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The WikiLeaks War


The United States and Great Britain have fired 110 cruise missiles and French jets have destroyed four tanks today belonging to the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, and thus the lightning-flash pivot from Western concerned non-intervention (and love for the status quo) to hellbent-for-leather regime change is complete in this season of revolt in the super-charged Arab world.

Call it the first WikiLeaks War.

Certainly all who credited the anarchist libertarian "transparency" organization with throwing the initial stones of American diplomatic intelligence judgments into the calm pool of Tunisian domestic waters must certainly embrace this new armed coalition in Libya as a product - at least in part - of those actions.

As Julian Assange is proud to proclaim, American revelations about the Tunisian regime fueled the fire in those streets, which fed Egypt and Tahrir Square, which also stoked the challenges to power in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. Leaked secret information from the American diplomatic point of view, argued the WikiLeaks founder, gave opposition leaders "the confidence that they needed to attack the ruling political elite."

That confidence, if Assange is right, led Gadaffi's regime to teeter under the weight of mass protest. That brought the vicious military crackdown, which led - quickly and rather surprisingly - to the ad hoc American-European-Arab League partnership to squash Gadaffi once and for all. Let's face the truth: this is a regime change war, not a minor no-fly mission. Once the attack is launched, Gadaffi has to go;  indeed the French have already recognized the Libyan opposition coalition.

Understandably, this development blows the minds of liberals who have stoically supported WikiLeaks as an innovative new international information movement that would almost certainly deflate the interventionist and imperialist tendencies of the big western powers. Watching Twitter over the last 24 hours imparted the digital equivalent of progressive whiplash, as lefty voices who've been enthralled by the Middle East protests (and fully in favor of giving WikiLeaks much of the credit) either backpedaled away from intervention or went silent. Yet the smartest pro-transparency analysts have always realized that the revelations the U.S. cables represented would almost certainly lead to unforeseen consequences, if not armed conflict.

Micah Sifry has written a n incisive new book-length essay on public transparency that essentially uses the WikiLeaks saga as a news peg to discuss many of the opportunities and challenges inherent in sharing more government data, and opening decision-making. WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency attaches a significant democratic upside to transparency, and I agree with that assessment - yet it does recognize the challenges as well:

WikiLeaks, and other entities inspired by it that are beginning to spread, present the United States with an especially difficult version of the information doer problem, because the discover of new facts may now occur at any time.

This is an incredibly important concept that, quite frankly, goes well beyond WikiLeaks the organization (which I believe is doomed by virtue of its evident and fatal founders syndrome). In the unfolding Libyan crisis, it's clear that the U.S. government was not appreciably ahead of the curve in gathering actionable information compared to the entirely public network of citizen journalism and socially networked news. NPR journalist Andy Carvin is, in my view, the leading American journalist plumbing the flow of information from the field in the Middle East in North Africa. Following Andy means staying plugged in to real stories and real people.

The traditional back-channel of intelligence from regions of conflict and revolution moved to the front; anyone who was interested could plug into a firehose of news, videos, pictures, and sketchy reports from the Libyan protests and later, the fighting front.

In his fascinating "instant book" on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, Nation blogger Greg Mitchell - who has live-blogged all things WL since before the flood and can fairly be described as favorably disposed towards the leaks - cannily airs out an Assange quote that never got much attention after the WikiLeaks founder's stated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan: "People have said that I am anti-war: for the record I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about these wars."

And as wars go, this was relatively transparent decision-making by the Obama Administration, even if it did not ask Congress for permission to take military action. Consider the speed: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libyan opposition leaders in Cairo on Thursday. She quickly changed her mind on intervention and worked along with Senator John Kerry, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and foreign policy adviser Samantha Power to push the Administration toward joining a coalition against Gadaffi.

Far from the usual palace intrigue, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice were unusually open and up front in speaking of their policy aims, and the President made his decision quickly. There's no Bob Woodward book to be written; almost everything's already on the record. Indeed, I was thinking of indepenent diplomat Carne Ross's words from just two months ago: "The world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and élitism as their solution, but instead the opposite."

Of course, I worry quite a bit about a third U.S. war, about the long-term success of regime change in Libya, and what we've bitten off in attacking Gadaffi on behalf of his opposition. But I'm not worried about whether I know enough about what's going on. Heck, I've got Twitter. The U.S. contribution to the coalition - primarily naval in the early stages - has been quickly divulged. As Peter Daou just tweeted:

Ah, the age of social media, where even US military strikes get their own hashtag: #OperationOdysseyDawn

And then there was Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander and Commander, US European Command, who took a moment on the bridge to Tweet this message:

Operations over #Libya by France, UK, US -- other European nations in the mix -- busy!

Busy indeed, and Julian Assange might well approve. Certainly, it's in contrast to U.S. military action in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet I also think it's important to recognize the external forces at work in prompting action against Libya, a target that - let's face it - conveniently has oil reserves and a madman at the top, making the interventionist decision a helluva lot easier than, say, Bahrain.

But let's not forget the authentic voices of the opposition, which seem to have had such an effect on Secretary Clinton. This should surprise no one. For a massive government bureaucracy, the State Department is relatively plugged into the social media firehose and has encouraged the use of online tools and techniques in democracy movements.The Libyan crisis provides an almost perfect opportunity to meld social media organizing with limited superpower intervention - it's this State Department's moment.

Among the voices the U.S. and other listened to was that of  Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, a citizen journalist whose video reports from Benghazi had become central documents to understanding the Libyan opposition. From Andy Carvin's Twitter stream today, we learned that Nabbous had been shot and killed by a sniper as he filmed a report. Here's a storyful post on his life and death. And here's his final video report - the last of his all-too-short life and career as a brave journalist and activist, but among the earliest of what I think can fairly be called the first Wikileaks War:

Watch live streaming video from libya17feb at livestream.com

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