What if someone stole your laptop and made public all the private content you kept on it?
That was how a former US ambassador to Thailand once responded to a question about WikiLeaks, which had been making its presence felt at the time at the expense of the reputations of many world leaders, elected and otherwise. It was a sound, if not ideal, argument against the controversial whistleblowing website.
Many years have gone by and the latest WikiLeaks stunt has made her statement extremely ironic. US intelligence authorities, claims the anti-secrecy network, have been literally looking into your laptops and other computer devices, in violation of your privacy, under the guise of “security” concerns, be they national or global. Who’s the bigger thief now, you wonder.
If the latest leak turns out to be accurate, then we are left with uneasy questions. Should we let WikiLeaks keep doing what it’s doing, stealing data from the state to warn us how our laptops are being peeked at by the authorities? On the other hand, should we let the authorities keep doing what they are doing, spying on our laptops and accusing those who expose their nosiness of criminal acts? Who should we trust more – the presumed enemy of the state or the state that presumes anyone can be its enemy?
America is launching an investigation – not into whether innocent citizens are being spied on, but into how WikiLeaks came up with the explosive information. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and White House have declined to comment on the authenticity of the files leaked, but a highly interesting remark was made by a CIA spokesperson, who told BBC: “The American public should be deeply troubled by any WikiLeaks disclosure designed to damage the intelligence community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries.”
One possible interpretation: “It’s true, but we did what we did for the greater good, and WikiLeaks should be ashamed of itself for utterly failing to see the big picture.”
The CIA, of course, has been hit hard by the latest WikiLeaks bombshell. The leaked files portray the agency as the pre-eminent hacking operator, sneaking into high-tech phones and televisions worldwide. The CIA was allegedly smart, too, adopting techniques that made it look like hackers in Russia were responsible.
Sooner or later an accusation will emerge that WikiLeaks was politically motivated, probably intending to deflect attention away from the alleged Russian meddling with the US politics. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we are now witnessing two big political stories in America colliding head-on. In one, the United States is the good guy trying to protect his home against Russia, a malicious intruder trying to sneak in through the backdoor. In the other story, America is the villain, who has been spying on everybody and framing Russia while doing so.
The “America as good guy” story reflects badly on new US President Donald Trump, while the other story makes his predecessors and rivals look hideous. Once again, the whole timing has been curious to say the least.
WikiLeaks has been accused of political partisanship before. Before Trump defied all the odds and beat Hillary Clinton in one of the biggest US election upsets of all time, his rearguard campaign battle was helped by leaks that involved e-mails and voicemails, with much of the information purportedly exposing apparent bias by top Democratic National Convention officials against Clinton’s primary rival, Bernie Sanders. According to one conspiracy theory, the data leak was engineered by Russian intelligence, which wanted to see Republican nominee Trump elected.
There were fears that WikiLeaks was turning from a whistleblower into a political weapon. This flew in the face of the controversial website’s non-partisan image and claim to be a neutral pipeline pumping “raw” government secrets into the light. But while politicians are right to be scared of WikiLeaks, whether it’s really changed its colours or not, ordinary folks can still be perfectly at ease – at least for now.
As for US politics at the highest level, this is likely to be one of the major subtexts of the Trump presidency. You are a puppet of Russia, one camp will keep claiming. No, you are just making wild accusations and it’s you who the American public should be worried about, the other camp will keep countering. And we will keep hearing from the key characters of this war, namely the Democrats, the CIA and WikiLeaks.
Here’s a hint of what should become a political pattern in America. Following a Trump attack on the CIA’s integrity, former CIA director John Brennan took the unusual step of coming out into the open and politely asking the new president to shut up. “If he doesn’t have confidence in the intelligence community, what signal does that send to your partners and allies, as well as our adversaries,” the head of the US spy agency said, obviously disturbed by Trump comparing his agency’s work to that of the Nazis.
Now, consider the words of the CIA spokesperson cited earlier in this article. It’s amazing how similar the two CIA statements sound, though one was directed at Trump and the other at WikiLeaks.
Our bottom-line question, then, is who are the good guys? That’s obviously difficult to answer. With the dust storm yet to settle, even distinguishing who is the lesser evil of these two is not easy.