“Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising. My views are critical but that shouldn't be mistaken for hostile - I'm just not a stenographer,” said Michael Hastings, in an interview to Huffington Post, after his profile of Gen. McChrystal in The Rolling Stone lost the General his job in June.
Another man who is not a stenographer, or even – properly speaking – a journalist, but who has caused the US a great deal of heartburn in recent months, is Julian Assange. Assange is the founder of Wikileaks, which recently published – after making over 90,000 pages of material available to the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel – the Afghanistan War Logs.
A few hours after the story broke, the White House sent an email to journalists advising them on how they could report the leak: “4) As you report on this issue, it’s worth noting that wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes US policy in Afghanistan.”
I won’t point out the irony of a press directive that says Wikileaks is ‘not an objective news outlet’. Never mind Wikileaks; what about the documents themselves? Are they real or not?
The White House doesn’t deny the authenticity of the documents, but doesn’t take very kindly to their having been made public either. Julian Assange is now the Pentagon’s most wanted man. Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who might – though it is not certain that it is he – have leaked the papers to Wikileaks, has already been arrested for leaking a video earlier this year, of a 2007 Apache attack on Iraqi civilians, and is awaiting military trial.
At the heart of these hunts and damage control exercises are the secrets that are necessary to war. Those who make war believe they have a right to protect their lines of communication and information. Those who oppose it believe that making secrets public will expose the atrocities that are committed almost as a matter or course in war; and inform the public about the nature of what is being done in their name, with their money. The Pentagon Papers, released in the 70s were also classified documents that shocked the American public and changed the course of the Vietnam War.
Where there are secrets, there’s espionage. If Assange has done nothing any self-respecting journalist wouldn’t have, what of the source of the leak? Has Assange’s source broken the law and committed – as some commentators allege – treason?
In the world of undercover work, the law is meant for those who live above ground. Spies know they have no recourse to the law that others abide by, even as they break it in the interests of some higher moral or national interest.
Nobody knew this better than that master novelist of the Cold War, John le Carré. In his fictional world, spies are known one from the other not by methodology but by ideology. Intelligence is the painstaking accumulation of sordid, tiny mosaics of information. Lies and truth are counters in a shadow war against an equally shadowy enemy, a dance of information and misinformation.
Assange has done what he intended to by putting out the material: make what was secret now open to public scrutiny. What others do with the material he puts out will separate the journalists from the stenographers. But are we perfectly sure how to tell them apart?
As a long-time reader of le Carré, I can only hope that Assange has not been suckered, and that the War Logs are not an elaborate double bluff. It is dreary enough in its detail to appear to be the truth. But what if the Logs are salted with misinformation? Who can tell what the implications really are for our neighbour Pakistan, and elsewhere, for Iran?
It’s been 47 years since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold brought le Carré world-wide fame. The most chillingly relevant thing about the book today is how people who have a capacity to believe the worst of humanity, and yet have a strong sense of duty, are most vulnerable to being played in finely calibrated ways to suit the ends of governments. It’s a book Julian Assange should read.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)