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Posted by on Dec 29, 2010 in International, Law, Politics, Society | 0 comments

If You Can’t Debate, Triangulate

Triangulate: a word that has various meanings depending on the context. In the Wall Street Journal today, Floyd Abrams triangulates in the psychological sense: a three-person dynamic in which one person tries to drive a wedge between two people by allying with one against the other — aka playing two people against each other; also aka divide and conquer. Abrams is doing it in the service of demonizing and discrediting Wikileaks, and Julian Assange.

The title of Abrams’ op-ed reveals the game: “Why Wikileaks Is Unlike the Pentagon Papers.”  In order to make his case that Wikileaks is completely different from the Pentagon Papers, Abrams has to use dishonest rhetorical tactics, and… oh, why beat around the bush? lie:

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg decided to make available to the New York Times (and then to other newspapers) 43 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the top- secret study prepared for the Department of Defense examining how and why the United States had become embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. But he made another critical decision as well. That was to keep confidential the remaining four volumes of the study describing the diplomatic efforts of the United States to resolve the war.

Not at all coincidentally, those were the volumes that the government most feared would be disclosed. In a secret brief filed with the Supreme Court, the U.S. government described the diplomatic volumes as including information about negotiations secretly conducted on its behalf by foreign nations including Canada, Poland, Italy and Norway. Included as well, according to the government, were “derogatory comments about the perfidiousness of specific persons involved, and statements which might be offensive to nations or governments.”

The diplomatic volumes were not published, even in part, for another dozen years. Mr. Ellsberg later explained his decision to keep them secret, according to Sanford Ungar’s 1972 book “The Papers & The Papers,” by saying, “I didn’t want to get in the way of the diplomacy.”

Julian Assange sure does. Can anyone doubt that he would have made those four volumes public on WikiLeaks regardless of their sensitivity? Or that he would have paid not even the slightest heed to the possibility that they might seriously compromise efforts to bring a speedier end to the war?

My emphasis. You wouldn’t know from this quote that Assange has, as of today, published only 1,947 out of over 250,000 diplomatic cables in total, has worked with the New York Times to redact details that the Obama administration told the Times could harm national security and/or particular individuals, and has expressed his willingness to continue doing so in the future. It should not even need to be pointed out that this all-too-common rhetorical tactic of arguing that Assange “would have” done something he didn’t do to “prove” — essentially, as illogical as that is — that he DID do it, is, to put it mildly, deplorable.

Marcy Wheeler does her usual fabulous job of peeling away the layers of nonsense:

Abrams’ purported rhetorical questions–can anyone doubt that WikiLeaks would have published the diplomatic volumes of the Pentagon Papers? can anyone doubt he wouldn’t have paid the slightest heed to efforts to end the war?–are one of two things that dismantle his entire argument laying the responsibility for the government’s overreaction to Assange with Assange. Because–as Digby has explained at length–we have every reason to doubt whether WikiLeaks would have published the diplomatic volumes of the Pentagon Papers. And we have solid evidence that WikiLeaks would shield really dangerous information.

Because they already have. And because they have now outsourced responsibility for choosing what is dangerous and newsworthy or not to a bunch of newspapers.

Indeed, back before WikiLeaks ceded that role to a bunch of newspapers, WikiLeaks was actually being more cautious with the publication of sensitive information than the NYT was.

Abrams also twists the truth about the significance of the cables that have been released so far, and Marcy takes that one on, too (emphasis is Marcy’s):

But, as I said, there are two fundamental problems with Abrams’ argument.

Here’s the other one:

The Pentagon Papers revelations dealt with a discrete topic, the ever-increasing level of duplicity of our leaders over a score of years in increasing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam while denying it. It revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people.

WikiLeaks is different. It revels in the revelation of “secrets” simply because they are secret. It assaults the very notion of diplomacy that is not presented live on C-Span. It has sometimes served the public by its revelations but it also offers, at considerable potential price, a vast amount of material that discloses no abuses of power at all.


Taken as a whole, however, a leak of this elephantine magnitude, which appears to demonstrate no misconduct by the U.S., is difficult to defend on any basis other than WikiLeaks’ general disdain for any secrecy at all. [my emphasis]

Floyd Abrams’ entire argument about WikiLeaks is premised on his claim that these diplomatic cables demonstrate no abuse of power at all. No misconduct by the US. (Note, too, how he moves the bar with the Pentagon Papers, apparently revealing some uncertainty whether the Pentagon Papers revealed “lack of candor”–something abundantly exposed in the WikiLeaks cables–or outright “official wrongdoing.”)

There’s a lot that has been revealed in this dump that I would consider misconduct and even more that I would consider abuse of power.

But consider just the examples of the cables showing the US pressure on Germany and Spain to drop prosecutions of US rendition and torture (and if you haven’t already read Carol Rosenberg’s examination of our pressure on Spain, I recommend it).

I don’t see how any person–much less a constitutional lawyer–can claim that US efforts to get other democracies to set aside rule of law in their countries to help the US avoid responsibility for its crimes is not an abuse of power. Unless you believe that torture is cool, that wrongful kidnapping is cool, that the US should not be bound by its own laws or international law, or that the US should be immune from law generally, I don’t see how you conclude that our efforts to bigfoot the legal systems of our allies does not constitute an abuse of our considerable international power.

And yet somehow Floyd Abrams suggests just that–that revealing the US’ double standards about rule of law, all in the service of avoiding any accountability for torture, does not constitute a valuable revelation.