Robert C. Koehler

Once again, the curtain of secrecy is drawn back and Olympus looks more like Oz. The machinations of empire turn out to be banal and ordinary.

In a time of endless war, when democracy is an orchestrated charade and citizen engagement is less welcome in the corridors of power than it has ever been, when the traditional checks and balances of government are in unchallenged collusion with one another, when the media act not as watchdogs of democracy but guard dogs of the interests and cliches of the status quo . . . we have WikiLeaks, disrupting the game of national security, ringing its bell, changing the rules.

"Never before in history," writes Der Spiegel, one of five international publications to get advance copies of more than 250,000 State Department cables dating back to 1966, "has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information -- data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built."

The revelations so far seem less significant than the fact that the American government's bin of secrets has -- once again -- been raided, and that the raw data of diplomacy has been strewn across cyberspace, for the likes of you and me to ogle and, if we choose, draw our own conclusions. We get to have real-time looks at how geopolitics actually works.

While temporary secrecy, or at least privacy, is sometimes necessary in any endeavor, permanent secrecy -- secrecy as entitlement -- is nothing but dangerous. Over the last several decades, with an enormous push from the Bush administration, we have devolved toward a secrecy state, with more and more information hidden from American citizens in the spurious name of national security. Meanwhile, the government and the corporotocracy have pursued war and global dominance with impunity.

So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's claim that WikiLeaks has put lives in danger -- the lives of "human rights activists, religious leaders, the critics of governments who speak to members of our embassy about abuses in their own country" -- is not only a red herring, in that there is no evidence that anyone has been harmed by any of the hundreds of thousands of classified items about the war on terror that WikiLeaks has liberated so far this year, but sanctimonious damage control, implying that under normal circumstances the U.S. government cares about such lives.

"If it's loss of life the U.S. government is concerned about, it should begin with paying more attention to the soldiers and civilians it's putting in harm's way every hour in Iraq and Afghanistan," Pierre Tristam writes at

The sort of data WikiLeaks has outed this time around seems less than shocking, but nonetheless revealing. We now know, for instance, that various tiny nations haggled with U.S. diplomats over the amount of money they would get if they took in a released Guantanamo prisoner; and that American diplomats' behind-the-scenes assessments of foreign leaders were sometimes blunt and unflattering, unlike the smiling niceties uttered for public consumption in front of the TV cameras.

This is no more than Truth 101, compelling in the way the sheer, raw detail of truth is always compelling.

Perhaps the biggest revelation of the outed cables so far is what they don't say, as Noam Chomsky discussed a few days ago on "Democracy Now!" What our diplomats aren't talking about, and don't particularly care about, is what ordinary Arabs think, he said, citing a Brookings Institution poll in which 80 percent of Arabs said they regard the U.S. and Israel as major threats, while only 10 percent see Iran as a threat.

"What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership," Chomsky said. "These things aren't even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. . . .When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population."

An obsession with secrecy is always anti-democratic; it's an obsession with domination, control and the maintenance of power -- and it's a perfectly natural temptation for those in positions of great power. They want to cut their deals in private and present a face of Olympian righteousness in public.

According to the New York Times Lede Blog, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange began a manifesto he wrote four years ago, explaining the purpose of the organization, with a 1912 quote from Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party platform:

"Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."

The invisible government has always been in power. The continuously revolutionary premise of democracy is that power itself -- the power to dominate and exert one's will -- must not be allowed to coalesce in a single individual or institution, but must be constantly challenged, broken down and redistributed. I fear that most Americans, or at least the media they stay glued to, are content with a charade democracy. That's why WikiLeaks is controversial.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. His new book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" is now available


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