When Wikileaks released its footage of a US helicopter massacring Iraqis from the air in Baghdad the White House was embarrassed. The images and sounds of airmen gleefully mowing down a group of suspected insurgents which turned out to include Reuters journalists and children was deeply disturbing to anyone who saw it, and there was little mileage for the US military in blaming the messenger.
When Julian Assange's online site released hundreds of thousands of military dispatches from the front line in Aghanistan and Iraq there was official indignation, and the suggestion that Wikileaks was putting the lives of informers and collaborators at risk. It's hard not to have sympathy with that argument, though no evidence of any casualties arising from the leaks has been produced.
Now, as a flood of leaked diplomatic cables reveal what those in power really think about others in power, there is panic, and fury, far more intense than anything seen in previous waves of Wikileak mischief making. In the US, in some quite influential and senior circles, they want Julian Assange dead, executed, assassinated. They go on Fox News to denounce him as an information terrorist, who should be treated as an enemy combatant.
And even if we discount the rabid statements of right wing loons and Canadian politicians, or the efforts of some in the Swedish judiciary to set him up for rape in a bizarre sub-plot reminiscent of a Stieg Larson novel, who will doubt that Assange's life is in danger from any number of security agencies and secret services? Someone characterised the calls for Assange to be killed, taken out, prosecuted for treason, as a kind of fatwa.
Letting Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee at him would be pointless, of course, because he is merely the embodiment of a fundamental shift in the dynamics of power in the digital age. Yes, he is uniquely talented, and fearless, but if it were not Assange it would be someone else. If not Wikileaks, some other band of networked tech-heads with liberal consciences using digital technology would be blowing apart all the rules and dirty tricks by which authority and power have been controlled and managed for centuries.
He is not the first whistle blower, and he won't be the last, but he is the first to have so clearly exposed the loss of control of information which global digital networks bring. For that reason, he is loathed by power, which depends on such control for its survival.
What we see in Wikileaks is the result of the dissolution of boundaries which hitherto kept information secure within nation states, within governments and their agencies, secret from all but a powerful few. Digital technology and the internet have eroded those boundaries, accelerated the flow of information beyond the capacity of any institution to contain it for long, and dramatically increased its accessability. Hundreds of millions, soon to be billions, of people with access to a computer and a broadband connection can access unimaginable quantities of data.
Is this a good thing? Yes, if you believe that information is power, and the abuse of power is nearly always founded on the control of information. Erode that control, and power begins to leak away. Honest, well-intentioned, democratic leaders have nothing to fear from truth and transparency, even if they may at times be embarrassed by it. As the great Bill Clinton discovered, after the online Drudge Report blew the whistle on the Monica Lewinsky affair, the public do not mind flaws in their leaders, because we are all flawed, after all.
Assange's spectacular demystification of how global diplomacy works is subversive and shocking because it is so skilfully targeted on what he calls the "conspiracies" that make the abuse of power possible. By this he means the invisible networks and communications which keep power secure, because they are unknown to us. The leaked cables expose those mechanisms to the scrutiny of global publics; to citizens who already have democracies but want them to work better, and non-citizens of despotisms who seek freedom. Power's capacity to lie and obfuscate is weakened, everywhere, and that is a good thing, if you believe in democracy. Just see how mad they all are, from Tehran to Washington, and Beijing to Moscow. At last Obama and Ahmadinejad agree on something.
After the fuss dies down, these leaks will strengthen good government. Yes, it may be embarrassing for Kevin Rudd's past views on China to become public knowledge, but he was only stating the obvious. Many of the leaked cables have this quality, making explicit what most informed observers believed to be true in any case. Compared to Italian news coverage of Berlusconi's antics, the leaked cables about his "tiredness" are the soul of discretion.
More important than their mildly anarchic dismantling of the pomposity and secrecy of western leaders, the leaks may well contribute to the slow, but unstoppable demise of the dwindling number of dictatorships for whom the control of information, and relentless lying, are essential tools of oppression. Gaddafi is no joke to the people who live under his rule, but the news of his botox and his Ukrainian "nurse" make him look like a fool, and that will hasten his end.
For all these reasons, and because he has so defiantly put his life and liberty on the line, Assange is a courageous agent of cultural chaos, a true pioneer of digital democracy, and he should be defended and protected from the danger he is now in, not least by his fellow Australians. Let's hope that the newspapers who have published the leaks, and the readers who have enjoyed reading them, and been thus strengthened in the belief that power is fallible, stand up to be counted when the police come knocking on his door.