Skip to main content
xYOU DESERVE INDEPENDENT, CRITICAL MEDIA. We want readers like you. Support independent critical media.

Information Wants to be Free: Remember Assange on Press Freedom Day

The surveillance state is watching us, but the technology it uses allows us to stare back.
John pilger

World Press Freedom Day is a reminder that the role of news organisations is to speak truth to power, not manufacture consent, to use Noam Chomsky’s famous words, for the government and the ruling classes. That is why on 3 May, I remember two people who exemplify the need to speak the truth, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. And also Chelsea Manning, without whom we would have no proof of what the United States was doing, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but across the globe. I will also deal with the changing nature of government “secrets” and what outing them meant then and now.

In today’s world, the scale of the government’s powers to pry into our lives and activities has increased exponentially—for example, NSA’s Prism and NSO’s Pegasus—but so has the scale of leaks. Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers were a mere 7,000 pages, which he photocopied by hand, as recorded in his book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Manning’s “papers”, which Assange outed, earning him the United States government’s enmity, consisted of about 7,50,000 documents—the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and United States diplomatic cables. Manning used her computer to copy this enormous cache of data. Ellsberg had one of the highest security clearances in the United States government. Snowden, a system administrator, is assumed to have “exfiltrated” more than a million National Security Agency (NSA) documents.

Manning was low in the military ranks, just a corporal. Assange had identified one key characteristic of our epoch: the digital revolution has enormously centralised information as well as the ease with which it can be released. In 1984, author Stewart Brand, in conversation with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, highlighted this duality of information in the digital age. Information is so valuable for the rulers that it is increasingly centralised, and it is also easier to duplicate and, therefore, liberate from the rulers. This is why Assange set up WikiLeaks. People with access to valuable information, stored as tera and peta bytes in “secure” government vaults, could use WikiLeaks to reach the people. Both use the power of digital technologies and their ability to produce copies but for completely different purposes.

It was in 1971, a little over 50 years ago, that Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers—a study by the United States Defence Department on the Vietnam War—to the New York Times and, subsequently, other news organisations. The anti-Vietnam War movement, exploding in the United States then, with cascading effects around the world, turned Ellsberg into a radical, as it did many of my generation around the world, who demonstrated against the United States and its war. The Vietnam War discredited the United States empire and produced a radical generation, of which Ellsberg was a proud member.

The Pentagon Papers laid out in detail why the Vietnam War was already a lost cause, and Vietnam would defeat the neo-colonial puppet Ngo Dinh Diem government backed by the United States in South Vietnam. Though the study that it could not win was completed in 1968, the United States still enlarged its war against the Vietnamese liberation forces in South Vietnam from land and air to the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam and Cambodia. Ellsberg believed that if the American public learned the truth about this war, they would help stop it. He believed people in the United States had a right to know about the war being waged in their name. This is why he shared the Pentagon papers with the press.

The exposure of the Pentagon papers helped the anti-war movement but did not stop the war. It took another four years—until April 1975—before the Vietnamese freedom fighters liberated Saigon. The pictures of United States forces leaving in ignominy, clinging to helicopters as they lifted off from the roof of their embassy, are similar to those we saw recently in Kabul.

By the time of the Iraq war, the world of information had changed. It was no longer in paper form, nor were copies being stored as paper. Digitalisation meant that enormous amounts of information could be collected, stored and used in real-time for the purpose of war—its physical-kinetic variety and the information war. The full power of the United States, its technological might and its money power could be wielded to build not just its own war machine but also what we now call the surveillance state. Not only could it invade every aspect of our lives, but it also could create new invisible hands of the Ministry of Truth. This is an information war different from the days of Ellsberg photocopying the Pentagon Papers—it is the world Assange saw and understood.

If Ellsberg understood the world of power, Assange understood the changing nature of how vast amounts of information are continuously created by the government, then stored and transmitted. The nature of the very technology that allows the almost costless duplication and flow of information also makes it vulnerable to being shared and made available to the public.

Let us look at some numbers here. In Ellsberg’s time, a few hundred, maybe 1,000 at most, had access to the Pentagon Papers and could have photocopied them as he did. He had GS-18 level security clearance, the civilian equivalent to somewhere between a major general and a lieutenant general in the military. Manning was a “specialist” with a rank equivalent to a corporal in the United States Armed Forces. Yet the nature of the change in technology made it possible for her to strike a body blow against the United States wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You need tech specialists to run the nuts and bolts of the global information infrastructure. They may hold “low” ranks, but by virtue of being the closest to the information on the vast military and diplomatic networks governments maintain, they have complete access to it. Also, the computer is a much more potent device to copy information. Lastly, the discs on which we copy data today, including the lowly thumb drive or memory stick, can store hundreds of thousands of pages!

Assange and WikiLeaks made it possible for Manning’s information to reach people everywhere. He and Manning have been arrested, jailed and isolated, but the information on Wikileaks continues to be accessible to everybody worldwide. Even today. The Collateral Murder video from Baghdad posted on WikiLeaks was watched worldwide, and it brought home that the United States was lying about its war crimes and involved in a massive cover-up. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables brought home to the Tunisian people the kleptocratic rule of the Ben Ali family and started what was later called the Arab Spring. The battle waged in the International Court of Justice by the Chagos islanders, illegally removed by the United Kingdom and the United States to set up the latter’s naval base in Diego Garcia, was partly based on WikiLeaks documents. These are but a tiny fraction of the information now available to activists, and they cannot be erased from the Internet or our memories. If the surveillance state has invaded every nook and corner of our lives, its pathological need to store all this information also makes it porous and vulnerable.

The latest example of this vulnerability is that Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Air National Guard, had access to top-secret Pentagon and CIA documents on Ukraine. He shared these on a private Discord gaming server, not for the noble purpose of stopping the war but simply to get bragging rights. Whether this was the only leak, or others are leaking documents to create the fog of war through a mixture of leaks, or if they are ‘plants’, is another story. What is important is Airman Teixeira, though near the bottom of the ladder of the United States Air Force hierarchy, had access to top-secret documents normally seen by the top echelon of armed forces and intelligence authorities in the United States. He was part of a team that managed the core network—one of 1.5 million people with this level of access.

Yes, we are in a panopticon of the surveillance state where our rulers can look into every part of our lives. But Manning and Teixeira show us that the same technology also works in reverse. They are visible to us as long as we have an Assange, Ellsberg, Manning and others like them. It is as the English poet Shelly wrote in 1819 after the Peterloo Massacre, “Ye are many, they are few”. This has not changed in the digital age.

Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.

Subscribe Newsclick On Telegram