to the possibility (& nothing more) that the well-known are more likely to be pursued?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  I think the point is that unless you think politically motivated prsecutions never happen you have to accept this might be one
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  There is no evidence at all of a "Get Assange" in this, but theoretical "possibility" is highlighted. Classic.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  The possibility of a"Get Assange" isnt theoretical, it's practical. Might or might not;can't be ruled out nor asserted as fact
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  That makes you religious, at any rate. Thinking about it there are some serious problems with Silver's thesis.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  I think it makes me agnostic - you're the one asserting a taboo on considering the possibility of something that often happens
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Not at all. If there's no evidence for something existing I don't emphasise its possibility alone among many others.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Trying to find the link posted earlier by Linda Grant from Time magazine on why Swedes are so sensitive about sex charges.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  Silver's point is that "political prosecutions are often launched at people like JA" is (by Bayes Theorem) evidence.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Tweeted by  @lindasgrant  - Time magazine report, which makes Silver's stuff look too clever-clever -  http://bit.ly/dT34em
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  I really don't see how this bears on Nate's point. How would these laws make a politically motivated charge less feasible?
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  U miss the point. Which is about extreme sensitivity to the charge making it more likely that case like this wd be pursued.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  This case was in fact dropped and then picked up again. Possibly for political reasons possibly not. Can't rule it out.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Maybe it was done because the Swedish prosecutor was flashed at when a child. No evidence for it but can't rule it out.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  True, although that would leave he fact that this unusual prosecution happened when and to whom it did as a mere coincidence
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Assange was in Sweden in August and the allegations relate to then. What is coincidental (mere or unmere) about any of that?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  Well your Freudian theory doesn't explain why prosecutor picked up charges against JA in wk before cable dump, specifically.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  It isn't Freudian at all. It's far more small p "political". Which week in last 4 months wdn't have been "coincidental"?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  The week in which charges were dropped. Political prosecutions happen, so odd cases with political defendants are suspicious
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Why "odd"? And why "political" (in yr sense) rather than "high-profile"?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  "odd" because it's unusual for a prosecutor to close a case then re-open it a week later ...
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  How "odd" is it?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  "political" rather than "high profile"becuase JA is highprofile for specifically political reasons - he didnt win X factor
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  that's Nate's point. "Juxtaposing" the political context is exactly the right thing to do. It's part of the information set.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Just seen your latest re juxtaposing and information sets. You now sound like the writers of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  You sound like someone who doesn't understand Bayes' Theorem.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  You got that right. But I did understand Silver's article.
...
daaronovitch  Classic #assange conspiracising from Sydney Morning Herald -  http://bit.ly/hIs6UF  - note the 'coulds', 'mights' etc & total absence of fact.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  straight up, what, as a %age chance, do you think the probability is that Assange is the victim of a political prosecution?
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  Political in what way, and political by who? Answer those and I'll try and answer your question, dd.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  Either a totally fictious case, or a real (but weak) case pursued due to political pressure, tracing back to US intelligence.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  You mean fictitious by accusers? I can't assess the probability of that, but it must exist. You mean political pressure....
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  ..in Sweden cos Assange is high-profile (as against letting it go if no-one had heard of him)? No idea cos don't know with..
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  ...what alacrity they've pursued other extraditions for similar offences. Political cos the Swedes want to kiss US ass? 1%..
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  Either. Lets just say we're talking about the probability that this case wouldn't have been brought without external pressure.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  ...Political cos US secretly leaning on them to do it? 1%. And that's generous where there is ZERO evidence.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  thanks. I think you're off by a factor of at least 10.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  You mean you think it's 10% Yanks and 10% Swedes, making 20%?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  we went through this last night. US intelligence track record is relevant evidence, as is the Swe/US secret intel sharing deal
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  What IS the US track record in getting a Scandinavian government to prosecute third party internationals against its will?
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  I think my baseline estimate of the likelihood of intelligence involvement in prosecution of a US enemy is 10% ex any info
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  That is not an estimate, baseline or centreline, dd. That is known as a guess.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  well yes, but I think your guess implies an implausibly passive US intelligence operation. Also, Scott Ritter.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  Swedish government did allow rendition flights; Swedish military later prevented them.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  This is all a way of saying that, tho you have no evidence of it and no reason to suspect it, you just kinda believe it.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  don't think that assigning a 10% probabilty can be fairly paraphrased as "kinda believe it". I think it's possible. so do you.
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  I think it's possible that you are an asset of Pakistani intelligence, ISI. But it's fucking unlikely.
dsquareddigest   @daaronovitch  If I showed up causing trouble for an enemy of ISI, perhaps you'd upgrade that from "fucking unlikely" to "very unlikely"
daaronovitch   @dsquareddigest  I'm not keen on them and you're being a pain in the arse to me.
 
