I’ve been following the events related to WikiLeaks very closely; it has a particular importance to me. Their initial document releases didn’t meet with denial from our government, and WikiLeaks themselves seemed to face no overtly grave repercussions. I began to naively hope that truth could really set us all free, that perhaps those in power had tired of their machinations, had tired of staring down at their hands perpetually coated in other people’s blood, or at least drenched in their own nervous sweat. While they might not like having their dirty laundry aired in public, I liked to imagine that they had decided to do the right thing, to own the truth or at least let the truth stand (if only because elections and internal upheavals meant the events being disclosed happened on someone else’s watch and the repercussions would largely pass them by). I was wrong, of course.
I was deeply saddened, but not terribly surprised, when Julian Assange, the face of WikiLeaks, the publisher of these truths governments would like kept secret, was suddenly the subject of an arrest warrant accusing him of vague but alarming sex crimes after one of their larger releases of US government documents. It’s hardly a new tactic, when you can’t attack the message (because it is unarguably true), go after the messenger. This is what the powers that be did. The initial warrant was canceled for technical reasons, but was since reinstated and he has since been arrested and held. Assange’s reputation has been seriously damaged, ensuring that every interview he has done and will do since the allegations first surfaced is notable for the discussion of, or lack of discussion of, his alleged sex crimes. From what has now been disclosed, we learn the sex crimes of which he has been accused involve little more than the fallout from two women disappointed that his interest in them did not extend beyond momentary romantic trysts. He appears to be charged with an obscure Swedish law pertaining to his not practicing safe sex. The women were apparently upset that he prefers not to use condoms, and that he refused to provide them with a clean bill of health from an STD testing clinic. If I am reading it right, he bedded one woman one night at a conference, then apparently openly flirted with and replaced the first woman (who was organizing the conference) with a second woman the very next night. Neither woman were, on balance, satisfied with how things went and this somehow translated into an arrest warrant being issued for a crime which appears to be resolvable through the payment of a $715 fine. He is no one I’d want my sister to date, admittedly, but his behavior is sadly no worse than what I’d expect from the majority of males on this planet suddenly given access to a bevy of “groupies” almost half his age. I suppose one can be grateful that they have sought only to kill the man’s personal reputation and not the man himself. Perhaps that will come later.
My paranoid mind cannot help but see his situation as a cautionary tale for me. I am not so arrogant as to imagine I pose even a fraction of the threat WikiLeaks does, but neither am I likely as robust as is Julian Assange. We all have skeletons in our closet. We have all done things we would not wish broadcast to the world or revealed to friends and family. As part of the process of obtaining and maintaining the secret clearances necessary for my work I have been hooked up to polygraph machines and forced to disclose to agents of my government my painful imperfection and its manifestation in the form of painful indiscretions. The premise is that by disclosing to the government all that could be used to blackmail you, you become immune to the threat of blackmail (at least where your job is concerned). The reality is that you have just given all your secrets to the most potentially dangerous blackmailer there is, one who is above the law, by being the law. If you ever wonder why more people don’t come forward to tell all they know about clandestine government activities, remember what risk those people are really facing. Most people could survive the loss of their job, their financial security, their material possessions, even their lives, but to have things revealed about you that would damage all that you ultimately are, your reputation in this world, the image your family, your friends, your colleagues will retain of you forever; that is worse than death, that is the nullification of your very existence. Recorded forever in a manila folder somewhere deep within a long filing cabinet in some government office is the scribbled notes from my sessions, likely backed by secretly recorded audio or video, the truths I wished I could unmake, wished I could have hidden from the polygrapher. I cannot escape the fear that something I say or have said will poke that bear once too often, and that I will find my own greater hell on Earth (even worse than the events of the past year, seeing my family, work, life fall apart).
And so I must act out of self-preservation, and a germ of an idea came to me as a means toward greater protection. The idea is hardly new, and the more I think of it the more I suspect it is frequently employed by those who do come forward.
