Nancy. Ben. Suzanne. Carol. Chris. Larry. Jon. Aleesha. And Matt. These are the people I have spoken with on my Verizon phone in the past two weeks — the last two being a representatives from Verizon. I called Aleesha, who referred me to Matt, to try and determine if my phone number and its associated records was among the tens of millions that have been surveilled by court order by the National Security Agency (NSA). (Aleesha and Matt had no information about it and asked if I was otherwise satisfied with my service.)
I am also trying to determine how alarmed to be about the “Verizon Scandal.”
At first, I was shocked. Then as read more about it, I came to understood that this has been happening for a long time and terrorist plots have been foiled by such surveillance. Then I read about the sheer numbers (10-millions) of citizens whose phones are being tracked. Then I thought, you’re telling me there are 10s of millions of people whose metadata profiles elicit enough alarm to be tracked as possible terrorists? Then I thought, go ahead, track me! Good luck!
Now I’m thinking, How safe can we possibly be or become as a nation with indiscriminate surveillance actions of a government upon its citizens? Does this make us safe? I understand that in some instances, the President insists he knew nothing about these violations, is outraged, etc., and vows to get to the bottom of it, etc. We’ve heard it many times. Does this console?
In recent weeks a multiplicity of scandals have cast dark shadows over the Obama Administration:
- The testimony under of Benghazi “whistle-blowers,” whose version of events starkly contradicts the testimony of administration officials
- The unprecedented seizure of Associated Press reporters’ phone records
- IRS targeting scandal
- Fox News Washington reporter James Rosen named as a possible co-conspirator in aiding the enemy
- Now: Seizure of Verizon phone records and metadata by the tens of millions of customers (Thank you, British Press)
I turn now to reflections about Julian Assange, for these exigencies are not unrelated. (I’m sure the NSA already knows that I follow Wikileaks on Twitter.) Wikileaks and, more specifically, Assange himself, has become the face of the battle of our time, the axis upon which our contemporary existence pivots, rightly or wrongly: Access to, free flow and use of information. He stands in odd juxtaposition with President Obama, each holding in unresolved tension the volatile, inhospitable marriage of information and power. Matter and antimatter.
Assange claims Wikileaks uses information to serve truth and keep corrupt governments honest. Obama claims his administration’s collection of personal information of American citizens is needed to keep Americans safe. Assange collects information about Obama; Obama collects information about us.
Some claim the information released through Wikileaks has threatened international sources and national security, aiding our enemies. Wikileaks’ video footage of American troops killing civilians, two of whom were journalists from Reuters, promptly elevated Assange’s profile (for some) to that of international outlaw.
Yet, when it comes to how much damage has been done by Wikileaks in actual consequence, the consensus seems to fall on the side of national embarrassment rather than a breach of security. Robert Mackey, in an article titled “U.S. Officials Reportedly Said WikiLeaks Revelations Were ‘Not Damaging’” in the New York Times (Jan 19, 2011) wrote:
leaked United States diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks “was embarrassing but not damaging.”As the news agency reports, that private assessment, “that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad,” contrasts sharply with the Obama administration’s public statements on the potential harm of the WikiLeaks disclosures.
On June 19, 2012 Assange took asylum inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sexual allegations by two women – which he denies and which had once been dismissed. The bigger issue for him is the real threat that, once in Sweden he would then be turned over the United States and put in the same category as James Rosen, of Fox News: that of “co-conspirator” aiding the enemy. (The trial of Prc.Bradley Manning, who released hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, is currently underway; it is worth taking note of the details of his case, particularly his treatment in prison.)
Assange’s plight has evoked a yawning shrug from the majority in the press. (A notable exception is the fascinating interview Steve Kroft, of 60 Minutes, conducted with Assange. It is also worth viewing the “60 Minutes Overtime” reflections of Steve Kroft on the time he spend with Assange.) I’m compelled to add that, irrelevant though I may be, I was one journalist who was riveted to the story. I felt quite deeply (and still do) that Assange represents something bigger than most of us understand.
Assange is no savior. But he is a harbinger.
In the meantime, Assanged is holed up the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, where he’s been for a year, unable to step outside the door.
Michael Ratner, Assange’s U.S. lawyer and the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted the parallels between the case against Fox News reporter James Rosen and Assange, both of whom have been accused of soliciting classified information by the U.S. government. “[It] began with Julian Assange and the claim that he was not a publisher, but he was soliciting and all that. It’s really the old story of standing up at the right time for Julian, which a lot of mainstream press did not. And of course, now it’s visiting home,” Ratner said.
“The precedent works like this: If you communicate with a journalist, then you communicate with a publisher, then you communicate with the public, then you communicate with al Qaeda — so you communicate with enemies of the United States, and as a result your communications with a journalist must be punished by death or life imprisonment. If tolerated, that will lead to regimes where every U.S. government source, when speaking to a journalist, must be concerned that they will suffer either the death penalty or life imprisonment as a result. Now having established that, the U.S. government will have set the precedent that not only is the [source] indirectly communicating with al Qaeda by communicating with the public, but the publisher and the journalist is as well. And therefore the publisher and the journalist can be embroiled in espionage charges, some of which similarly carry the death penalty.”
So now I turn to thoughts about Jesus. Where would he stand amid this chaos? Believing people on all sides of the political spectrum claim his words to justify conclusions. Yet on one point Jesus spoke quite lucidly and without equivocation: the importance of light and the explosive possibilities that can result from shining it into darkness: ” ‘Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.’ When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them” (John 12:36).
Jesus spoke about light, then hid. He left his hearers to decide for themselves what it means to live in the light. If nothing else, it clearly means stepping out from the fog of darkness. In other words, he foists upon his hearers the challenge to think about it and make a decision.
Which is why we need Julian Assange:
1. He broke light that woke up a darkened sleeping giant. This has, for better or worse, forever changed the way governments act. Knowing that light can lay bare clarity of truth, in its own way (again, for better or worse), levels the playing field somewhat.
3. We need Julian Assange as a necessary counterweight to the increasingly alarming and belligerent, governmental overreach. (The sword of information gathering cuts both ways.)
4. We need Julian Assange because he warned us.