Note: you have no evidence of it and no reason to suspect it. 'No reason to suspect it' is entirely unjustified; there is plenty of reason to suspect it. And in Bayesian terms, if you have a reason to suspect something then you have evidence for it. It may not be strong evidence, it may be outweighed, but it is evidence. But then Aaronovitch, in Voodoo Histories, lays claim to 'the crowning achievement of historical study, a sense of how things don't happen' - and in this conversation that seems to translate into assigning a 1% subjective probability to them.

At the risk of getting too incestuously AaroWatch-based and self-referential, I'd also note that someone plausibly purporting to be Aaronovitch appears quite unconcerned about tangible evidence when it comes to things that seem obvious to him.

Of Aaronovitch and 'Phil D'Bap', the pseudonymous commenter whose defence of Aaronovitch provoked the previously linked comment marathon, I recently remarked: I will confess I did actually think they were one and the same, without having any real evidence and without being willing to rely on that (purported) fact in any way...(when I say 'real' evidence, I mean concrete, firm, clear etc.) Brushing aside concerns about the strength and tangibility of evidence, someone plausibly purporting to be Aaronovitch airily announced of course I was Phil D'Bap. Of course he was. But the very same kind of speculation about someone sneaking around under a pseudonym might just as easily have prompted accusations of paranoid conspiracy mindedness, and remarks about 'ZERO evidence', had Aaronovitch (for it was very plausibly he) happened to take issue with it.

So anyway,  Aaronovitch is careful to acknowledge that this phenomenon cuts both ways:

Of course, on the other side of the divide (although not in this country) are those who cannot be bothered to wait for anything as superfluous as a charge or a trial and have prejudged Mr Assange as a rapist because of his WikiLeaks activities. Here, such opinions are decidedly unfashionable.

The mild sarcasm about a rush to judgement is trumped by the subtle yet firm approval implicit in choosing to describe such views as 'unfashionable'; a term only ever used to indicate approval of an unpopular opinion, to suggest that its unpopularity is due only to some fad, to mark it clearly as the doggedly toughminded option.



What has been lost in this furore is that some big and difficult questions lie behind the WikiLeaks affair. I can best illustrate this by repeating Ms Khan's al fresco whoosh on Tuesday: "I am here because I believe this is about the principle of the universal right of freedom of information and our right to be told the truth."

Sorry, which Ms Khan is this? Oh yes. I'm losing track of the straw women Aaronovitch is contriving to knock the stuffing out of.

A cursory examination of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows that, compendious as it is, it contains no such provision. There are rights to free expression, assembly, association, participation, legal representation, nationality and so on, but not to freedom of information.

I wonder if Aaronovitch is in the habit of leafing through the UDHR in response to any comment involving the word 'right'? He has no right to do so, even in principle, as I'm sure he would agree. If he were a little less quick with the patronising put down, he might have reflected that the right to vote is hostage to the information one has about what the government has been up to, and that the right to freedom of expression is founded as much on the interests of those receiving information as those expressing it. He could then explain exactly why he thinks, if he does, that the existing situation is just fine and that there is therefore no need for Wikileaks or similar organisations (and perhaps - I think we should be told - no need for investigative journalism, whistleblowing or indeed anything beyond a subscription to the Times 'opinion' pages).

