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Media Thu Dec 09 2010

KassWatch: The Information Is Murder Edition

It's been a while since KassWatch has felt the need to stir--we've been observing Kass' slide into retirement with quiet deference to the march of time--but, of course, Kass couldn't help but poke us out of our winter-and-NyQuil-slumber with his piece on Julian Assange and Wikileaks today.

When Kass wrote an asinine passage comparing "bloggers" to people wearing pajamas in their mother's basement a few months back, we thought about retiring KassWatch. Kass may not have noticed, but every journalist is writing for a blog now. Sometimes that blog has a print edition called a newspaper, but you're all bloggers now. Kass' use of a moldering old stereotype to justify his insecurity at being a metro columnist in a city that is passing him by made us more sad than angry. His whipping boy, Mayor Daley, is leaving office, and now he's actually going to have to think about the city's political mechanics instead of just making insinuations about organized crime and throwing out nicknames. It's a scary world.

Kass has a sterling journalistic pedigree as a reporter that the likes of me can't take away from him with a million self-indulgent pieces like this. But now John Kass makes a comfortable living pretending to be just anudder guy from over by da udder place with front-stoop wisdom, while he actually just goes after easy targets more on behalf of his ego than on behalf of the powerless. Folksiness is just the vernacular he uses as a sort of cipher. For codebreakers like KassWatch, it isn't exactly cracking Enigma to see how this code is just meant to more safely communicate his feeling that everyone is an idiot but him.

Kass' piece on Julian Assange lays this out. To Kass, Assange is a childish, naifish neophyte who Doesn't Understand How Serious Things Work. These are the lectures we've heard from Serious D.C. Intellectuals for years on every topic from taxes to war and peace to gay rights to labor rights. Some people can handle the truth, most people can't. There are the Enlightened and everyone else, and those who bare the torch need only share enough illumination to guide the rest down the right path. This would be maddening enough, but Kass goes on to conflate the releasing of facts to free citizens about their own governments with some degree of liability for murder.

Kass says,

Sure, WikiLeaks and the newspapers have redacted some details, but the clues are there. It's safe to assume that all those documents on the Web site have been downloaded by the intelligence services of every country on Earth. Not just enemy or rogue states, but friendly nations as well.

That means Russia, China, France, Iran, Germany, Spain, South Africa, Israel and more -- allies and antagonists -- are studying the documents from WikiLeaks.

Their analysts aren't wringing their hands over whether they should be studying the secret cables. They're just studying. They have computers. And their analysts do what analysts do best -- connect the dots.


Analysts aren't interested in the well-known names, the public names, the official names. They're interested in the names hidden between the lines. And they'll find them.

These smaller dots aren't famous. They're foreign nationals. They could be clerks and janitors and such. They have names and friends and families. And soon, one dot is tied to another dot is tied to another dot.

Once they're connected, a door is kicked in by the security forces. The dot is put into the back seat of the car, then driven to a place where sunshine does not illuminate anything. And nobody notifies Assange about what became of the dot or its family.

By then, they're not dots anymore. They're not abstractions. They're real people. Or they were. And that's something that Assange -- who reasons like a child -- pretends not to understand.


America spent years building up [Human Intelligence] networks. The WikiLeak extravaganza is an invitation to other nations to grab a broom and sweep them up.

Kass defends the rights of the press to release the leaked documents as an "absolutist" on 1st Amendment issues, but then goes on to say that Assange "reasons like a child," which is exactly the attitude you'd expect an elitist to cop, because guys like Kass can't help but infantalize a public they assume can't be trusted with information--or wouldn't know what to do with it if they had it.

The government of the United States lied to its own people and the world in order to start a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of its own citizens. This was done in pursuit of a geopolitical objective with which you may or may not agree. I expect governments to have state secrets and to engage in espionage of various kinds. The thing is, though--it is never--ever--the duty of the powerless to protect the secrets of the powerful. Ever. Information, like water, wants to flow, and owes nothing to the dam.

The U.S. government has taken a dark turn since the 9/11 attacks, and President Obama has done nothing to stem this tide. He seeks the right to murder a U.S. citizen without due process. The government has held U.S. citizens without due process for years. I give this government no benefit of any doubt anymore. I don't think we can afford to.

Look, I'm not interested in whether Julian Assange is a megalomaniac. That is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the governments of free people are acting in their names to abuse the rights--and take the lives--of people with no power in order to serve the interests of people with power. We have a right to know everything they do, always, at all times. The state may have an interest in hiding some information from us. But should we find that information, it's fair game.

Kass' styling of the issue to be about the people sacrificing to act as the government's human intelligence conveniently forgets that the state purposes often being served are not legal, not done at the behest of the American people, and not particularly noble.

I have heard the lectures from Serious Commentators in D.C. about the need for state secrets, and Kass is merely doing more of the same. He qualifies it by saying that Assange has "the right" to release information, but then adds that by doing so he has blood on his hand.