I met up with an old college friend a few weeks ago. He’s a lawyer now and in response to the standard “What have you been up to?” I got to hear about a case he is currently involved with. The case is a variation of a typical whistle-blower scenario, an employee discovers something about his company which he believes to be “wrong” and out of conscience the employee makes this public by passing his information to one who knows better than he how to get others to take notice so that the change he could not affect from the inside could be imposed from the outside. The vehicle he chose was a popular blogger who writes about that industry. The blogger in his over-eagerness contacted the company for comment somewhat prematurely, before giving my friend’s client the opportunity to relay the evidence documenting his claims. My friend’s client was instantly identified as being the source of the leak and he found himself not only fired but sued by the employer for libel to the tune of millions of dollars; the millions of dollars being valuation the company lost in a sale which overlapped the time when the story exploded on the internet, a story extensively quoting my friend’s client. Unlike the common whistle-blower case, what the employee discovered was not something illegal, just deeply unsavory, something the company’s customers (and the public) would likely want to know, whether or not they had a legal right to expect that knowledge. This employee had not anticipated the speed at which things happened and had not removed the evidence he’d gathered from his office before he was forcibly escorted empty handed from it. Unable to access the evidence he’d gathered he now faces the very real threat of losing the case and having a judgment issued against him, one so harsh that it will likely seriously damage the rest of his life, preventing him from enjoying anything beyond a frugal life as he struggles to pay the judgment. My friend said he’s had no choice but to advise his client to accept an offer whereby his life will be disrupted only for the next 10 years, not the next 50. My friend said he doesn’t believe they have any chance of winning the case. I was asking my friend what his client should have done to protect himself, presuming he wasn’t able to secure the proof he needed to back up his statements, a situation eerily familiar to me. My friend told me something that surprised me. He said something like, “My client should have revealed the truth as a fiction, and not just shared the story with one pseudo-journalist who would expect proof. He should have created a fiction derived from the truth he wants to reveal and distributed this fiction online in anonymous comments within the communities he believes will be inspired to ask the right questions. If those right questions get asked, and asked loudly, the company will be forced to respond and given the falseness embedded in the rumors that were circulated they can save face by honestly and forcefully denying the overall allegations while secretly getting their shit together so by the time anyone figures out what the original truth was they’ve already addressed the problem. In that scenario everybody wins, the whistle blower keeps his job, the company gets to keep most of its reputation, the shareholders get to keep most of their investment, and the much needed change takes place.” Out of my surprise at his response I made the smart ass comment, “Well, everybody wins but the truth.” To which he gave a very lawyerly reponse which approximated, “Truth is often a technicality.”
The conversation wound down but not before I posed a few hypotheticals, including ones in which the client had already spoken out before receiving this advice, and was told that assuming no immediate action had been taken against him he could have at least reduced his vulnerability by stating after the fact that his statements had been fiction, or at least creating an atmosphere of doubt surrounding his honesty, shifting the burden to others to sort fact from fiction, allowing them to find their own truth from his mixed bag. There is nothing noble about being anything but honest; there is nothing respectable about telling lies. But to date I have not been strong enough to take my case to the public openly, and as such I have been far less than courageous. How much less of a man does it make me to go one step further back and issue the disclaimer that I am a liar, that I weave my experiences with unspecified departures from reality. In the days which followed I couldn’t shake the thought of taking refuge within the plausibly deniable while not losing the ability to sort (retroactively at least) fact from fiction. Surely there must be a way one could one have their cake and eat it too?
The other day I hit upon what I believe might be the best solution available, for myself and those others who cannot proudly stand behind pure truths. Perhaps we can at least hide in our words the acknowledgment of what is true and what is not. I came up with a simple steganographic system to accomplish this, a system wherein I can record for posterity when I have said more that is untrue than true. If I become braver or the situation becomes more agreeable I can reveal the key and prove that I at least knew what I intended, what I believed. And until then the reader can make the connections for themselves, draw their own conclusions.