The casual invention in the internet age of such a new right can lead to some interesting confusions. In the past few days I,ve spotted a new trope among some writers, in effect comparing Mr Assange, wearing his WikiLeaks hat, to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel prizewinner. Wasn't it the case, asked one, that if Mr Assange had been a Chinese whistleblower, Hillary Clinton would have praised him, rather than strongly criticising him?

There is no such useful parallel. Dr Liu got II years in prison for expressing an opinion, He was not tried for being a conduit for hundreds of thousands of stolen confidential state documents. This should be obvious to all but the most challenged, but somehow the "creation" of the new information right has put, in many people's minds, the two situations on a par.

'In effect' is a favourite of Aaronovitch's. Logically equivalent to 'not', it's a kind of verbal finger-crossing that provides cover for him to say whatever comes into his head. Here, Aaronovitch has come across a blog comment that suggests a double standard in the treatment of state secrecy according to which state we are talking about. And that means, 'in effect' that he can start wittering on about the Nobel peace prize.

The Peace Prize has somehow retained its capacity to impress
(just as the Booker prize may yet survive The Finkler Question) despite having memorably rendered political satire pointless by being awarded to Kissinger, and having been handed to an embarassed Obama, presumably in recognition of his ability to climb the greasy pole of US politics. So it's hardly any great surprise (to those of us who unlike Aaronovitch are paying attention) that Liu appears an unlikely choice of recipient for this dubious honour.

And it is the 'new' right to know what the government is up to that has apparently led to some over-literal parallel being drawn between Assange and Liu, in "many peoples' minds". Many people's minds? Who? Does it matter? Why are we even discussing this? At this point, patience stretched, one is tempted to fling down the greasy sheaf of newsprint with the cry of "for pity's sake get on with it and stop dredging up irrelevances to sneer at, you tedious little man". But we forebear. Let us talk of happier things: of moles, probable and unlikely.

This absolutism casts Mr Assange and his probable mole, Private Bradley Manning, as unnegotiable goodies in an eternal battle between "power" (them) and "the people" (us). Mr Assange is on our side against our governments. He is the Robin Hood of information, or as one tweeter put it, "the new Jason Bourne". What is being fought out is the first great battle between "the established order" and the white info-knights of cyberspace. Whose side are you on?

Sorry, what were the choices again? And who is actually demanding we pick sides? Is it Aaronovitch, reporting someone else? Or just Aaronovitch himself? More importantly, since when is Manning the 'probable mole', i.e. the source of the diplomatic cables? (Notice, not 'probably the mole', but 'the probable mole' - the kind of mole that may be only probable, but is still, subliminally speaking, a mole.)

Let me make a quick observation ahout how, in this supposed war, contradictory positions are adopted. We have Tea Party types who bellow that the State having anything to do with the health of its citizens is outrageous, but who want to stop access to any information about what that same State does abroad or when it deploys its weapons. The government can't be trusted with a hernia payment, but nor should it be questioned over a misplaced bunker-buster.

Symmetrically the discussosphere resounds to the moaning of those who love the State to run everything, take responsibility for everything — except anything to do with policing, defence or foreign policy. When it comes to these, the default assumption is that government suddenly becomes de facto corrupt and that the people must be protected from it.

Oh, there's more. Now we have the Tea party, and on the other side, people who 'love the State to run everything' - anyone would think Aaronovitch had turned Tory, with this kind of rhetoric. Of course in the real world of actual political opinions, as opposed to the cardbaord cutout caricatures that Aaronovitch likes to set up, there isn't really anything contradictory about thinking that the state should perform certain functions but that there is also a tendency to for it to be too authoritarian. And reducing the secrecy of the state's operations is not going to interfere with making hernia payments or indeed any other legitimate function. This really is poor stuff, even for Aaronovitch.

