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Dec 21, 2015

Why academics (and the US govt) are so terrified of WikiLeaks

Does the US government prevent academics from using WikiLeaks material? New Internationalist digital editor Chris Spannos explains.



*This is part two of a series on the ongoing war between WikiLeaks and the International Studies Association. Read part 1 here.

The International Studies Association (ISA) and its associated journal, the International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), have not always prevented the publication of academic analysis that relies on classified and leaked data. The ISQ published classified data from the Pentagon Papers — a now well-known secret Department of Defence study examining US political and military intervention in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 — which then-military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the public in 1971.

The Pentagon Papers were not declassified until 2011, but decades before the ISQ accepted — and published — submissions that aimed to understand how the US had tacitly deceived its negotiating partners in the 1954 Geneva Conference (including by, for example, declaring desired political outcomes in public while expressing different more self-interested goals in private). While the ISQ‘s 1979 paper relied sparsely on the then-classified papers, another study the following year cited the documents as part of its primary source material. “The Search for the ‘Breaking Point’ in Vietnam: The Statistics of a Deadly Quarrel” by John E. Mueller sought to understand the US rational for trying to smash Vietnamese resistance during the war.

Mueller relies on the Pentagon Papers to “prove” the “reasonableness” of the US’ strategy in Vietnam and the region. It was reasonable for the US “to go on bleeding [the North Vietnamese] until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations”. Mueller clearly aligns himself with US interests — interests that, many now accept, directly caused excessive, immoral, and unnecessary bleeding.

Julian Assange claims that US and UK international relations journals “act as ‘feeder schools’ for the State Department”, preparing students to make ideological, technical and scientific contributions to carry out US foreign policy interests. This is an assertion that Daniel W. Drezner, a US professor in international politics, may find “pretty funny”, but there is good reason to be concerned.

Public colleges and universities in the US have long grappled with state cutbacks to funding of higher education. So funds from US military and security agencies, corporations involved in the US’ military and security complex, as well as funds from institutional donors provide potential subsidies where there are otherwise shortages. The US Department of Defence (DoD) announced in June that, for 2015 alone, it awarded $67.8 million to 225 university researchers at 111 academic institutions. The DoD published a list of winning universities, principal investigators and research areas, explaining that the awards were given under the Defence University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP).

Through DURIP, the DoD uses the university research infrastructure to advance robotics research and defence technologies including unmanned ground, air, sea and undersea vehicles and autonomous systems. They also work with other agencies to provide graduate and undergraduate programs and develop areas such as the Electronic Warfare Program with a goal to “control the electromagnetic spectrum by exploiting, deceiving, or denying” access to it. Similarly, there are other major research programs involving universities, which all raise concerns about incentives for academic institutions that enable them to ape US foreign policy interests and ideology.

Scholars debated this problem between 1999 and 2002 when controversy erupted around the relationship between military funding and international relations scholarship. Critics then asked if the field of international relations suffers from biases or blinders that favour official US policy, and whether the scholarship was influenced too much by the post-Cold War triumphalism of political culture in the United States. The ISA and ISQ were directly in its cross-hairs.

In June 1999 the ISQ published Robert S. Snyder’s article “The US and Third World Revolutionary States: Understanding the Breakdown in Relations”. The paper, which argued that the US tries to accommodate revolutionary states but that these states goad the US into defensive positions and hostile responses, triggered a storm of criticism. The paper used the examples of the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and the 1970s revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran as case studies.

One of the major objections to the article, made by then-associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona David N. Gibbs was that the peer-reviewed paper repeatedly disregarded US government covert actions against these countries — actions that are widely known. Project Camelot, for example, was a mid-20th century military-funded counterinsurgency project operating from American University that sought to influence social developments in countries, including many in Latin America. The program included intellectuals, sociologists, psychologists and economists for the purpose of analysing those countries that the US had special interests in, such as mining, sugar and petroleum.

One of the problems for scholarly journals that ban the use of information that the US government forbids is that they cannot examine US covert operations that would otherwise inform their theories and predictions, because these operations are often classified by the US government and so beyond the boundary of acceptable primary source material. This is a weakness that leaves academic associations and journals, such as the ISA and ISQ, open to criticism.

The leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the NSA’s global surveillance activities is an obvious example of material that is of utmost importance to understanding modern relations between states — and journals that ban the use of such information cannot openly discuss these issues.

Drezner tries to deride Assange’s allegation that international relations departments often act as “feeder schools” for the State Department. It’s true, the State Department does not issue briefings that order the ISQ and other journals about what it should and should not publish. But there is an institutional context and culture within universities where academics naturally look for opportunities, either for funding or jobs, that shape their intellectual values and framework. This context includes an already existing “old-boys network” that defines the parameters of acceptable thinking and research.

As has been widely pointed out, this network resembles Michel Foucault’s sociological understanding of the “capillaries of power” that help shape knowledge and discourse by deciding who gets tenure, who edits prestigious journals or runs academic associations, and which textbooks are adopted. During the Cold War, philosopher Herbert Marcuse understood and theorised this process as how the ideology of technologically advanced society reproduces itself so as to contain the emergence of any historical alternative to dominant and oppressive political, economic and social systems.

It is no surprise that Drezner might be dismissive of Assange’s allegation. Writing about “why WikiLeaks is bad for scholars” in 2010, Drezner assumes that US government secrecy in international relations is a positive feature of effective governing. He describes a “recurring nightmare” where he is delivering a paper on why the US pursued a particular strategy during an international negotiation. Then, suddenly, “a former policy principal, groaning with gravitas, emerges from the shadows and declares, ‘You lie! We did that for another reason entirely … And I have the document to prove it!’” In his nightmare the audience gasps and Drezner slumps his shoulders. He thinks that his career is in ruins, then “I wake up in a sweat”. Drezner explains that information that can make or break “our arguments is often classified” and that, in the long run, WikiLeaks “will very likely make life far more difficult for my profession”.

Social scientists are often derided by physicists and chemists. Many social scientists seem less interested in examining data and evidence, and more in promoting their vision or theory of society. Whereas a physicist may celebrate the finding of new evidence that clarifies and sheds light on previous ways of thinking, Drezner dreads it.

WikiLeaks’ modern publishing methods show how academia has not only failed to help understand geopolitical developments but also, as in the case of Drezner, helped to rationalise the existing regime of government secrecy that filters a distorted view of the world. Perhaps the academic world is not yet ready for the work of WikiLeaks but, ready or not, WikiLeaks is here and its work enables books like The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire to emerge where academic journals fail.


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4 thoughts on “Why academics (and the US govt) are so terrified of WikiLeaks

  1. James O'Neill

    A very large proportion of modern academic research is now funded from government or quasi-government sources, including the ubiquitous foundations. They in turn have an agenda. The result is that a lot of academic research simply fails to address significant issues for fear of losing the steady flow of funds.
    When that is coupled with an even more timid msm the result is that the population are denied information about things they are entitled to know. Even when there is purported coverage of significant events, the reporting is so loaded with the ideology of the reporter or the media owner to whom obeisance is owed the picture that is presented is alarmingly inaccurate.
    This of course is not a recent phenomena. Those of us who have bothered to find out the truth about the two Kennedy assassinations or the Martin Luther King assassination know that media misinformation is par for the course.

  2. Kevin Herbert

    The Firm’s total infiltration of all levels of US & indeed Australian societal institutions has become clearer since the arrival of the net.

    The sheer scope of its criminal agenda is no longer such a shock.

    The real question for those of us foolish enough to believe in personal freedom for all mankind, is how to wrest control of our individual societies from the Firm’s steely financial grip.

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Talk about Nero’s apocryphal fiddling, when it comes to trivialisation of important issues such as the silencing of academics who don’t toe the line, it’s the bright capable academics of both Left and Right who currently suffer most danger in academia; and the ultimate ‘crime’ as far as the Chattering Classes are concerned is academics encouraging students to actually question whatever they’re told in lectures and tutorials.
    In the 1960s in Australia at the best Universities competent students could do well if they challenged ideas. That, sadly, is no longer the case, is it.

  4. AR

    File this under WIKI derangement syndrome which threatens the erstwhile gatekeepers’ control over information and thereby society in general.
    It was ever thus, the old fight, dirty, to retain their weakening power and the knowledge that the task is hopeless impels them to greater fury, the Samson Option if necessary.
    Apre moi, rien. Like Milton’s Moloch, rather than not be supreme they’d prefer not to be.


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