Ex-MI6 boss' secret WikiLeaks attack disingenuous

Whatever you think of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing site's place in history seems assured. Last month, even the former spy master of Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6, credited the site with sparking the wave of resolution engulfing Egypt and the Middle East.

But while Richard Dearlove recognised that a global move towards transparency as inevitable, his reaction to a hostile questioner provided an insight into exactly why governments find it so difficult to accept a world in which political machinations must be played out in public - all the more ironic because last month's supposedly off-the-record speech to the Cambridge Union Society was secretly recorded and splashed across the internet.

"I would definitely draw parallels at the moment between the wave of political unrest which is sweeping through the Middle East in a very exciting and rather extraordinary fashion, and also the WikiLeaks phenomenon," Dearlove told the audience.

"Really, what ties these two events together, and of course a number of other events, is the diffusion of power, away from the states and the empowerment of individuals, and small groups of individuals, by technology."

Shooting the messenger
But while Dearlove hinted at the power of current political change - "There's a seismic shift of power happening in terms of [the] relationship between the state and the individual" - he was quick to condemn its agents.

The former spy chief condemned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as an "undignified flag-carrier for a very important issue", claiming: "He is completely unable to explain why WikiLeaks is doing what it is doing."

According to Dearlove, secrets are often kept for a reason.

"Most organisations large and small," he said, "require at moments in their existence, for the benefit of their members, confidentiality."

There's some truth in that notion. It's a truth that has been acknowledged, incidentally, by Julian Assange himself, whose organisation redacted names and other details to protect individuals, and who has noted that certain activities such as imminent military action do require secrecy. But that strategic need for secrecy can't be allowed to function as a cover-all for the state's abuses of power.

Misleading comparisons
Dearlove's attempt to draw a parallel between an individual's right to privacy and the state's right to secrets is similarly disingenuous.

"Be very, very careful what you put on social networks," the former MI6 man warned Cambridge students. "Technological advance is altering the norms of civic and private life... shifting what we regard as public space and what might be designated as private. Most of you would agree that individuals do require a degree of privacy, even if you do have a tendency to give it up voluntarily on the internet. My advice is: don't."

But where personal privacy is largely a matter for individuals, the actions of a government in a democratic society are a matter for everyone. Government acquiescence in the torture, and even murder, of civilians is a subject about which all of us, as citizens, have a right to know - and, thankfully, an increasing ability to find out, thanks to organisations like WikiLeaks.

A notable example was the sticky moment when the former spy boss was taken to task by an audience member over the so-called 'Downing Street Memo', a leaked document from 2002 distributed by activists at the Cambridge gathering, which appears to show Dearlove saying that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of former US President George W Bush to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

One-man band
Where Dearlove's words did muster a ring of truth is when the spy chief turned to the very personal and seemingly egotistical nature of Julian Assange's crusade: as long as WikiLeaks appears a one-man band, and refuses to practise the very transparency it preaches, it will lack legitimacy.

The central confusion in the public's mind between where WikiLeaks stops and Assange begins has hardly been helped by the way the Australian has defended himself allegations of rape made in Sweden.

Maintaining the line that the accusations are "politically motivated", without providing evidence as to how and why - together with comments from the judge alleging that Assange's Swedish lawyer Bjorn Hurtig deliberately misled the court - has done little to establish the broad faith the whistle-blower requires from the public. Neither does it help to repel the criticism of figures like Dearlove, who labels it "completely idiotic" to suggest that the Swedish judiciary is being pressurised by what he termed "sinister forces".

The slippery logic of establishment figures like Dearlove demonstrates the very need for organisations like WikiLeaks - and the very reason why the organisation shouldn't play into its detractors' hands.

WikiLeaks depends on the people that support it - and it will succeed only if it places the public's demand for transparency ahead of its founder's desire for notoriety.

Misleading supporters by confusing the site's official fundraising with its founder's legal defence kitty, along with a media strategy that emphasises personality over due process will stifle the success of WikiLeaks The Movement, just when its time has arrived.