Let us reiterate the democratic problem that freedom-of-information purists never want to discuss: that, as citizens, we may prefer that some of what the government does should remain confidential, not least from us. Indeed, were such a proposition to be put to a hypothetical referendum, it is hard to imagine voters not agreeing that there should be secrecy in some things. We would probably agree, for example, that diplomats should be able to discuss matters in confidence, or that defence plans be kept secret.

Yes, maybe - though we may actually think that diplomats might benefit from a bit of scrutiny. It is not written in the heavens that international relations must be a hole-and-corner business continuous with espionage. How much good has ever come of secret deals and deniable assurances (if you think the two Gulf Wars were good, you answer may differ from mine).

But since at this late stage in the article, Aaronovitch has finally attempted something approaching an actual argument, we had better give it the consideration it deserves.


Right, done it. The problem with Aaronovitch's remark is that Wikileaks is a publiciser of leaks, not a hacker, not a burglar, not a spy. And leaks occur when those who have access to information decide that it ought to be made public. Notice that the Wikileaks model is intended to protect anonymity, and thus does not allow leakers to receive payment for their revelations. And it cannot guarantee that a whistleblower will not be unmasked and face punishment. The possible motives for leaking state secrets are thus pretty restricted. They are basically: treachery (and being a spy, for example, is an option open to the whistleblower in any case) or conscience.

Random malice or lone nuttery are of course possibilities common to all situations (Aaronovitch believes lone nuts to have shaped 20th century US political history via a string of assassinations), so can be factored out. The other possible motive for leaks of this kind is of course to disinform, discredit, or distract; but Aaronovitch would never suggest such a possibility, even as a means of hurting Wikileaks. There are some things ('our' secrets) that we may not know - there are other things we should not even think. And the CIA playing dirty tricks as trump cards is one of those unserious ideas from which one averts one's gaze as from a beggar or street preacher.

If that's true, theft of information of those conversations, secrets and plans is a theft from us too — not necessarily the great gift that Assangeists always make it out to be. It would seem peculiar to worry about nubile Russian spies hanging round Westminster if you're happy to give away everything on the anarchical say-so of WikiLeaks.

Well, actually I don't remember anyone worrying about Russian spies much - nubile or otherwise. (And what is it with all the females and nubiles and their hubbies and their gushing over Assange? It's hard to tell whether Aaronovitch is delierately trying to suggest some kind of sexually-charged cult, or whether the whole Swedish bed-hopping angle has just (oh vile prospect) got him a bit hot under the collar in some wretched but mercifully obscure way.)

But neither can we live under the automatic presumption that the government will always use secrecy in ways we approve of. So we need the capacity to monitor what it does, and to allow the possibility that an individual or an organisation might reveal things that are best uncovered.

No shit, Sherlock.

And who judges that? Well, judges do. Or should. We make and maintain laws precisely to decide when disclosures are and are not in the public interest. Damn. There it is, neatly tied up and a bow put on it,

I don't know what Aaronovitch has tied up here, but it may as well have been the uneaten portion of the saveloy I'd by this point long since laid aside in appalled fascination. I've never heard of any law that establishes to anything but the vaguest of standards which disclosures are or are not in the public interest (in fact, that should be: 'against the national interest' - the onus should be on the suppressor, not the would-be revealer). Laws about official secrecy tend to delegate such decisions to members of the government, with little or no restriction. As to the idea that judges might have a hand in the process, well, this recent court decision shows those judges in action protecting 'our' US government secrets from prying eyes - by asserting that provided the government makes some effort to provide a pretext, the courts are not to challenge its decisions about what is to be kept secret.

