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  • The virtue of speaking truth to power

    Patrick Cockburn. The Independent. 29.12.10

    "Opponents of Assange, like those of my father, downplay his revelations while demanding his arrest for high crimes"

    "One of the more satisfactory aspects of being a journalist is the discovery that the powerful are hyper-sensitive to any revelation about their activities. The degree of venom and hysteria expressed by the US government in attacking Julian Assange and WikiLeaks reflects this acute sense of vulnerability.

    My father, Claud Cockburn, discovered this in 1933 when he left The Times and set up a radical newsletter called The Week, which was a sort of early precursor of Private Eye. His calculation was that there was plenty of information freely circulating in political and diplomatic circles that was hidden from the general public.

    He hoped that his small publication would provoke some official reaction, and this he turned out to have underestimated. Since he had started The Week with 40 invested by a friend he had no money for promotion. He had used an old mailing list of 1,200 names, many of who turned out to be dead or otherwise uninterested. After the first few issues, he found that "the number of paying customers secured was seven".

    Just as he was suspecting that his big idea was coming permanently unstuck, he was saved by the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who was holding an international economics conference in the Geological Museum in London in a doomed effort to grapple with the Depression. A copy of The Week saying the conference was dead on its feet had somehow reached MacDonald, who promptly called a special press conference to warn against the hitherto obscure newsletter as a false and misleading prophet of disaster. Within minutes of MacDonald's denunciation my father was flooded by calls from would-be subscribers.

    In 2003 I became interested in how far the authorities had monitored my father's activities, and I wrote to the director of MI5 asking for his files to be declassified. A year or so later, presumably because of my request, 26 bulky folders containing thousands of pages of reports by MI5 officers, policemen and informers about Claud were placed in the National Archives in Kew.

    He was first mentioned in a military intelligence document from 1924, when he and Graham Greene, as 20-year-old students, went on a visit to the Occupied Rhineland without getting visas. "Both [men] appear to be authors," an intelligence officer recorded suspiciously.

    But the real interest of MI5 in Claud only came when he started The Week. Every detail of its financing, circulation and staff was recorded. Memos spluttering with rage criss-crossed within the Civil Service demanding stern action against Claud for criticising civil servants by name or publishing classified information.

    The official security apparatus mobilised to monitor him was impressive. His mail was intercepted, phone calls transcribed, friends interviewed and Special Branch watched his movements assiduously. On one day, 30 March 1940, for instance, a Special Branch officer who called himself "the Watcher" sent in a report about how he had tirelessly followed my father and mother around Tring, Hertfordshire, recording the name of every pub they drank in and the precise times they entered and left.

    The purpose of all this was presumably to find the identity of my father's contacts who were giving him classified information. Despite close monitoring, MI5 never took on board that much of what he published came from other journalists who could not get stories into their own publications.

    Did all this information give MI5 a clear picture of my father? This entirely depended on the quality of the person who interpreted the reports. Like much intelligence information, there was too much of it and it was of varying quality. For instance, MI5 had good information from the Times correspondent in Berlin who had originally hired Claud. But elsewhere in the file a self-appointed inquiry agent claims there was a "Cockburn machine" in charge of Communist sabotage in Western Europe in the event of war or revolution. Over the years good and bad information about him got blended together.

    This habit of obsessive but useless official secrecy affected my father long after The Week was defunct. In 1963 Claud was guest editor of Private Eye and revealed that "C", the head of MI6, was Sir Dick White. Cabinet papers show that Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, summoned a meeting to consider prosecuting my father, but regretfully abandoned the idea on realising that the identity of "C" had long been widely known in Fleet Street.

    Discussing the whole issue of secrecy and the media with fellow Whitehall mandarins, Trend came out with a splendid piece of justificatory obfuscation, writing: "It is a matter not so much of concealing as of withholding and what is withheld is not so much the truth as the facts."

    As with WikiLeaks, much of the official criticism of my father's publication of classified information in the 1930s was irrational. At one and the same time, angry officials wrote that he was reliant on gossip and his stories were inaccurate, but also that no effort was to be spared in discovering his sources. Opponents of Mr Assange produce similarly contradictory arguments, downplaying the importance of what he has revealed but simultaneously demanding his arrest for high crimes.

    There is something more at work here than political establishments trying to protect their access to information as an instrument of authority. The true origin of their rage seems to be the way in which the publication of classified papers, whether they expose real secrets or not, undermines the ability of political elites to present themselves as the all-powerful guardians of secret knowledge essential to their country's well-being.

    I am sorry my father died in 1981, long before his MI5 files were released. He had always held that the saying that God was on the side of the big battalions was propaganda put out by big battalion commanders to demoralise their opponents. He would have been delighted that his guerrilla-publication had provoked such rage within the government and so much effort uselessly expended by the security services.

    He might also have considered that today there is a certain justice in the US government inadvertently providing so much information to the world at a time when international media coverage of much of the globe is ebbing. Press, radio and TV have all been punished financially by competition from the internet, robbing them of the resources for foreign reporting. Suddenly WikiLeaks exposes a myriad of stories from Argentina to Kyrgyzstan to Korea which the media would have liked to write about.

    WikiLeaks' publication of diplomatic cables and frontline military reports does not disclose many real secrets, but this should not obscure the vast importance of its revelations. It discloses to everybody, as my father had sought to do in the 1930s, facts and opinions that were previously only known to a few. Over the last six months its revelations have painted a unique picture of the world from the American point of view at a moment when US political, economic and military leadership is under stress as never before.

