I’ve been fascinated by the WikiLeaks saga since day one. The combination of hacker mystique, international intrigue, and revelatory new information about normally secretive actions of our government is too juicy to ignore. WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange is the ideal personification of this new model of scientific journalism, but he’s just a figurehead– a lightning rod to draw the criticism (and threats) of governments. His role is to distract the enemies of WikiLeaks into focusing their attention and actions on the individual, rendering them impotent. It’s a brilliant strategy, but he’s playing a dangerous game.
Edited to add (2020) - Chelsea Manning changed her name and gender a couple years after this post was written. This post uses her old infoje because of the time it was written. Also, my assessment of Wikileaks has continued to evolve, and this no longer accurately reflects my views.)
I should mention that I draw a very clear distinction between WikiLeaks (and, by extension, Assange) which I consider to be a positive force which forces a greater level of transparency on governments, and Bradley Manning who clearly violated an oath. One committed a crime, the other committed journalism. It’s difficult (impossible?) to draw a meaningful distinction between WikiLeaks and more traditional journalistic entities like the New York Times– at least distinctions that can survive any level of intellectual rigor. Manning was fully aware of the consequences of his actions, and chose to indiscriminately dump masses of information without regard for content. Leaking specific documents and information that casts light on a crime is whistleblowing, and needs to be a protected act… but what he did was not so cleanly focused– the volume of content he leaked precludes any possibility that he reviewed even a tiny percentage of it.
Manning may feel that his actions were a form of civil disobedience, but if so he and his supporters must recall that a key tenant of civil disobedience is the willingness to accept the punishment for one’s actions as a way of drawing attention to what they believe is unjust law.
I have been a supporter of WikiLeaks for years, but when the “Cablegate” leak of diplomatic cables occurred it was the first time I had to question my thoughts on the subject. Leaking information about the Iraq war, including but not limited to the “Collateral Murder” video showing illegal and abhorrent activities taken by the American military is a good thing, and I think that WikiLeaks showed a great deal of restraint in working with traditional news outlets to redact portions that might put lives in jeopardy. I think they struck a reasonable balance between transparency and accountability in government, and the need of military and clandestine organizations to maintain some level of secrecy. However, with Cablegate there was a more indiscriminate dump of information that showed not just illegal acts, but salacious gossip. It put the stability of diplomatic relationships across the globe in question, and there was no way to predict the blowback that could have occurred. For the first time, I could at least see the point of WikiLeak’s detractors, but after much thought and study, I still feel that WikiLeaks is a net positive force.
Clearly, the powers that be disagree with my armchair quarterbacking assessment—there’s been an unprecedented effort to discredit and silence WikiLeaks. This is where the strategy of promoting Assange as the “face” of WikiLeaks shows its brilliance—all the attention is focused on demonizing and seeking to charge Assange with a variety of crimes. These attempts completely miss the point—WikiLeaks is larger than one man. If Assange is ultimately imprisoned the site will continue without a meaningful impact. If they manage to bring down the site, a million new sites will be created overnight. Governments are trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and they are playing right into the misdirection that WikiLeaks has presented in the form of the Assange figurehead.
Assange has yet to be charged with any crime. If the sexual misconduct alegations in Sweden had merit then I suspect he would have been charged by now. Instead, he’s being held “for questioning” while a court battle rages on to decide whether or not he can be extradited to the U.S., but we have not formally requested extradition. Why is this? It’s because Assange—and WikiLeaks—has committed no crime. In the U.S. this is settled case law—I’m not a lawyer, but the Supreme Court has ruled that these types of actions are protected by the Constitutional mandate for a free press. They are struggling to find some way to put this guy away, but they will likely be unsuccessful (unless they can find another countries who’s laws provide a mechanism to charge him.)
I’ll say it again: Manning committed a crime, Assange and WikiLeaks committed journalism.