the district court was required to defer to the government’s assessment of the harm to foreign relations and national security that would result from officially disclosing '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''. As we explained in Fitzgibbon, the failure to give deference when it is due is error. 911 F.2d at 755. There, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, the district court ordered the CIA to disclose information about a former CIA station location, over the CIA’s objection that such disclosure would cause harm to national security. Id. at 758–59. We faulted the district court for “essentially perform[ing] its own calculus as to whether or not harm to the national security . . . would result from disclosure” of the information, and held it should have “accord[ed] substantial weight and deference” to the Executive Branch’s “determination of possible harm.” Id. at 766. Thus, “declin[ing] to adopt the abuse-of-discretion review that [the plaintiff] urge[d] upon us,” we reversed. Id. Here, the district court simply declared: I don’t understand how [declining to protect ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '' ' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ] will interfere in anything. . . . ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' 16 ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''''' '''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' '''''' '''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''''' '''' ''' ''' '''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' ''' '''' ''' ''' ''' June 30 Tr. ''' ''' ''' ''' ; see also July 8 Op. ''' ''' (rejecting as “speculative and conclusory” government’s “arguments that the release ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' ''' '''' would cause significant harm to the interests of the government”)

So the court was 'required to defer to the government’s assessment', which makes a perverse kind of sense given that it is the 'interests of the government' that are being protected. And just in case Aaronovitch is interested in those of 'our' secrets that are kept from us by our own government, rather than a foreign one, the same is generally the case in the UK - the government classifies documents, bringing them under the Official Secrets Act, refuses FOI requests, issues D-Notices and makes a variety of other determinations about secrecy, and the only court oversight of such governmental discretion is a similarly deferential mechanism of judicial review - except in the case of D-notices which are a purely informal system entirely invisible to the courts and observed by the press voluntarily, though entirely reliably.

and then you realise that the days of such solutions are probably over. The use of the law to judge whistleblowers and info-knights must be pre-emptive if it's to be effective, and that means governments taking suppressive powers to prevent unauthorised publication pending judgment. Quite apart from the Jemiman howls of outrage, it is increasingly hard to imagine how that can be achieved in the Web 2.0 era. In information, in free societies, the individual now has the whip hand over the community. This may not be a cause for celebration.

Well, what Aaronovitch's point here is I'm not sure, and frankly even I'm getting a bit fed up with this post by now. I'd be inclined to let him have that one, whatever it is exactly. Except that the kind of stuff Wikileaks has published is not on a par with vital state secrets that cannot be allowed to leak out for a moment, even if quickly suppressed and thus unverifiable. If it were, we would basically be talking about spying - giving secrets away to the enemy. And that in any case, The use of the law to judge whistleblowers and info-knights must be pre-emptive if it's to be effective is not true - obviously any real crime is better prevented than punished, but that doesn't mean criminal sanctions are pointless. Spies are punished, rapists and murderers are punished, and that's done after the crime has happened. That's how it goes, outside the worlds of sci-fi.


So much for argument. What is striking about the piece as a whole, is the weirdly lubricious rhetoric. We opened with Swedes silently manipulating two women; since then we've toyed with Naomi and her silly mistakes, Kathy with her 'hubby', and had a quick flirtation with nubile Russian spies. In pride of place, though, Jemima Khan, who not satisfied with an al fresco whoosh, gushes over Julian Assange outside the court.

The 'nubile Russian spy' motif takes us firmly into tabloid excess territory so perhaps it's unsurprising that Aaronovitch, who seems consciously or not to have strayed into the weird attiitude that there's something significant about the fact that Assange had sex with a woman, having had sex with a different woman only a few days before. And it looks to me as though the subtext here is that all these women have had their heads turned by Assange's sexual magnetism. Readers of Voodoo Histories will remember of coursethat one of Aaronovitch's themes, culled from skimming a few pages of some pop psychology book, is that conspiracy theories are 'hysteria for men'. Presumably Aaronovitch is showing us 'hysteria' back in its proper place now, among these female Assange groupies. But of course the worthy and sober reader of these pages will not be much impressed with insinuation about Assange's (Cultic?) ability to mesmerise the laydees with his quirky charm, any more than with speculation about his prowess or otherwise as a lover.