    The embarrassment of the US government is not that it has lost any real secrets but that it can no longer pretend that it does not know about the often criminal actions of its own forces, or the unsavoury actions of its allies."

    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion...r-2171018.html

  • #2
    Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

    I'll say it again, I don't know why the US is constantly the punching bag. Must be because it's fashionable. Wikileaks is a proactive organization but they target all government institutions, businesses, etc. world wide. The truth is that Assange was convicted on criminal charges in Sweden, and arrested in Britain. The US is not involved in his attack of character at all.

    I respect Patrick Cockburn, but this piece seems poorly misguided. Likening an attack on Wikileaks and specifically Julian Assange to your own father's turmoil, and accusing the US instead of the world is just plain faulty.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

      Blaming the US for the world's problems is always fashionable. "STOP OVEREXTENDING YOUR REACH INTO THE WORLD'S AFFAIRS! ... BUT DO KEEP FEEDING US."

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

        It's as fashionable as US-Americans complaining that everyone picks on them, yet relies totally on their awesome political and economic power... yadda yadda yadda...
        Both arguments are getting very, very old and the little truth behind all the petty fighting, complaining, accusing or whining is by now so deep buried in bull**** that we probably won't ever see it again.

        But if you're wondering why the US is such a beloved target for mockery and rants, you'll find the answer probably in the gargantuan ego, propaganda and indoctrination which always seems to be included in the US-All-Inclusive package. It's a little bit like that child in the schoolyard with the rich parents who always shows around his new toys and tells everyone how great he is, even though he's as stupid as every other kid his age. Well and if that kid stumbles and falls face down in the mud, everyone will have a very good laugh at his expense.
        On the other hand all the kids who don't like the little brat will gladly listen to his stupid stories about his adventures and his oh so friggin cool family when he invites everyone to his birthday party of ridiculous proportions.

        So you see... There's some merit to the "hating" and some merit to the "whining". But in the end... it's still just a bunch of stupid kids.
        sigpic

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        • #5
          Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

          Originally posted by Vouk View Post
          It's as fashionable as US-Americans complaining that everyone picks on them, yet relies totally on their awesome political and economic power... yadda yadda yadda...
          Lol.

          My point was that the US can never please anybody. It's either not enough and too slow, or too much and oppressive. It's all crap.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

            That's not an US-exclusive, don't be so cocky you damn Yank ;)

            Come on, NO government on the whole world is considered 'good'. It doesn't matter if it's national or international critique, governments are always considered bad, too slow, too radical or too plain stupid.
            The US is of course a little more... present because the US is big and tries to get it's fingers EVERYWHERE. It's known for starting wars and a questionable political background, so what do you expect? It may be hard for you to understand, but if one of us European guys watch US news stories it's always a little bit like satire.
            Sure, we have our idiots, our crazies, our racists and religious nutjobs, but if you look at a German or Austrian religious fundi, it's like equal to a US mainstream religious persona. It's just a totally different scale and of course it baffles us when we see a Glenn Beck, an O'Reilly or one of the countless teabaggers, biblethumpers or political fruitcakes yell on US TV.

            The US is huge, it wants to be seen as the best nation in the world, the strongest, the richest, the smartest, the most powerful.
            Well, if it claims such things it's only natural that there's critizism, amusement and mockery if anything goes wrong (Which is - let's be honest - most of the time).
            As long as the US can't even please it's own citizens, why would or could it please anyone else in the world?
            You claimed the front seat in Sea World, now don't whine about getting wet x] Deal with it.
            sigpic

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            • #7
              Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

              Wow. That's a perfect example of being a smug European (see, I can make unnecessary insults, too). And don't make commentary about "moderate" Austrian religious fundamentals (ha, thread totally destroyed).
              I'm not really going to bother with this because there's enough about my own country that I have a grand hatred for but it has more to do with woeful ignorants than some sort of magical government conspiracy/incompetence. I didn't vote for Bush--they did.

              Eh. Don't mind me. Cynical and bitter over the whole voting thing and it just gets to me when someone says they voted for a candidate "because they seem like someone I could go have a beer with and is an everyman!" It's like, ****, I don't WANT someone who is on my level, I want someone BETTER than me in power...and yet that's a painfully rare sentiment. I miss Wellstone. :/

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: The virtue of speaking truth to power

                Originally posted by Vouk View Post
                The US is huge, it wants to be seen as the best nation in the world, the strongest, the richest, the smartest, the most powerful.
                Well, if it claims such things it's only natural that there's critizism, amusement and mockery if anything goes wrong (Which is - let's be honest - most of the time).
                As long as the US can't even please it's own citizens, why would or could it please anyone else in the world?
                You claimed the front seat in Sea World, now don't whine about getting wet x] Deal with it.
                See these analogies are pathetic because how is this different from any other nation? Do you mean to say that your nation doesn't aspire to be the best nation possible? Do you mean to say you don't have equally laughable pundits?
                People need to stop bashing the US unless they can actually stand up to the same scrutiny (News Flash, your country can't). Otherwise you're simply reflecting poorly on your own ignorance.

                Like I said, Wikileaks is a global affair, the US hasn't attacked Wikileaks directly, enough world wide enterprises are doing it already.

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