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Sunday 5 December 2010

Leaks can never be contained

With technology out of control, the truth is that no information can be kept secret, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Clichés, like stereotypes, usually accurately reflect some aspect of reality. Certainly, there's little point in denying that truth is stranger than fiction. Consider, for a start, Private Bradley Manning (23) and Julian Assange (39), at present discomfiting governments around the globe through the mechanism of Wikileaks.

Manning had a troubled childhood (divorced parents, bullying, rootlessness and so on). Thrown out by his soldier father on being revealed to be gay, he joined the army and fell in love with a drag queen. Deployed in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, he kept a fairy wand on his desk, and struggled with a gender identity crisis. Gloomy that his relationship had broken up, he took a Lady Gaga CD into the office, wiped the music but pretended to lipsynch as he downloaded 200,600 or so confidential and secret diplomatic files that were also accessible to around 2,000,000 employees of the American government. He then bragged about it to another gay hacker, who blew the whistle on him.

Julian Assange, who set up Wikileaks in 2006, is coy about his childhood in Australia, but it seems to have involved dozens of schools and six universities as well as a breakdown and fathering a child at 18. As first a hacker and then an expert in computer security, he became obsessed with disseminating information for the greater good.

Lord Byron had the idea in 1823, in Don Juan: "Tis strange -- but true; for truth is always strange;/Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,/How much would novels gain by the exchange!/How differently the world would men behold!/How oft would vice and virtue places change!/ The new world would be nothing to the old,/If some Columbus of the moral seas/ Would show mankind their souls' antipodes."

Assange is a romantic moralist too, believing that being exposed to the truth can transform mankind and that his calling is "to think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not".

As he flits around the world avoiding his enemies, he controls the tiny staff of Wikileaks as they struggle with the thousands of documents that flow in daily. Now he's also dealing with attempts by a Swedish prosecutor to charge him with sexual harassment and attempts by the US to close down the site.

The US has every reason to feel aggrieved with Wikileaks, which, in the past, has spilled very damaging material on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and placed allies at risk, seriously embarrassed its diplomats and made their job much more difficult.

In the past few days, the world has learned that US diplomats were told to spy on UN officials, that they have reported that the king of Saudi Arabia wants the US to bomb Iran to prevent it getting a nuclear weapon, that China would be happy to see Korea reunited under the control of the democratic south, that there is reason to fear that dodgy Pakistanis may smuggle nuclear material to Islamic terrorists, that Barack Obama "has no feelings for Europe", that Russia is a mafia state, that President Sarkozy is "monarchical and high-handed", that Prime Minister Berlusconi is "feckless, vain and ineffective", and so on.

Many of these leaks are unimportant: others are not. Assange may have helped shore up Ahmadinajad's brutal regime and provoked North Korea into further aggression. Assange has written: "unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance".

The trouble is that it is the open democracies -- not the brutal dictatorships -- that have so far provided the leaks. Accusations that Assange is hostile to Western democracies are hard to counter.

One can understand the ire of intemperate right-wing Americans calling for Assange to be tried and executed for treason, but there is not a damn thing that can be done to prevent leaks or stop them travelling around the world.

The too-clever-for-its-own-good human race now faces out-of-control technology and the certainty that no information can be kept secret. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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