Aaronovitch himself does not seem to aspire to the status of great lover, not even of dog lover - 'dog owner' he calls himself - but he certainly seems to take a rather avuncular, if stern, attitude to the naughty but negligible, scatty, scanty Mrs Khan. She really is making a fool of herself, you know, I mean not that Aaronovitch is bothered, but what has Assange got that, I don't know, say, Aaronovitch himself hasn't? So silly, these women.

Still, when it comes to reasoned argument, Aaronovitch certainly think he has - what was the phrase? - ah yes, the 'whip hand' over her, but this is little more than fantasy: the howls, of outrage or indeed anything else, that he provokes in her are only in his head.

And there it is, dammit. Sticking out like a sore thumb, with a neat little bow on it.

1presumably the idea is that the anti-war mob are 'anti-American' - an interesting term which like 'antisemitism' is used to describe opposition to a particular state. Of course this use of 'antisemitism' is illicit, since the proper referent of the term is a real (if over-emphasised) kind of bigotry against a collectivity of individuals, not political opposition to actions done in the name of a particular state. That's why, with some exceptions, it's often introduced by association: 'antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment'. 'Anti-Americanism' seems to be used in terms of outrage apt to personal prejudice and hatred against individuals, even though there is not really any suggestion of such an underlying attitude. The scurrilous suggestion lingers nonetheless - otherwise it wouldn't start with 'anti' and end with 'ism', would it.

3 comments:

  1. "So did Wikileaks really help spark the Tunisian revolt?"

    And of course if any of you idiots (including your frenemies at Crooked Timber) followed the Arab press, or even those who read it, you'd have known this a long time ago.

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  2. I am only one idiot, I'll have you know. And I started this post a long time ago (December in fact), since when I've been intermittently adding bits as they arise and then losing interest again while doing other stuff. That's why it's so offputtingly long and rambling. So I'm not claiming any of it is news - just comment and analysis, as they say.

    But it is notable, isn't it, how studiously this apparent connection is ignored by the politicians and the corporate media. I mean it's an intersection of two of the big news stories of at least the last few years, and all things considered one would have to say rather vindicatory of Wikileaks' approach. The latter probably explains it actually, along with the hope in some quarters that all this can be claimed as a success for the 'post-' Iraq brave new world (as the reform of, er, Gaddafi was, with his shock concession of a verbal assurance that he would stop pursuing a non-existent nuclear programme...).

    It's also a particularly prominent counterexample to the ludicrous accusations that WL has an exclusively (anti-)American focus, coming from those who presumably have that impression (if any of them honestly do) because they have absolutely no interest in what WL might be publishing about other parts of the world. A bit like Nick Cohen complaining that no-one in the left was interested in N Africa before the recent events, only - obsessively - in Israel (cue long tirade about Israel instead of N Africa). Talk about projection.

    BTW if you are the same guy as before, you don't have to post anonymously - you're not banned or anything. This being more of a things-I-think-should-be-on-the-internet kind of 'blog' rather than a hey guys, hook up with me for daily doses of artfully-leavened conversation kind of setup, I'm not exactly swamped with commenters. (That's my explanation anyway.) As long as you can avoid actually libelling people, it's a free-for-all round here.

    And you even get a mini essay in reply from yours garrulously, even though come to think of it I should probably try and muster up some annoyance about the 'idiots' quip. I think I've been desensitised by the opprobrium some of the less advanced forms of CT commenter have been dishing out.

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  3. One of the things that is strangely never mentioned is this:

    Spys collect secrets in secret and give them secretly to others who hold them, themselves, in secret.

    What Wikileaks does is publish secrets given to them widely so that the entire world and his uncle can read them.
    George Blake did not do this.

    (Oh and I nearly forgot - David Aaronovitch is a complete shit)

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