This sounds a lot like a guilting mother. "Oh, no, dear, you don't need to come home and shovel the sidewalk. You know, your father will probably have a heart attack, but don't trouble yourself."

"Wikileaks has a right to publish government secrets that reveal government malfeasance at best, criminality at worst, but, you know, that just makes them murderers by proxy."

I agree with the NRA that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Kass, I believe, does too. Interesting that he wouldn't agree, then, that information doesn't kill people. Assange and WikiLeaks could release all the information in the world and they wouldn't be liable for a single human life being lost by any coherent theory of liability. Yet he characterizes this line of argumentation as "childish prattle." In all his haranguing of the Mayor to abandon the city's handgun ban, he's never called the gun rights people "childish" for using a similar--and frankly less obvious--argument.

We can't let ourselves pursue information and truth only so far as is comfortable. A free speech absolutist should agree. Such a pursuit would be meaningless, and this is exactly the pursuit that Kass and major media institutions tend to engage in. The Tribune is merciless in pursuing stories about some government bureaucrat pulling two pension checks; it'd sure be great to see them going after some of the firms that advertise with them for the billions of dollars in wage theft they cause every year. You know, actual injury caused to actually powerless people.

Wikileaks has exposed the depth of US government chicanery, outright cover-ups, and even illegality. Like the Learned Pundits who lecture about how we shouldn't show troop coffins returning from war, we hear about how such revelations compromise America's greater interest, as though the images, not the deaths themselves, are the problem; as though by just ignoring a fact it becomes an un-fact.

In his play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt, a socialist, lionizes Thomas More, the Catholic saint, for his refusal to bend his conscience and recognize Henry VIII's divorce. His family and friends alternately urge him to be more go-along, get-along, and realize that by mere fact of his refusal to recognize the divorce he could plunge the country into disorder. The Catholic North may find cause to engage in outright rebellion, etc.

At one point, More debates his son-in-law, Roper, who urges him to go after a political opponent to save his own skin. When More replies that the man has broken no law, Roper responds that the man is immoral and therefore fair game. More makes perhaps the most eloquent defense of the rule of law I've ever read:

What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Despite his protestation, Kass friendship to free speech is certainly fair-weather if he thinks that speech can ever be implicated in murder. By making that connection, he only urges on the idea that free men and women who relay facts should be silenced, by whatever means necessary, when those facts are sufficiently painful to the powerful. Assange is no criminal, and to shruggingly implicate him in murder and mayhem tends towards an extralegal, and ugly, result.

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WAJ / December 9, 2010 2:39 PM

I'll actually agree with you on the fair weather free speech comment.

For example, the NY Times has no qualms about publishing the Wikileaks (the information was stolen) but they cited ethical considerations in not publishing the East Anglia CRU or "Climategate" emails (the information was stolen).

What kills more: the revelations of these diplomatic cables or the misallocation of farmland for biofuel production that leads to food scarcity and higher food prices?

The first go around with Wikileaks proved to be quite a dud, with the bombshell being that the US army killed a man who had a RPG launcher strapped to him in a theatre of war. It also provided some tangential, but revealing information
that make certain arguments less resolute.

The latest go around has obviously ruffled more feathers as there is much pride involved. Otherwise, there is not that much bombshell material (although the horse-trading for climate change support is revealing)

Arguments can be made about the expectation of privacy vs. protection of the common good, but US laws are limited to being just US laws.

My views are still being formed as see the benfits of both sides and also the potential for abuses on both sides. It has definitely reinforced my belief that power corrupts and absolute power corupts absolutely. Hence my unwillingess to cede more authority to the state.

However, I can't pass this one up "For codebreakers like KassWatch, it isn't exactly cracking Enigma to see how this code is just meant to more safely communicate his feeling that everyone is an idiot but him."

- isn't KassWatch just a cipher for communcating your feeling that Kass is an idiot and you are not?

j / December 10, 2010 5:03 PM

The freedom of expression that blossoms online can be wonderful.

But one of the first lessons you learn in journalism 101 (or should, anyway) is that publication has consequences. Separate from the issue of government censorship: there are reasons why journalists learn to treat coffins, wounded soldiers and other sensitive topics with care.

There are reasons for respecting some boundaries, and protecting sources - yes, sometimes even anonymous ones. Say that "guilting mother" was fleeing a violent abuser, and a newspaper published her name and current whereabouts. It would bear some responsibility for what befell her as a result. It couldn't hide behind justifications about water and dams and information "wanting to be free." That's the kind of childish reasoning Kass was referring to, I'd imagine.

It's clear you're passionate about this subject, and about the role of law. Maybe you should re-read Abraham Lincoln's thoughts about responsibility for the likely effects of a policy, beyond innocence of intent. And while I'd point out that it is factually inaccurate to say that "every journalist is writing for a blog," I support your right to blog about whatever you want.

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