Assange, rights and power

An article published on Yahoo! News reports that the CIA – it is not clear whether officially or as a personal initiative of some officials – has considered the hypothesis of kidnapping and even killing Julian Assange by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian by Strategikon – an Italian Tech blog.

The news provoked vehement criticism, which is entirely understandable but somewhat naive if analysed in a geopolitical and not a legal context. Moreover, it did not grasp a fundamental aspect of the matter: the role of the free flow of information as a “perceived threat”.

Let us start with the news story concerning Assange: considering and possibly carrying out kidnapping or assassination is a standard activity of the no-hold barred doctrine that some countries (not only the US) theorise in national security matters.

If we limit ourselves to recent times, it is enough to remember Operation Wrath of God, with which Israel avenged the massacre of its athletes on the Olympic campus in Munich in 1972 and the institutionalisation of targeted killing as a tool in the fight against terrorism. Alternatively, one can mention the Loughgall case, which in 1987 involved British soldiers operating undercover and accused of having illegally killed eight members of the Irish Revolutionary Army on the verge of committing an attack. There are also reports of the involvement of top French institutions in similar operations, and finally, the extraordinary rendition of Mullah Abu Omar that the CIA organised in Milan in 2011. In addition to clandestine but ‘official’ operations, there are also those subject to plausible deniability that do not allow direct attribution to a State. It is the case, in 2006, of the poisoning of the Russian spy, Litvinenko, and of other similar events never certainly and definitively attributed to the Russian establishment.

Therefore, from a geopolitical perspective, the extraordinary renditions (kidnappings committed on foreign soil) and the targeted assassinations (targeted assassinations of political or industrial personalities or, however, held to be dangerous for the national interests) are not “evils in themselves”, but tool to reach a goal according to a cost/benefit criterion. However, the problem posed by these instruments is that they are hopelessly incompatible with a democratic system. It is why the decision to use them is preceded by quibbling legal analyses or exorcised by retrospective parliamentary investigations, as in the case of the Church Report, which in 1976 investigated the CIA’s involvement in plans to eliminate anti-American political leaders.

In this scenario, analysts working for intelligence structures play a central role. They spend their time creating scenarios, even the most improbable, to enable decision-makers to have as many options as possible to make critical choices. Conceptually and technologically, years have passed since the days of The Three Days of the Condor and Wargames. Big data and ubiquitous AI are gaining more and more space in supporting strategic analysis.

For some years now, data analytics tools have contributed to and influenced all the main intelligence functions in the contemporary US national security apparatus.

The human factor is in danger of being marginalised as it might happen in operational theatres. However, the substance of the facts remains: deciding means choosing from a range of options, from the most improbable (or impractical) to the most ‘ordinary’.

The Assange case is different from others because we are not dealing with the author (direct or mediated) of massacres, with a supporter of terrorist activities or with an ideologically ‘dangerous’ political leader. The target is a subject whose ‘guilt’ is having created a technological infrastructure for the anonymous circulation of information. One can have legitimate misgivings about the Wikileaks project, but not to the point of considering its creator a ‘threat’ that would (even if only abstractly) merit a death sentence without trial.

However, the Assange case goes far beyond the public debate on the lawfulness of political murders or not because it involves the very essence of the relationship between citizen and state and the role of technology as a tool for exercising citizenship rights.

As I have written, the question is

whether knowing the interna corporis of power is a right in itself or, on the contrary, the state must make its actions public in order to assume the responsibilities associated with the exercise of power. … but … when it comes to the affairs of state and government, are we entitled to mere curiosity? Now that the surveillance capacity of the state is taken to an unprecedented level of pervasiveness, this is no longer a simple theoretical dilemma. … Citizens are supposed to have the right – i.e., from the point of view of the politician, artificially constructed social fictions that can be denied at the snap of a finger because of the ‘greater good’ – both to know the internal affairs of the state and to prevent the state from their individual sphere. On the other hand, Rulers have the raw power to hide from the prying eyes of citizens and steer public opinion by building consensus. Secrecy, therefore, becomes a bargaining chip in the relationship between citizens and political power, with the rule of law and the separation of powers acting as intermediaries.

If, however, this dialectic is interfered with by a technology that is not out of control but, on the contrary, firmly in the hands of entities whose agenda does not necessarily coincide with that of the actors in the democratic process, the construct based on the relationship between the state and the citizen is destined to collapse with a loud blast.

In conclusion, therefore, the Assange case brings together and makes explicit all the issues and contradictions discharged by the spread of the technology of information, not met by adequate political and social maturity.

As in all explosions, when the device detonates, one can only count the victims.

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