Is WikiLeaks grinding to a halt?

It's hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks. And that's a problem.

Who wasn't secretive enough in their mission to make secretive things less secretive? The accusations are flying between Wikileaks and its former partners, and Julian Assange is getting dragged into the whole mess, once again hitting the headlines; but now, the organisation of which he has become the public face seems to be getting more attention for his rows and behaviour rather than the news it's breaking.

I suppose the problem with the Assange/WikiLeaks thing is that Assange isn't WikiLeaks, but at the same time he is. His glowering face looks down at you from the Cablegate and Wikileaks pages, reminding you of who is at the centre of this all. Never knowingly troubled by a tremendously self-effacing nature, WikiLeaks proclaims "HELP WIKILEAKS KEEP GOVERNMENTS OPEN". That's some claim.

The banner is a bit of a nod to Jimmy Wales's ubiquitous appearances on Wikipedia's pages a while ago, where the founder would regularly pop up and plead for a bit of cash to keep things ticking over. Which is fair enough, of course. But does WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or is the grand project beginning to go off the rails?

Part of the personalisation of WikiLeaks into Assange comes from the media, and from us, the way we seek to understand culturally complex movements and forces by turning them into the actions of men and women; but the other part - perhaps the greatest part - comes from Assange himself.

That's not to say that the whole project, the whole movement, is a vast self-aggrandising ego trip, because that's almost certainly not the case; but that doesn't mean that things couldn't have been done differently, because they in all likelihood could have been done differently. It's hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks, and perhaps that's deliberate.

The problem with this highly centralised, highly personalised approach is that when Assange the man comes up against the kind of personal criminal allegations he has faced; or has been alleged to make the kind of statements about "Jewish journalists" he apparently did to Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, that cannot be untangled from the WikiLeaks brand.

The latest dump of WikiLeaks revelations and cables appears not to have attracted the same mainstream interest as previous ones. There is one cable in particular, about the alleged execution of children - youngsters handcuffed and then shot in the head by US forces - which seems, at first glance, to be an astonishing and shocking story.

So why aren't the mainstream picking it up and running with it? Are there doubts about the veracity of the information, or is further digging and checking taking place to ensure that it's correct before the larger news outlets will publish? Or is it just that an unverifiable allegation from five years ago about a few dead Iraqi kids isn't a 'good tale'?

It's easy to turn up at this point with a conspiracy theory or two, to suggest that the mainstream have been waved away from exposing such revelations, to imagine that this is the kind of story that doesn't fit in with our news agenda, and therefore won't be considered worthy of national and international exposure.

I don't think that's the case, though, and I am loath to believe conspiracy theories of any kind unless there's a pretty substantial amount of compelling evidence behind them - so what's going on here?

The concern is that the whole WikiLeaks project is grinding to a halt, that the revelations of unredacted private information -- regardless of whose fault it is -- will dissuade further whistleblowers from coming forward, to WikiLeaks or any other organisation.

Will WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or will they struggle to keep themselves open?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”