There's a pivotal scene in the classic film The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's tiny dog pulls back a curtain and reveals that “the great and powerful” ruler of Oz merely is an ordinary man, made to seem larger than life and more impressive by smoke and mirrors.
Fictional or not, it's a classically American moment.
An underdog (literally) puts the powerful monarch in his place and reminds us that we're all equal. Screw “the divine right of kings” and all that elitist piffle from the Old World. When you strip away their bluster and self-importance, leaders are exposed to be just as befuddled and human as the rest of us.
I was reminded of that moment during the long holiday weekend when the latest round of once-confidential material was released by WikiLeaks. The Web site was reportedly founded by Chinese dissidents and now is led by Julian Assange, a former Australian journalist and ex-computer hacker who is an Internet political activist.
Through some as-yet-unidentified whistleblowers, WikiLeaks obtained more than 251,000 secret diplomatic messages from U.S. embassies worldwide. It's widely believed — but not confirmed — that the cables were given to the organization by U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who currently is under military arrest for his role in leaking classified documents earlier this year about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that embarrassed government officials.
The earlier document dump detailed incidents and atrocities that President Obama and military commanders would rather have kept private, including the infamous “collateral murder” video, which depicted three questionable July 2007 air strikes in Baghdad by U.S. helicopters. Several unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed, including two Reuters News Service staffers, and two children were wounded by wisecracking pilots.
Among other things, Manning's documents revealed there were 15,000 previously undisclosed civilian deaths in Iraq. That means more than 150,000 people have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003, with about 80 percent being civilians. Also, it showed that Iraqi security forces brutally abused detainees, which the U.S. military knew but didn't investigate.
So much for bringing democracy to the Middle East.
Imagine, just for a moment, if the roles were reversed. How would you feel if the United States was invaded under false pretenses “for its own good” and we suffered such high civilian casualties? It wouldn't be tolerated; we would be the insurgents.
Manning, an Oklahoma native who is just 23, reportedly became disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy based on what he had seen while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. An associate said Manning told him the videos and other documents show "almost criminal political back dealings" that explain "how the first world exploits the third, in detail."
If convicted of violating military rules, Manning faces up to 52 years in prison, more than twice as long as he's been alive.
In what's been dubbed “the Sept. 11 of world diplomacy,” the latest leaked documents show the candid, private and unflattering assessments of world leaders by U.S. officials and the pressure tactics they use behind-the-scenes to achieve their goals.
The revelations include that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered diplomats to spy on overseas leaders at the United Nations and elsewhere and try to collect their DNA; Arab leaders urging the U.S. to launch a preemptive attack against Iran to stop its nuclear program; a source alleging China launched a cyber-attack against Google; the Obama administration waging a secret war using missiles against suspected terrorists in Yemen; and U.S. suspicions that Iran has received 19 long-range missiles from North Korea.
It's not just current secrets revealed by WikiLeaks, either.
As the Daily Finance Web site notes, the documents also include ones about the 1989 ouster of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a 1972 arms sale to the Shah of Iran and a 1990 document about the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African jail.
“It remains unclear why WikiLeaks released such ancient history, but it does underscore the argument that many of the secrets that the federal government keeps really should be released to the public,” wrote Daily Finance's Jonathan Berr. “It's called over-classification and it's been a problem that activists have complained about for decades.”
Just as it did last summer with the leaks about Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials allege the documents could put lives at risk, either those of its diplomats or intelligence sources in other nations. Also, they claim it might make leaders less likely to speak candidly in the future, for fear their words might become public.
Don't believe it.
The Pentagon has since admitted — albeit in a low-key manner — that last summer's leaks haven't put anyone in danger. But the allegations provided political cover for government officials to covertly and not-so-covertly strike against European-based WikiLeaks and try to shut it down.
Shortly after the summer leaks, Swedish authorities started an investigation against Assange based on complaints alleging he raped one woman and sexually harassed another. Within 24 hours, prosecutors withdrew their arrest warrant, stating the accusations lacked substance. Assange's backers say the U.S. was behind the smear tactics.
Now U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-New York), who will soon become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants to declare WikiLeaks “a terrorist organization” so the United States can move aggressively to seize its assets. Meanwhile, Tea Party queen Sarah Palin says Assange should be “pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders” and detained or assassinated.
Not to be outdone, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks.
“This is not saber-rattling,” Holder said. "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, who put at risk the assets and the people I have described, they will be held responsible; they will be held accountable."
Assange, it should be noted, isn't a U.S. citizen.
One overheated Fox News analyst said Assange “isn’t some well-meaning, anti-war protester leaking documents in hopes of ending an unpopular war. He’s waging cyberwar on the United States and the global world order.”
Oh, and the sky is falling.
In a bit of twisted logic that would do George Orwell's Ministry of Truth proud, U.S. officials and the media have said after each leak that they contain “nothing new” or “explosive” but then try to argue the leaks pose a clear and present danger to national security.
Just like the wannabe wizard in Oz told Dorothy and her companions, the U.S. government and its all-too-willing accomplices in the corporate-owned media are essentially saying to the American people, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
An old axiom in journalism states, “If everyone is mad at you, you must be doing something right.” That can also apply to the latest leaks. The nations that Assange has pissed off include the governments of the United States, of course, along with Great Britain, China, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran. What a motley bunch, filled with overlapping and sometimes competing interests.
Basically, it's the old shoot the messenger syndrome. Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional attorney who writes for Salon.com, put it best: “As usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon.”
History will vindicate the Julian Assanges and Bradley Mannings of the world. It might not be as kind to a president that took office promising transparency and to restore the rule of law but didn't.
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